A monument to what 'a lone woman' made Millionaire: Madam C. J. Walker amassed her fortune through cosmetics for African-American women. Her mansion near New York is today the site of a fund-raiser and an appreciation of the woman who built it.


November 25, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

IRVINGTON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. -- In the early 1900s, one of America's first black millionaires set out to build a country mansion in this exclusive New York neighborhood. It was to be grand and opulent -- and positioned near a major thoroughfare for all to see.

Her soon-to-be neighbors were incredulous.

"Impossible," one resident told a newspaper in 1917. "No woman of her race could afford such a place."

Madam C. J. Walker, the ambitious daughter of slaves who helped pioneer African-American hair-care products, ignored them. She vowed that her 35-room Renaissance Revival mansion on North Broadway "that only Negro money had bought" would stand as a monument to "what a lone woman had accomplished."

It did then -- and it does today, perhaps more than ever.

The house Walker built in 1918 became a swank 1920s gathering place for prominent black New Yorkers, but it lost its luster while serving a 50-year stint as a convalescent home. Now, the cream-colored house with its ancient trees is again black-owned and has recently undergone extensive renovations.

From the original hand-painted ceilings and ionic columns to the dozens of stained-glass windows and sweeping marble staircases, every detail of the three-story Villa Lewaro -- named for Walker's daughter, Lelia Walker Robinson -- and a two-bedroom carriage house nearby has been lovingly tended to.

Last month, the project -- which is estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars -- culminated in a gala reopening attended by hundreds of people, including Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles. Although a private home, the 20,000-square-foot house with third-floor views of the Hudson River will be available for public tours until Sunday.

"Madam Walker was an incredible woman, but she wasn't the only one of her time who was," says Bundles, assistant bureau chief for ABC News in Washington who is writing a biography of Walker. "She just took it to the highest height. If a child can walk through the house and see their own potential, she would be happy."

Initially, Villa Lewaro was seen as a shining example of black talent and success, a reflection of how far African-Americans and Walker herself had come barely a generation after slavery's end.

Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Walker picked cotton in Mississippi as a young woman and spent years washing clothes in St. Louis. When a scalp condition caused much of her hair to fall out, she experimented with home remedies and then worked for an early manufacturer of black hair products.

About 1905, Walker's own hair-conditioning formula came to her in a dream -- or so she said. Her hair grew back, and her friends and neighbors began buying the product, named "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower." She married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper salesman who lent his marketing know-how to her blossoming business.

Within a few years, she had opened colleges for "hair culturists." She promoted her products across the country and in Central America and the Caribbean. At its peak, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co. employed more than 2,000 sales agents and ran a large mail-order business.

In 1916, she bought property in Irvington-on-Hudson, then considered the wealthiest residential community in the country, and commissioned architect Vertner Woodson Tandy to build what she called her "dream of dreams."

At the housewarming party in August 1918, Walker pursued what had become another big passion: promoting black excellence and progress -- uplifting the race, as it was called.

In a reception hall dripping with hand-woven silk carpets and rare tapestries, she played host to administrator and author Emmett Jay Scott and other black leaders to discuss anti-lynching efforts and the treatment of black war veterans.

Scott later wrote, "No such assemblage has ever gathered at the private home of any representative of our race, I am sure."

In her activism, she often got a cold shoulder from whites and black men. Booker T. Washington for years snubbed her, discounting her entrepreneurial efforts because she was a woman.

A year after she moved into Villa Lewaro, Walker fell ill while traveling. She died in 1919 of kidney failure caused by hypertension. She had sold hair products for 13 years and had an estate estimated at $2 million.

Her daughter inherited the house and turned it into a country getaway for New York's black elite. It eventually was bequeathed to the NAACP, but during the Depression, upkeep costs forced its sale to a convalescent hospital called Companions of the Forest. Elderly and ailing women occupied Villa Lewaro for a half-century.

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