June 2, 2014

Preserving an Iconic Landmark in Business History: Madam C. J. Walker's Villa Lewaro

Written by Brent Leggs, Senior Field Officer

The National Treasure group photo

photo by: Todd Shepera

The National Treasure reception in Irvington, N.Y., May 2014

In Irvington, N.Y., there stands Madam C. J. Walker’s “Villa Lewaro,” a restored, elegant historic residence that embodies the optimism and perseverance of American entrepreneurship. This newly designated National Treasure reveals Madam Walker’s unparalleled accomplishments in the face of a 20th-century segregated America and at a time before women had the right to vote. With the rising success of Oprah Winfrey, Ursula Burns, Queen Latifah, Tyra Banks, Indra Nooyi, Mary Barra, and other businesswomen, it’s important that we preserve the past to enrich the future.

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, La., where her parents and elder siblings were enslaved, Madam Walker would transcend plantation life to become a cosmetics and business pioneer.

Madam C.J. Walker's shampoo box

photo by: A'Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker Family Archives

Madam C. J. Walker’s multimillion dollar cosmetic line grew from a door-to-door business to become a internationally recognized staple in drug stores and beauty salons.

She developed beauty and hair products for black women, and trained nearly 23,000 sales agents and workers to serve customers in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. An altruistic Madam Walker said: "I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race."

Recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for being America’s first, self-made female millionaire, Madam Walker constructed an intentional monument dedicated to her own legacy and the potential greatness that exists within all Americans, but especially women.

Exterior of Villa Lewaro

photo by: David Bohl, Historic New England

Villa Lewaro, built in 1918 with a neo-Palladian-style architecture style, became a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Her Home

Villa Lewaro is located half a mile from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst and three miles from the Rockefeller’s Kykuit. The 1918, 20,000-square-foot, 34-room mansion and detached carriage house overlook the Hudson River.

Designed by architect Vertner Tandy and constructed for $250,000, Villa Lewaro was the intellectual gathering place for notable leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. Today, the villa is remarkably intact and it retains a high degree of architectural integrity.

Interior of Villa Lewaro

photo by: David Bohl

The building's interior has a Neo-Renaissance style, including a great hall and a barrel-vaulted dining room.

Villa Lewaro's Preservation

Facing many of the same stewardship challenges experienced at “white elephant” historic places throughout the nation, the property is at a critical turning point. Currently in private ownership, Villa Lewaro is vulnerable without legal mechanisms for its protection or a long-term vision for its continued preservation. Throughout the past 20 years, the owners have carefully restored the property and they continue to be great stewards, but it’s time to look toward the future.

To take direct action in this preservation effort, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Villa Lewaro to its distinguished list of National Treasures to secure national recognition for Madam Walker’s legacy and the property’s future preservation. Last month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Madam Walker Family Archives convened nine thought leaders from Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C., to identify innovative solutions for reusing the property.

Hosted by the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the secluded environment and great facilities made for a productive meeting. There’s more news to come in the next few months on the results from this meeting.

Brent Leggs, left, stands with Vanessa Bush, editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine

photo by: Todd Shepera

Brent Leggs, left, stands with Vanessa Bush, editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine.

To learn more about the Villa Lewaro National Treasure and how you can help support this campaign, please visit the website.

Brent Leggs is the author of Preserving African American Historic Places and a Harvard Loeb Fellow. He is the Senior Field Officer in the Preservation Division for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and project manager for the Villa Lewaro National Treasure.

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