Photo by Jim Henderson
More than a century after Madam C.J. Walker’s move to Irvington’s Villa Lewaro, we explore the history of the African American millionaire.
Known as the country’s first female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune developing and marketing a line of beauty and haircare products for black women. She was also known for her generous philanthropy and political activism.
Walker’s lavish neo-Palladian, white-stucco mansion on North Broadway in Irvington served as a social gathering place for the black community, including many who were part of the Harlem renaissance, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. This June marks the 100th anniversary of her move into the 34-room palace, known as Villa Lewaro.
The 150th anniversary of her birth also is being celebrated. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on the Delta, LA, plantation where her parents and older siblings had lived as slaves.
Walker’s life in the South was beyond bleak. Orphaned at age 7, she married at age 14 to escape her abusive brother-in-law. By age 20, she was a mother and a widow. After a failed second marriage, she moved to Denver, where she met and married Charles Joseph Walker, in 1906.
Walker and her legacy will soon be the subject of an upcoming Netflix television series starring Octavia Spencer and produced by basketball star LeBron James’ production company, SpringHill Entertainment. Spencer’s hit film Hidden Figures earned her an Oscar nomination; most recently, she starred in the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water.
To further protect Walker’s historic legacy, in December, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a preservation easement on Villa Lewaro that will help prevent current and future owners from making adverse changes to or demolishing the estate’s historic, cultural, and architectural features. After designating the site as a National Treasure in 2014, the National Trust has worked with the villa’s current owners and stewards, Harold and Helena Doley, to secure long-term protections before the property changes hands.
Since acquiring the 20,000 sq. ft. home in 1993, the Doleys have been restoring the home to its early grandeur, including rebuilding the terra-cotta roof with tiles from the original manufacturer and restoring hand-painted ceiling medallions.
Villa Lewaro was not only distinguished by its architecture but also its location, less than five miles from John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit and about a mile from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst. While most of her wealthy white neighbors positioned their homes to take advantage of the views of New Jersey’s Palisades, across the Hudson River, Walker intentionally situated her house facing Broadway, the better to be seen by travelers en route from the state capital in Albany to New York City, as A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, stated in a recent article on houzz.com.
The mansion also has the distinction of being designed by Vertner Tandy, New York State’s first African-American registered architect and one of the seven founders of the historically black Greek fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. Originally surrounded by five acres, the villa now sits on less than two. According to Bundles, construction costs in 1918 totaled $250,000 ($4.5 million in 2018 dollars) with furnishings and artwork estimated at $100,000 ($1.8 million today).
Having previously worked as a domestic and poorly paid washerwoman, Walker’s personal experience with a scalp infection propelled her to the hair-product business in 1906. To treat her own condition, Walker developed a shampoo and ointment that addressed dandruff and promoted hair growth. By 1916, she had trained thousands of sales agents and “beauty culturists” to sell her Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower door-to-door nationwide.
When she died on May 25, 1919, Walker was one of America’s wealthiest businesswomen, having built a beauty empire from the ground up.
Following Walker’s death, her daughter, A’Lelia Walker Robinson, continued to entertain at Villa Lewaro and in Harlem. Her famed parties were so extravagant and popular among Harlem’s writers, artists, and musicians that poet Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s,” according to Bundles.
Robinson died in 1931, and as her mother had requested, she willed the property to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but the NAACP declined to accept the gift because of high taxes and the prohibitive cost of maintaining the property. In 1932, Annie Poth and the Companions of the Forest became the villa’s next owners, using it as a retirement and recreation home for the organization’s members.
As Bundles shared in her houzz.com article, Walker wanted Villa Lewaro to inspire African-Americans during a time when Jim Crow laws were used to enforce racial segregation and deny civil rights.
Walker wanted it understood that she built her mansion not for personal aggrandizement but rather “to convince members of my race of the wealth of business possibilities, to point to young Negroes what a lone woman accomplished and to inspire them to do big things.”
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.