In 1916, America & # 39; s first black female self-made millionaire, Ms. C.J. Walker, build a house. And by house we mean mansions, one that fits her fortune and status, named after Villa Lewaro – a fusion of the first, middle and last name of her daughter (A & # 39; Lelia Walker Robinson). Walker was a groundbreaking entrepreneur and her beauty products business was once the largest black-headed company in the United States. Her Italian villa in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, is now in its 100th year and is being redesigned as a learning and leadership institute for female entrepreneurs of color.
The 28,000-square-meter estate, designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy (the first recognized black architect in New York State), was recently purchased by the New Voices Foundation for an undisclosed amount. The foundation is the non-profit organization of the New Voices Fund, an investment fund of $ 100 million, intended for entrepreneurs who follow in the footsteps of Walker. Both the fund and the foundation were created by Richelieu Dennis, a Liberian entrepreneur and investor, who will assist in supervising the transition from Villa Lewaro from an estate on the river to a creative think tank. It is striking that the family of Dennis Shea has established Moisture hair products, a company such as Walker, built on a recipe for African and American beauty needs.
Villa Lewaro. David Bohl / Historic New England / Courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Although Walker lived in Villa Lewaro for only one year (from May 1918 until her death in May 1919), the house served over time as a cultural and intellectual meeting place for leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. DuBois. Ultimately, the mansion is "the fulfillment of Madam Walker's goal to inspire future generations of African Americans and women," says Lelia Bundles, great-granddaughter of Walker.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Walker was the first person of color to have owned in Tony Irvington. Villa Lewaro was past the appropriate name Millionaire's Row & # 39 ;, so the beauty pioneer counted the Rockefellers and Astors as neighbors. A November 4, 1917, New York Times Magazine article reports that the relocation of Walker in the neighborhood was answered with disbelief. The article also describes the inside of Villa Lewaro. "It is 113 meters long, 60 wide, and stands in the middle of a plot of four and a quarter hectares, it is fireproof, a structural tile with an outer layer of cream-colored stucco and has thirty-four rooms. , baths and showers, kitchen and pantry, dining room for servants, a room for an organ and storage vaults for valuables. "
Mrs. C.J. Walker in 1914. Public domain
All this belonged to an autodidactic woman from the Shares South, who founded a company with a sales team of 3,000 people and up to $ 250,000 in annual sales (several millions in dollars today). Walker also had the reputation of being an activist and a great philanthropist for the black community. Throughout her life she has left almost $ 100,000 to orphanages, schools and other cultural institutions. In 1919, just before her death, she donated the $ 65,000 equivalent to the NAACP anti-lynching fund – their greatest gift ever.
Villa Lewaro was declared a national historical monument in 1976. In 2014 it became a national treasure named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The New Voices Foundation works together with conservation staff to ensure that the mansion is structurally sound, and with historians to give context to the time and place in which Villa Lewaro was built and furnished.
Bundles, a biographer and a brand historian who is not descended from Walker's descendants, looks forward to meeting the first cohort of entrepreneurs to use the space. "I hope that their visit will inspire even more success [and] I hope she will take Mrs Walker's practice to be a patron of the arts and a philanthropist who supports the political, civil and social causes of justice, "she says.There are no hundred-year events announced for Villa Lewaro, but the Madam Walker Legacy Center, an arts and culture space in Indianapolis (where the head office of its company was hosted), will open again this year after a renovation.