On Madam C. J. Walker’s Architecture

*This post is part of our online forum on Madam C.J. Walker for the centennial anniversary of her death. 

Villa Lewaro, Irvington, NY, (Library of Congress)

Villa Lewaro is an important monument that situates an African American artistic aesthetic and socio-political agenda in the canon of early twentieth century American architecture. Despite the fact that patronage of major building projects by affluent clientele is a major theme of world architecture, Madam C. J. Walker is not widely recognized for the manner in which she expressed her personal and financial achievements—and that of African Americans—through built works. In her case, these included support for the preservation of prominent African Americans’ homes as well as of the construction of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and her own residences in Indianapolis, Indiana and Harlem, New York. It is in Irvington, New York, at Villa Lewaro—the only one of Walker’s home that is extant—that Madam Walker’s design sensibilities, personal ambitions, and race pride culminated.

In 1913, Madam Walker’s daughter and only child A’Lelia convinced her to expand her already thriving nationwide business network with a move from Indianapolis to Harlem. In 1913 and 1915, Walker purchased two brownstones on West 136th Street. In 1915, she hired Vertner Woodson Tandy—the first African American architect registered in New York state—to convert the townhouses at 108 and 110 West 136th Street into a combined residence, salon, and training center with a unified Federal-style façade. The Harlem townhome was more for A’Lelia; Madam Walker did not enjoy living in the city full-time. Upon completion of the townhouse “without regard to cost but with considerable regard for good taste,” Madam Walker turned her eye to the development of a suburban home in the affluent village of Irvington-on-the-Hudson.1 In August 1916, she purchased a five-acre property in Irvington and again hired Tandy to design a country villa on par with those of white neighbors the likes of philanthropist Helen Gould Shepard at Lyndhurst, dry goods merchant Isaac Stern at Stern’s Castle, Frederick W. Vanderbilt at Hyde Park, and John D. Rockefeller at Kykuit. Tandy designed a $350,000, four-level mansion with Mediterranean and classical architectural influences; he sited it close to the main road, as opposed to the rear of the property closer to the river, at Walker’s preference for maximum visibility. A’Lelia’s friend, Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, styled the home Villa Lewaro, combining the first two letters of the full married name—A’LElia WAlker RObinson.

As at the Harlem townhouse, Madam Walker hired preeminent professionals who were supportive of Black clientele to complete the building. Miller-Reed Company (who also built Tandy-designed St. Phillips Episcopal Church and Mother Zion AME Church in New York City) served as the general contractor while antiques dealer Frank R. Smith, with decorating firm Righter & Kolb, completed the interiors of the 16,000 square-foot, 34-room mansion. Villa Lewaro’s first floor included several grand rooms designed with various classical stylistic influences with furnishings by the likes of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Tiffany—a foyer, library, breakfast room, dining room, living room, and drawing room. The Estey organ in the drawing room was a focal point. Villa Lewaro’s second floor contained the private rooms for Madam Walker, A’Lelia, and house guests, each in separate wings. The third floor contained servants’ quarters, a nursery for guests’ children, and a billiards room, while the kitchen, laundry, servants’ dining room, organ power room, and gymnasium were located in the basement. Modern amenities in the mansion included steam heat, an electric light and bell system, central vacuum cleaning, an electric washing machine and steam dryer in the laundry, and showers and a Battle Creek Electric Light Bath and Electric Chair in the gymnasium.

