March 29, 2017

How A'Lelia Walker And The Dark Tower Shaped The Harlem Renaissance

In 1920s Harlem, everyone clamored for an invitation to one place: a grand townhouse on West 136th Street.

There, in what was known as the Walker Studio and later, the Dark Tower, arts patron A’Lelia Walker threw lavish parties attended by poets and writers and artists and musicians and activists of the Harlem Renaissance: Countee Cullen (whose poem “From the Dark Tower” inspired the eventual name for Walker’s space), Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Muriel Draper, Nora Holt, Witter Bynner, Andy Razaf, Taylor Gordon, Carl Van Vechten, Clarence Darrow, Alberta Hunter, James Weldon Johnson.

Langston Hughes called Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” He wrote in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea:

“A’Lelia Walker had an apartment that held perhaps a hundred people. She would usually issue several hundred invitations to each party. Unless you went early there was no possible way of getting in. Her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour—entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests, with everybody seeming to enjoy the crowding.”

Indeed, these salon-like parties helped to shape the Harlem Renaissance. And Walker—with her seemingly endless generosity, charisma, and fashion-forward sensibilities—was a perfect host. She brought people together. She created a supportive, welcoming environment for artists to gather.

A’Lelia Walker—born Lelia Walker (she changed her name in 1922)—was the only child of Madam C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur and hair care industry pioneer who is recognized as America’s first self-made female millionaire. (Her Irvington, New York, home, Villa Lewaro, is a National Treasure of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

Madam Walker’s hair care empire had grown tremendously, and A’Lelia convinced her to expand into New York City. And so in 1913, Madam Walker purchased a townhouse on 108 West 136th Street in Harlem. Two years later, the Walkers acquired the adjacent townhouse at 110 West 136th Street. They hired noted architect Vertner Woodson Tandy to do a complete remodel, turning the two townhouses into one sprawling unit. Tandy was one of the first practicing African-American architects; he went on to design Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro.

Dark Tower - exterior

photo by: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Museum of the City of New York.

The exterior of the townhouse at 108 and 110 West 136th Street, circa 1916.

“In 1913, large numbers of African-Americans were starting to move to Harlem, but very few owned property,” says A’Lelia Bundles, the great-granddaughter of A’Lelia Walker. “For them to actually purchase a building and a home there was unusual. And by opening this double townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, they were making a statement about their prominence and affluence in Harlem.”

After the remodel was completed in 1916, the property, with its Neo-Georgian brick and limestone facade, was open for business. The ground-floor level housed the Walker Hair Parlor, and in the basement, classes were held for the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, where new Walker Company hair culturists and agents for company’s products were trained. The upper three levels were A’Lelia Walker’s living and entertaining quarters. (After several years of this arrangement, A’Lelia Walker sought a more private living arrangement. She moved to a new apartment a few blocks away on Edgecombe Avenue, but kept the West 136th Street townhouse as an events space.)

Dark Tower - seating area

photo by: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Museum of the City of New York.

The reception room at Walker Hair Parlor and Lelia College of Beauty Culture, circa 1916.

Dark Tower - dining area

photo by: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Museum of the City of New York.

The tearoom at Walker Hair Parlor and Lelia College of Beauty Culture, circa 1916.

Walker had long been hosting salons and parties and dinners in the West 136th Street townhouse. In late 1924, she began renting out space on the second floor for private parties and meetings, calling the space the Walker Studio. It was used for events like wedding receptions, rehearsals for theater companies, fraternity and sorority functions, and art shows.

“Through the 1920s, people downtown were starting to pay more attention to Harlem,” Bundles says. “They’re coming uptown to go to the clubs, and by 1926 and 1927, Harlem is in vogue.”

In 1927, Walker hired designer Paul T. Frankl to redecorate the Walker Studio. One element he added to the space was a custom-designed “Skyscraper” bookcase, named for its architectural characteristics.

Dark Tower - music room

photo by: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Museum of the City of New York.

The music room at the townhouse, circa 1916.

In October 1927, the Dark Tower—envisioned as a private membership club—officially opened in a room within the Walker Studio, which had now expanded to the second and third floors of the townhouse. And Frankl’s “Skyscraper” bookcase became its logo, of sorts, appearing on the Dark Tower’s stationary and invitations. The gatherings at the townhouse continued.

“These parties had all the artists, musicians, writers, actors who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, but it was also the newspaper publishers, the Civil Rights leaders—everybody, at some point,” Bundles says. “It was very much a central location for the Harlem Renaissance.”

Dark Tower - bedroom

photo by: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Museum of the City of New York.

A'Lelia Walker's bedroom at the townhouse, circa 1916.

One year after opening, in October 1928, the Dark Tower closed. Walker had begun charging for food and refreshments, which was a hard adjustment for many to make. She continued to rent the townhouse out for events, and she continued her arts patronage and philanthropic endeavors. But in 1929, the market crashed. Fewer parties were thrown during the Depression.

Walker died in 1931. After that point, the townhouse was rented out to the City of New York, which used the space for a health clinic. Then in 1941, the townhouse was demolished. In its place, the New York Public Library built what would become its Countee Cullen Branch.

But the Dark Tower lives on, in a way, says Bundles, who is working on a biography of A’Lelia Walker, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A'Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, to be published by Scribner. Bundles has also written three books on Madam C.J. Walker: Madam C.J. Walker: Entrepreneur (Chelsea House, 1991; revised new edition 2008); On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner/Lisa Drew, 2001); and Madam Walker Theatre Center: An Indianapolis Treasure (Arcadia, 2013).

“It’s in the imagination of anyone who knows or reads anything about the Harlem Renaissance,” Bundles says. “It was the place that everybody wanted to be. It was where people hosted their most special events—a wedding reception or a party for a fraternity or sorority. Everybody wanted to say they had been to the Dark Tower.”

Special thanks to Tara Dudley’s paper “Seeking the Ideal African-American Interior: The Walker Residences and Salon in New York,” published in the Fall-Winter 2006-2007 issue of Studies in the Decorative Arts; the Byron Company collection and the collections portal at the Museum of the City of New York; and A’Lelia Bundles.

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Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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