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Entries in A'Lelia Walker (2)


Madam C.J. Walker's Villa Lewaro

UPDATE: October 2018

In June, Villa Lewaro turned 100. Harold and Helena Doley, who owned the home for 25 years, lovingly restored it to its original glory. They worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to secure an easement for the property. This easement provides protection status that restricts current and future owners from making changes to the property that will destroy the historic, cultural or architectural features of Villa Lewaro. The Doley family recently sold the estate to a new undisclosed owner. The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the site as a "National Treasure" in 2014. 

My original story

While Madam C.J. Walker’s Harlem home may have been demolished in 1942, a sizeable architectural remnant of her legacy still exists in Irvington, New York.  Madam Walker’s opulent former estate, Villa Lewaro, a 1976 National Historic Landmark is currently on the market for $6.8 million. 

In 1916, Madam Walker decided to build a $250,000, 34-room Italianate Villa mansion that would eventually become her dream home. The 20,000 square foot house with eight bedrooms, and six-bathrooms was designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885-1949), the architect commissioned for her Harlem mansion. A 4,000 square foot carriage house was also built.

Fortunately, I did have an opportunity to visit the mansion for a charity event many years ago.  The palatial home remains quite the showstopper, as it was intentionally sited on Broadway, a well-traveled route between New York City and Albany where it would be very visible to all who passed.  When constructed, it had expansive views of the Hudson River.

Opera singer and Walker family friend, Enrico Caruso, named the home Villa Lewaro. Caruso had remarked that the home reminded him of the homes found in his native Italy. Lewaro is an anagram using the first two letters from Madam Walker’s daughter’s full name, Lelia Walker Robinson.


In 1917, there was so much buzz about Villa Lewaro, that The New York Times Magazine chronicled the mansion’s construction in an in-depth article. It astounded, and even puzzled the wealthy village’s residents that Madam Walker could possibly afford to build a house in proximity to the historic Hudson Valley estates of Jay Gould (1838, Tarrytown), and John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit (1913, Pocantico Hills). 

The New York Times Magazine described Madam Walker's exceptional style and taste, which celebrated her entrepreneurial success:

“Plans for furnishing the house call for a degree of elegance and extravagance that a princess might envy. There are to be bronze and marble statuary, sparkling cut glass candelabra, paintings, and rich tapestries, and countless other things which will make the place a wonder house.

On the first floor are the living room 21 by 32 feet, furnished in the Italian style, a Louis XV drawing room 18 by 45 feet, and a dining room with a hand painted ceiling. Adjoining the two drawing rooms is a chamber for an $8,000 organ, which may be played automatically or by hand. Madam Walker likes music. When the organ is played, sounding pipes will carry the strains to different rooms in the house.” (The New York Times, November 04, 1917)


Outdoor spaces: The Italian Gardens

A concrete terrace, with a concrete balustrade, extends across the rear of the house. Stairs from either end extend down to a second terrace with a fountain recessed in an arched niche. A sunken garden and reflecting pool below may be reached by stairs from the second terrace. At the west end of the garden is a Pergola supported by concrete ionic columns. The rear walls of the basement are above grade and open out in an enclosed areaway below the terrace. [National Register of Historic Places Nomination]

Villa Lewaro as a symbol of success

While Villa Lewaro would become Vertner Tandy’s most famous residential architectural commission, the building’s significance went beyond its design. Villa Lewaro also served as Madam Walker’s living testimony to the very possibilities of success against all odds.  In the Walker Manufacturing Company’s advertisements, the home was featured prominently as part of her biography that showed a photograph of a cabin that she lived in as a child, to the palatial mansion that she built, as a result of the merits of her hard work and perseverance. 

General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Sadly, Madam Walker only lived in Villa Lewaro a short time, as she died in 1919. Her daughter A’Lelia Walker inherited the home.  A’Lelia used the house as a country retreat, and it proved to be an inviting setting to stage her elegant parties.  According to Steven Watson in the book Harlem Renaissance, A’Lelia “invited guests for long weekends of ostentatious luxury. They were met by black servants in white wig, doublet, and hose and encouraged to rest on Hepplewhite furniture while enjoying her Estey pipe organ or her 24-carat gold-plated piano (P.142).

In November 1930, A’Lelia Walker had Villa Lewaro’s contents auctioned, due to economic difficulties faced by the company at the height of the Depression.  The New York Times wrote numerous articles about the sale, which included a treasure trove of the finest in the decorative arts including furniture, Oriental rugs, Aubusson Tapestries and Suites, and lamps made of jade and quartz. 

When A’Lelia Walker died in 1931, Villa Lewaro was bequeathed to the NAACP. The organization decided to auction off the home, due to its inability to maintain the house during the Depression. It later became the Annie Poth Home for the Aged, and in the 1990’s reverted to private ownership. Villa Lewaro is a National Historic Landmark, but its grounds are locally protected because of its historic ginkgo and beechnut trees. 