Madam C. J. Walker moved into Villa Lewaro on June 13, 1918; she lived in the mansion for less than a year. After her death on May 25, 1919, Walker’s public funeral was held at Villa Lewaro five days later. Still the home remained a reflection of Madam Walker’s vision. Her residences were an important symbol to and of her; she fully realized the significance of the prestige that home ownership could confer to African Americans. In her will, Madam Walker stipulated that a trust fund be established to help African Americans purchase modern homes.2 Further, she made it clear that she considered Villa Lewaro an institution for the benefit of the African American community. Just as Walker left her beauty product empire in the charge of women, she bequeathed her home to A’Lelia. After A’Lelia’s death, the house was to be sold to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Villa Lewaro was not simply an assimilation or replication of so-called white design convention and artistic taste. Though some African Americans criticized Villa Lewaro for what they felt was undue extravagance, here, Madam Walker made the accumulation of material goods and physical manifestation of wealth an acceptable pursuit. Villa Lewaro did not include aspects of her business unlike her Indianapolis home and Harlem townhouse, but promoted a lifestyle afforded by entrepreneurial means. Villa Lewaro represented this at Madam Walker’s talks throughout the country. In a 1918 speech on racial justice for African Americans at Fort Dodge High School in Des Moines, Iowa, Madam Walker ended with stereopticon views of Villa Lewaro; local reporters called the mansion “a monument to the thrift and business ability of its builder and to the Negro race in general.”3 Madam Walker hosted many social, political, and philanthropic events at Villa Lewaro including several led by journalist and Special Assistant to the Secretary of War Emmet J. Scott. In August 1918, Villa Lewaro was the site of a conference attended by “well-known” African American leaders from across the country. “The guests were carried away with amazement over the simple yet elegant house furnishings and the good taste displayed in the color schemes.”4 Civic leaders founded the International League of Darker Peoples at Villa Lewaro in January 1919.5 In August 1919, the mansion was the site of an NAACP visit as part of activities commemorating the 1619 arrival of African slaves in the United States.6 After Walker’s death, A’Lelia Walker Robinson continued to host at Villa Lewaro. Like the “Dark Tower” salon she hosted in the Harlem townhouse during the 1920s, Villa Lewaro was also a clubhouse for African American artists and elites during the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes recorded events held there in his autobiography. While A’Lelia did not reside at Villa Lewaro full time, it remained a collective symbol of African American pride. The Crisis magazine’s 1922 “Negro Homes Calendar” carried “a remarkable picture of ‘Villa Lewaro’, the home of the late Madam C. J. Waker, at Irvington-on-the-Hudson, N. Y.” on the cover. That same publication depicted the mansion’s garden façade in April 1922 to illustrate a brief on A’Lelia’s traveling abroad. Villa Lewaro was the location of the 1924 Walker Beauty Culturists Convention and of a 1925 dinner honoring the Liberian Secretary of State.7

By the early 1930s, the fate of Villa Lewaro was in jeopardy. Freeman Briley Ransom, general manager of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, described Villa Lewaro as a liability, stating that “if we ever hoped to realize anything for charity or anyone else we must do it before complete deterioration.”8 Efforts to sell Villa Lewaro before A’Lelia’s untimely death in 1931 were unsuccessful. In 1932, the NAACP and Walker estate mutually agreed to sell the property for the benefit of the organization. The Companions of the Forest purchased Villa Lewaro for use as an assisted living home for elderly women as opposed to a “bustling hub of black virtuosity.” Still, Villa Lewaro’s significance was recognized with its designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1976 during the American Bicentennial celebration.

In the mid-1980s, sculptor Ingo Appel and his wife Darlene purchased the home for their private residence. Villa Lewaro returned to the African American community upon its 1993 purchase by investment banker Ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena. The Doleys’ stewardship of the mansion included making plans for a museum and securing a preservation easement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust named Villa Lewaro a National Treasure in 2014 and prepared Envisioning Villa Lewaro’s Future, a report recognizing potential uses of the building. It was not until Sundial Brands CEO  Richelieu Dennis’s December 2018 acquisition of Villa Lewaro that the mansion’s future and preservation was secured. Under the auspices of his New Voices Foundation, Dennis is in the process of restoring and renovating Villa Lewaro to serve as a think tank and training center to support African American women. Villa Lewaro—the home of the quintessential female African American innovator who promoted the possibilities of hard work through this place and others—has come full circle.

  1. Frances Garside, Queen of Gotham’s Colored 400,” Literary Digest, volume 55, no. 15 (October 13, 1917): 76.
  2. A’Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 270. https://www.worldcat.org/title/seeking-the-ideal-african-american-interior-the-walker-residences-and-salon-in-new-york/oclc/5543310100&referer=brief_results.
  3.  “Colored Millionairess Pleads for Justice to Her Race,” The Bystander, July 26, 1918: 1.
  4. “Conference at Villa Lewaro,” The New York Age, August 31, 1918: 1; “Interesting War Talk,” The Bystander, September 6, 1918: 1.
  5. “League of Darker People’s Sees Light,” The New York Age, January 11, 1919: 2.
  6. “Negro Transplanting to be Celebrated,” The New York Age, October 26, 1918: 2.
  7.  “Liberian Secretary Dined at Villa Lewaro,” The New York Age, October 3, 1925: 7.
  8. “Explains Lewaro Sale,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 13, 1930: 4.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Tara A. Dudley

Tara A. Dudley is an independent historic preservation consultant and lecturer in the School of Architecture at The University of the Texas of Austin where she teaches the Interior Design History sequence as well as topics courses in American architecture and African American architecture. Her research focuses on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American architecture and design, specifically the undertold/untold contributions of African Americans.

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