Recently I received an email from a young woman who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. More or less it read, “Hey, you want to see Madam Walker’s estate?”
The Trust, as they like to call it, was hosting a media tour of Villa Lewaro, the official name for the upstate New York estate of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made black female millionaire. Walker was a business pioneer who amassed her fortune developing beauty and hair products for black women.
Her estate, completed in 1918, is privately owned. The current owners, Harold and Helena Doley, have spent the last 20 years restoring the home. “It’s beautiful,” the woman promised, just to entice me.
I headed to Google Images. Black history never ceases to amaze me.
The 20,000-square-foot “house” is gorgeous by today’s standards, which means it was phenomenal in its day. It’s also phenomenal because a black woman born in 1867, whose parents and older siblings had been enslaved, started at the bottom and built it. The mansion—not that far down the road from the Rockefellers’—comes with an elevator, a view of the Palisades and the surround sound of its heyday.
Um. Yes. Yes, I wanted to see this in person.
So I drove upstate to Irvington, N.Y., which, when the estate was being built, was the richest per capita community in America. There weren’t any other black folks there—or they certainly weren’t welcome—so Walker paid a “black tax,” more than double the going rate, to purchase the land and build the house (cost at the time: approximately $250,000). The estate is named after Walker’s daughter, whose name was Lelia Walker Robinson. The first two letters of the three names spell “Lewaro.”
The house features a detached carriage house that adds another 4,000 square feet. It has “nine or 10” bathrooms, according to the current owners, who have lived in the mansion for 20 years while they were restoring its grandeur.
Fun fact: The Tuskegee-educated architect of said house was Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first registered black architect in New York state and one of the seven co-founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
The house is even more amazing in person than it is in pictures. The images are pretty, but even the best cameras can’t capture the beauty and detail the way the naked eye can—certainly not the intricacy of the gold leaf Corinthian columns, the hand-painted ceilings or the stained glass windows, which are breathtaking. By looking only at pictures, you just don’t feel the historic weight of the house. Walker and her daughter were avid entertainers, and their guest lists read like a who’s who of black history.
The tour was co-hosted by A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. In the game room on the top floor, another guide explains, this could have been where Walker met with Marcus Garvey. The tour guides name-drop an assortment of guests who stopped by the home for a party: James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois.
The house still has many of its original features, including most of the light fixtures and chandeliers and a piano trimmed in gold leaf. Most of the bathrooms have the original tubs, and one has the original rain forest showerhead. A tour guide speculates that the inground pool in the backyard might be a black first. Hmmm.
We tour the quarters for the servants—who were black. Yes, someone on the tour asked. Bundles noted the windows in their rooms. Apparently, that was a break from tradition, but Walker, a former servant herself, didn’t forget the bleakness of her days as a washerwoman and did better by her staff than was done for her.
Unfortunately, Walker didn’t have much time to enjoy her amazing home. One year after it was completed, she died in the huge master bedroom, in 1919. Her daughter kept the home in the family until 1932.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included a rumor about Langston Hughes having written on the walls of Villa Lewaro. The claim is untrue.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.
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