It’s not uncommon to find palatial estates in Westchester, New York City’s pastoral suburbs to the north, including the former homesteads of Gilded Age robber barons and industrialists. The grand Villa Lewaro, a 34-room, Neo-Palladian mansion in Irvington, stands near show houses inscribed with names such as Rockefeller and Gould, and has all the trappings of success, including a Louis XVI chamber suite, an Estey organ, and Rodin sculpture. But this home, and its first owner, represent something much more than mere wealth and privilege.
Villa Lewaro was once home to Madam C.J. Walker, the country’s first African-American woman millionaire, a renowned businesswoman and philanthropist who built an empire and became a key benefactor to the African-American community in both New York and across the country. After decades of restoration work, the 28,000-square-foot property now better tells the story of this pioneering entrepreneur—and, hope preservationists involved with the property, may someday take on a new identity as a cultural center.
The current owners, Ambassador Harold E. Doley Jr. and his wife, Elena, who have owned and cared for the property for the last 21 years and are looking to sell, have been working with the National Trust to enact an historic easement for the estate. By early next year, supporters hope, Villa Lewaro will be protected in perpetuity, and perhaps be used to host cultural events and memorialize the life of its pioneering first owner.
“The home is aesthetically beautiful and the scale is impressive,” says Brent Leggs, a senior field officer for the National Trust who authored a report about potential preservation plans for the property. “It really makes the idea of America’s first self-made female millionaire real. You realize the level of her wealth.”
Named after her daughter (LElia WAlker RObinson), Walker’s “Dream of Dreams” home was designed by the first licensed black architect in the state of New York, Vertner Tandy. Madam Walker was the first person of color to own property in the area around Lyndhurst. Her townhouse in Manhattan on 136th Street, also designed by Tandy, was built "without regard to cost but with considerable regard for good taste," according to a 1917 Literary Digest interview, which estimated her annual income at $250,000 a year (roughly $4.7 million in today’s dollars).
Born to sharecroppers in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, Walker spent her early years picking cotton on the fields where her parents were once slaves. Through business acumen and hard work, the former laundress would amass the fortune required to buy and build her palatial estate via a line of hair-care and beauty products, including a scalp treatment and hair straightener, that were manufactured at a factory in Indianapolis and sold throughout the country.
Moving from Louisiana to St Louis, Indiana, and then on to New York, Walker slowly built her business with deft use of the then-novel concept of direct sales, which made her a millionaire and helped numerous women achieve a measure of economic independence (at one point, she had 23,000 agents selling her products). According to a biography on Walker, she was planning to organize her sales agents into local clubs that could organize and use their economic muscle to fight lynching and civil rights abuses.
Walker only lived in the house she had built for one year before passing away in the master bedroom in 1919—but her legacy lived on for decades. Her daughter, A'Lelia (who modified her first name from the given “Lelia”), would live there for years, and the home functioned as a country escape of sorts for the artists and intellectuals who fueled the Harlem Renaissance. (Meanwhile, the Walker’s townhouse in Harlem was calligraphed with poems by Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.)
The home was bequeathed to the NAACP when A’Lelia passed away in 1931. Due to the organization’s dire financial situation during the Depression, the NAACP sold the estate on the very day it inherited the property, in order to raise much needed funds to stay afloat. After passing between owners, including a stint as a convalescent home, the Doleys purchased the property in the early ‘90s.
Leggs says the next step in 2017 is to find a preservation-friendly buyer for the property who would support the vision the preservationists have created for Villa Lewaro. The potential for creative reuse is immense.
“In Madam Walker’s initial will, she said that she wanted the property to be ‘a monument to her life to inspire her race to reach its highest potential,’” he says. “There’s real potential here to create a monument to honor Black America. More Americans need to know about Madam Walker’s life.”