October 23, 2014

“A Sort of Monument”: Why Villa Lewaro Is More Than a Building

Spotlight on National Treasures: Villa Lewaro

Kathy Dixon, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects

As Walker descendant A’Lelia Bundles eloquently put it, “Villa Lewaro is one of the few remaining tangible symbols of the astonishing progress made by the first generation after Emancipation.” So we’d be remiss in a week of celebrating Madam C.J. Walker if we didn’t dig into the physical embodiment of her success -- her home, the historic Villa Lewaro.

To learn more about the estate, we turned to Kathy Dixon, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects as well as a licensed architect with more than 20 years of experience, for her thoughts on Lewaro’s significance. After all, Walker herself wanted the estate “left to some cause that will be beneficial to the race -- a sort of monument.” So we asked Ms. Dixon: Does this vision ring true today? Here’s what she had to say.

When did you first learn about Madam C.J. Walker, and what was your impression of her?

I first learned about Madam C.J. Walker as a young person. I don’t recall the date or where exactly, but it was most likely via Black History Month programs. From the start, I recognized that she must have been a very intelligent and strong woman to accomplish what she did during periods of intense social strife in our country.

In 1917, the New York Times Magazine described Villa Lewaro as a "wonder house" with a "degree of elegance and extravagance that a princess might envy."

What makes Villa Lewaro architecturally significant (in addition to its historical significance)?

The Villa Lewaro Estate is both historically and architecturally significant partly due to the architect responsible for its design. Vertner Woodson Tandy was the first registered architect of African-American descent in the State of New York. Having a pioneering black architect as its designer enhances the character and deepens the legacy of the building. I believe the elaborate Italianate style of architecture was chosen to reflect success and a sense of regality in its design.

Tell me more about Vertner Tandy.

He began his education at Tuskegee University under Booker T. Washington and then transferred to Cornell University where he matriculated. Tandy was also a founder of the first African-American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. He has a special legacy of his own being one of the early licensed black males in a profession where there are still very few.

The music salon, also known as the "Gold Room," features pillars wrapped in gold leaf, hand painted ceilings and murals, classic herringbone flooring, and crystal chandeliers.

Besides its owner’s unique personal background, what else about Villa Lewaro made it stand out when it was originally built?

Madam C.J. Walker’s estate is located in an area that was not welcoming to African-Americans. The news of an African-American woman building a “pretentious” house came as a shock to the white neighbors in the area.

Madam Walker said that “Villa Lewaro was not merely her home, but a Negro institution that only Negro money bought.” She had built the house, she said, to “convince members of [my] race of the wealth of business possibilities within the race, to point to young Negroes what a lone woman accomplished and to inspire them to do big things.”

What does this quote -- and her vision -- mean to you in a modern context? What about Madam Walker’s original intent still stands, and what perhaps has changed?

Madam Walker’s quote about building a home for the Negro culture is a profound statement which is still relevant today. It reflects what must have been a strong conscious effort on her part to make a positive impact in the lives of “Negros” around the country.

Her determination to start and maintain a successful business as well as the vision to build a structure that would be used to celebrate the accomplishments of an entire culture, not just her own accomplishments, is evidence of her leadership qualities. Her efforts are worthy of imitation, and she is a wonderful role model even for today’s generation.

Unfortunately our society still struggles with prejudice and lack of tolerance, which I believe inhibits many from reaching their full potential. Sadly, not much has changed in the world since Madam Walker left us. The need to inspire young African-American men and women to succeed in business and education still exists and is perhaps even more pertinent.

Madam Walker said about her home, "I am surrounded by all my dreams come true." From the side entrance, marble floors transition into the main hall with its intricately carved medallions set in the room's hand-painted coffered ceilings.

Given your own expertise, what possibilities do you see in a place like Villa Lewaro? What could it become for future generations?

Villa Lewaro is an ideal location to utilize as a center for learning for not only the life of Madam Walker, but also that of Vertner Tandy. Unfortunately, information on both of their lives appears limited and additional scholarly research should be encouraged.

Perhaps a partnership with an academic institution could [create] a fellowship or residency type program for young entrepreneurs, and enable Villa Lewaro to continue to impact culture and society. It could serve as both a historical museum and an institute of learning. I believe its legacy should continue the intent of its owner to inspire African-Americans and others to strive for greater success.

Julia Rocchi is the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.


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