[Photographs: Sotheby's]


Madam C.J. Walker and A'Lelia Walker in Harlem

Madam C.J. Walker and A'Lelia Walker [A'Lelia Bundles/Walker Family Archive/Washington, DC]Nearly 100 years after her death, Madam C.J. Walker remains an iconic figure in American history. Born Sarah Breedlove in rural Delta, Louisiana, the daughter of emancipated slaves is often credited as the first self-made African American millionaire.  Her vast fortune was the result of her success in the beauty industry, with a product line that primarily catered to Black women.

Although she had a rural upbringing, Madam Walker’s legacy is most closely associated with great American cities, including Denver, St. Louis, and later Indianapolis. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Madam Walker spent her early adult life in domestic service, most notably as a laundress. In the early 1900’s, after much experimentation, she discovered an effective hair care formula that she later manufactured.  Her products were such a huge success, that she was able to open beauty salons across the country.  The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company trained nearly 20,000 hairdressers, and saleswomen to market beauty products internationally.

Madam Walker’s only daughter, Lelia Walker (later known as A’Lelia Walker) encouraged her mother to relocate her company’s headquarters to New York. Lelia arrived in Harlem in 1913, when her mother purchased a row house at 108 West 136th Street, just as New York City’s burgeoning black population was expanding into Harlem, and solidifying its status as the “capital of Black America.”  By 1915, Madam Walker bought a second row house at 110 West 136th Street, and moved to the city in 1916.

Madam C.J. Walker's townhouse 108-110 West 136th Street, 1915. Madam Walker's car and driver. [Byron Company from the collections of the Museum of the City of New York]

Madam Walker commissioned Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885-1949), the first registered African American architect in the state of New York to work on creating a palatial residence and beauty salon.  He was a graduate of Tuskegee University, and Cornell University’s architecture program. Mr. Tandy also made history as the first Black architect to establish his own practice in New York City at 1931 Broadway. 

Mr. Tandy’s most famous work at the time was the neo-Gothic St. Philip's Episcopal Church (208 West 134th Street), which has salmon-colored Roman brick and terra cotta.  The church was home to New York City’s oldest African American Episcopal congregation (established 1818), and was also considered the nation’s wealthiest black church.   Today the building is a New York City, State, as well as National Historic Landmark. Tandy worked on this project with fellow African American architect George Washington Foster, Jr. (Tandy & Foster, 1910-1911). 



By 1915, a unified townhouse was constructed, when the two separate row houses were rebuilt, with a new red brick Georgian style facade with limestone trim. The mixed-use building housed the Walker Salon, and beauty school on the lower level.  The upper floors were used as a residence, which featured some of the most exquisite furnishings available at the time.  In the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, author A’Lelia Bundles gives an incredible description of the interior of the Walker home, considered one of Harlem’s most magnificent residences:

“Scalloped pale gray chiffon curtains framed the stylized Venetian windows that spanned the street-level front wall. On the right, French doors opened onto the hair salon with its patterned metal ceiling and buffed parquet floor. To the left at 108, marble Doric columns guarded the entrance to the upstairs living quarters. On the third floor, Madam Walker’s bedroom--- with its intricately carved fireplace and English wall tapestries--- was furnished in heavy mahogany. Down the hall Lelia’s ivory Louis XVI suite was trimmed in gold, her dresser and mantel filled with framed photographs and statuettes, her floor scattered with hand-woven Persian rugs" (Bundles 171-172).

The grandeur of the Walker townhouse was also noted in the book, When Harlem was in Vogue, where author David Levering Lewis wrote that the home, “flaunted their mistress’s wealth from the marble entrance hall and French rooms done in gold and buff to the Aubusson carpets beneath Louis XVI furniture.”

A'Lelia Walker's bedroom, Madam C.J. Walker's townhouse, 1915. [Byron Company from the collections of the Museum of the City of New York

Historic photographs of the Walker Hair Parlor, which was considered one of the most luxurious salons in New York City.


The interior of Madam C.J. Walker's Beauty Parlor, 1915 [Byron Company from the collections of the Museum of the City of New York]


Madam Walker died in 1919, and left the house to her daughter, A’Lelia, who in addition to working for her mother’s company was also a prominent socialite.  She was a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance, which occured between the 1920's to the 1930's when African American arts, music, and literature flourished. Writer Langston Hughes once called his friend A'Lelia the "joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920’s.” 

A’Lelia was known for her lavish parties, and in 1928, founded the “Dark Tower” an artists salon on one floor of her home. She entertained numerous poets, writers, artists, and people from various walks of life. The Dark Tower was named after Countee Cullen’s column in Opportunity magazine.  In 1999, The New York Times named the Dark Tower’s opening night party as one of “The 10 parties that shook the century.” The venture lasted a year.

A’Lelia Walker died in 1931. The Walker townhouse was eventually owned by the city, after serving for several years as a health clinic. In 1941, the building was demolished, and replaced by the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library. In December 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the City Council bill honoring the legacy of the Walker women, by renaming 136th Street where the mansion once stood, “Madam Walker and A'Lelia Walker Place."