Villa Lewaro – Gilded Age home for African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker 100 years ago
Home of the first female and first black female self-made millionaire in the United States
Villa Lewaro stands in Irvington, New York as yet another architectural symbol of Gilded Age fortunes, such as those found elsewhere along the Hudson River and in such storied places as Newport, Rhode Island, Fifth Avenue, New York City, and the Florida coast. One hundred years ago, Madam C. J. Walker—the first female and first black female self-made millionaire in the United States—purchased the home and resided there for two years.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Louisiana as the 7th child in a formerly enslaved family, she was the first in the family to be born into freedom. After a failed first marriage, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri where three of her brothers were barbers. Learning about hair care for African Americans from them, Breedlove soon joined the Poro Company as a commission sales agent. In 1905, Breedlove moved to Denver, Colorado, continued to sell for the Poro Company, and adopted the name Madam C. J. Walker through marriage while she developed her own hair care product lines. With business assistance from her husband—advertising and promotion—Walker initially sold her products door-to-door but soon moved into the mail order business.
From extensive promotional efforts across the Southeast and Midwest of the United States, Walker’s business grew substantially and she eventually relocated to Indianapolis where she established the headquarters of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. The company grew to employ thousands of women as sales agents. In 1916, Walker left responsibility for much of the company to her management team and moved to join her daughter in New York City. In 1917, she hired New York’s first black licensed architect—Vertner Tandy—to design an elaborate Gilded Age mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson. In 1918, she moved into Villa Lewaro with the intent of making it a center of notable African American leaders and political thinkers. Unfortunately, Walker died the following year at the age of 51, but her legacy continued.
Recently, Villa Lewaro was designated a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (The 2011 photo by Dmadeo is shared here under CC BY-SA 4.0)
By A'Lelia Bundles
February 25, 2018
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