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Entries in Harlem (2)


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."


Touring the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center


The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center’s (GMDC) flagship project is a 300,000 square foot complex of buildings built between 1868 and 1910 for the textile industry. 

New York City is known as a leading destination for artists, and other creative professionals.  I've often been curious where they maintain their businesses, given the high rents, and changes in zoning that have reduced the amount of manufacturing space that is available in the city.  Recently, I visited the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC) at 1155-1205 Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn.  Founded in 1992, GMDC is New York’s premier nonprofit industrial developer.  The organization manages a complex of five buildings, currently home to 100 businesses that employ 500 people. 

The informative tour of the sprawling building complex was led by Cassandra Smith, a GMDC project manager. Historically, the Chelsea Fiber Mills began operations on the site in 1868, where marine rope was manufactured until after World War II. In its waning years of full-fledged production, the building was used for textile manufacturing.

The City took possession of the building in 1974, when the property went into tax foreclosure. Eventually, month-to-month tenancies were extended to an existing group of small manufacturers, and artists. In 1992, GMDC acquired the building from the city, which needed extensive repairs, due to deferred maintenance.  Within a few years, the building was restored by utilizing public and private financing.  As a result, GMDC preserved the architectural heritage of manufacturing buildings in Brooklyn, while creating new urban redevelopment opportunities in the borough.

GMDC fulfills a need, as industrial space becomes a scare commodity

New York City continues to attract a significant number of design professionals.  In June, the Center for an Urban Future released a study, "Growth by Design," which documented some of the gains made in the city’s creative industries:

Between 2000 and 2009, design sector jobs in the New York metro area grew by 75 percent, with especially large jumps in the number of interior designers (which increased by 223 percent), graphic designers (139 percent) and industrial designers (127 percent).  Overall 40,000 new jobs were added. 

However, New York’s manufacturing sector overall has been less than prolific, as more than 64,000 jobs were lost, representing a decline of 46 percent.  According to research conducted by the New York Industrial Retention Network

23.4 million square feet of industrial space was lost to approved rezonings between 2001 and 2008, impacting some of New York’s most populated manufacturing districts. Significant portions of Greenpoint-Williamsburg, Long Island City, the midtown Garment Center, and Port Morris in the Bronx were rezoned during this period, mainly for residential development.

Although GMDC is located in a rapidly gentrifying community, it continues to be an invaluable resource because it provides quality, affordable space to a wide-range of creative professionals.  The rent averages $12 to $15 per square foot, and tenants are given a vacant white box space to build-out to meet their specific business requirements.   The GMDC is available exclusively for work-use, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

During the tour, we visited several studio spaces.  The tenants included:

Barbara Campisi's studio at the GMDC

Barbara Campisi is a studio artist who has been in Greenpoint since 2004.  She specializes in site specific installations, and her work incorporates many different and visual colors.  Ms. Campisi has exhibited in the Fulton Ferry State Park, and has had pieces on display at IKEA in Red Hook.

Janine Sopp in the Clay Space 1205 gallery

Janine Sopp was a textile and clothing designer, before she became a ceramics artist. She has been at GMDC for 17 years.  Her work is sold nationally and internationally and is represented in craft galleries, museum shops, gift shops and Judaica stores across the country and online.   Four year ago, Ms. Sopp decided to have other ceramics artists join her.  She created a Clay Space 1205, with the belief that this art form centers on the strength of community.  The 3,000 square foot space accommodates professional artists, and also offers classes to the public. 

A Clay Space 1205 member at work

Clay Space 1205 has also serves as an informal business incubator program.  "There are not a lot of places that allow you to start from scratch.  Some people don't know how to get it off the ground, and start a business with it.  Here, we are able to support each other’s businesses."   Currently member artists come from a wide-variety of backgrounds and market to interior designers, and galleries.  There is also an onsite gallery space that has rotating exhibitions.

Takeshi Miyakawa 

Takeshi Miyakawa, a Japanese-born architect, has been furniture designer in Tribeca and Williamsburg for more than 10 years.  He studied architecture in his native Japan, and previously worked in the construction business.  After arriving in New York more than 20 years ago, he found a job in Williamsburg, where he specialized in custom design, and fabrication.   Since 1992, he has worked as a model maker at Rafael Vinoly architects. He leased space at the GMDC after desiring additional work space for his practice, Takeshi Miyakawa Design.

Takeshi Miyakawa's studio.


Ronnie Parsons (center) and Gil Akos (right) of Studio Mode/modeLab

Ronnie Parsons and Gil Akos, are both architects and professors, as well as the owners of Studio Mode/modeLab.  Currently they have a design studio, and research collective, and teach workshops around the world.  They told the group that one of their most recent commissions was designing office space for a Mexican football stadium.  They came to GMDC a few months ago, and their light-filled studio had exceptional views of Manhattan.

What’s next? The GMDC will soon expand to Harlem

GMDC has been a recognized nonprofit leader in manufacturing development, and many city officials from across the nation have toured their facilities to see how they can grow an industrial base in their own communities. While GMDC has established a significant presence in Brooklyn, they are about to expand their reach to Manhattan.  The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC) recently announced that GMDC will be one of the tenants leasing space in the new building, CREATE @ Harlem Green, a proposed $100 million development on 125th Street in Harlem.

NYCEDC selected Janus Partners LLC and Monandnock Construction, Inc. to redevelop the former Taystee Bakery complex into CREATE @ Harlem Green, providing additional commercial and industrial space to house tenants from creative industries.  If the project is approved, GMDC will be operating 53,000 square feet of manufacturing space to be leased as 1,000-5,000-square-foot spaces for small manufacturing and artisan companies.

Brian T. Coleman, Chief Executive Officer, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center stated, “We are excited about the prospect of bringing our expertise and brand to Harlem, and we look forward to working with Janus to tap the creative energies of Harlem’s artisans and small businesses. New York’s entrepreneurial millworkers, jewelry makers, metalworkers and graphic artists will benefit from a community where their businesses can grow and thrive.”

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