Preserving Madam C. J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro
The following is a special contribution from the editors of Preservation Nation, a blog for the National Trust for Historic Preservation:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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