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Madam C.J. Walker’s Heiress Reflects on History

Every time I walk through the doors of Villa Lewaro — the mansion my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, called her “dream of dreams” — I always take a moment to imagine the ancestors and the magic they must have felt in these rooms. From the columns of its majestic portico to the balustrades of its grand terrace, the original stucco facade sparkled with marble dust and glistening grains of white sand when the washerwoman-turned-millionaire took possession in May 1918.

The New York Times pronounced it “a place fit for a fairy princess.” Enrico Caruso, the world-famous opera tenor, was so entranced by its similarity to estates in his native Naples that he coined the name “Lewaro” in honor of A’Lelia Walker Robinson, Madam Walker’s only daughter.

Walker told her friend Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist, that after working so hard all her life — first as a farm laborer, then as a maid and a cook, and finally as the founder of an international hair care enterprise — she wanted a place to relax and garden and entertain her friends.

She also wanted to make a statement, so it was no accident that she purchased four and a half acres in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, not far from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst and John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit amidst America’s wealthiest families. She directed Vertner Woodson Tandy — the architect who already had designed her opulent Harlem townhouse — to position the 34-room mansion close to the village’s main thoroughfare so it was easily visible by travelers en route from Manhattan to Albany.

Madam Walker's principles for her business were corporate responsibility, social betterment, and racial justice.

Madam Walker’s principles for her business were corporate responsibility, social betterment, and racial justice.

Indeed, the Times reported that her new neighbors were “puzzled” and “gasped in astonishment” when they learned that a black woman was the owner. “Impossible!” they exclaimed. “No woman of her race could afford such a place.”

The woman born in a dim Louisiana sharecropper’s cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River now awoke each morning in a sunny master suite with a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. The child who had crawled on dirt floors now walked on carpets of Persian silk. The destitute laundress, who had lived across the alley from the St. Louis bar where Scott Joplin composed ragtime tunes, now hosted private concerts beneath shimmering chandeliers in her gold music room.

But the home was not constructed merely for her personal pleasure. Villa Lewaro, she hoped, would inspire young African-Americans to “do big things” and to see “what can be accomplished by thrift, industry and intelligent investment of money.”

“Do not fail to mention that the Irvington home, after my death, will be left to some cause that will be beneficial to the race — a sort of monument,” she instructed her attorney, F. B. Ransom. As the largest contributor to the fund that saved Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, she understood the importance of preservation as a way to claim and influence history’s narrative.

To read the full story, visit blog.preservationnation.org.

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