by Barrett Seaman
When family and friends come to visit Irvington, local residents often take them on a spin around town to see some of the iconic landmarks. Those tours are sure to include the Octagon House, Village Hall, the riverfront and a short trip up North Broadway past a massive, gated and pillared Neo-Palladian mansion. “That’s the home of Madam C. J. Walker,” the visitors would be told. “She made a fortune selling hair-care and beauty products for African-American women.”
Madam Walker spent only two years in what she named Villa Lewaro (a conflation of her daughter Lelia Walker Robinson’s name). Since then, the 34-room mansion has been a convalescent home, a conference center, a private residence and an increasingly difficult piece of property to keep up. By 1990, a group of wealthy African-Americans interested in restoring Lewaro’s grandeur began exploring ways to raise the funds needed to buy it.
One of them was Harold Doley, founder of the nation’s oldest African American-owned investment banking firm and ambassador to Ivory Coast during the Reagan Administration, which he also served in other capacities.
When the quest for funds bogged down, Doley decided to buy the villa himself. That began what he calls “a 24-year process” to come up with a financially viable plan to preserve the house. The villa, he says, “should stand as a symbol not only to Madam Walker’s accomplishments but to hard work and enterprise.”
This month, an important first step in that process will be taken when Westchester County officially certifies an easement, created under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that will, in Ambassador Doley’s words, “preserve the house as it is in perpetuity.”
The daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers, Madam Walker made her millions by selling her products directly to consumers, creating the marketing model that would prove successful for companies like Avon and Amway. Her coffers spilled over to some 23,000 agents, most of them black like Walker, providing them with comfortable incomes and the prospect of a middle class life.
At the peak of her career, Madam Walker, whose base had been in Harlem, engaged Vertner Woodson Tandy, New York State’s first licensed African-American architect, to design and build a country estate just half a mile down the road from financier Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst Castle and oil tycoon Josiah Macy Jr.’s Greystone Castle. The villa has a built-in Estay organ, staircases made from marble imported from France and inlaid ebony floors in the library. Its walls are covered with works by leading black artists.
Doley’s wife, Helena, was not in favor of buying Lewaro. “Actually, I did not want the house,” she confessed. “I was working at the time and our son was in school.” And the building, she says with deft understatement, “was in need of more than band aids.”
Over the years, as maintenance costs and property taxes rose, upkeep became a burden. Based on the recent reassessment, 2017 property taxes alone will likely be in the $100,000 range. “Taxes,” allows Helena Doley, “are not our favorite topic.”
The Doleys’ commitment to the house, however, has been sustained by their respect for what Madam Walker represents. When she took up residence in 1992, Helena Doley admitted, “I knew very little about Madam Walker. “I learned mostly after we moved here. I began to love this house as I was inspired by her story.”
The Doleys sleep in what had been Madam Walker‘s master bedroom—the room where she succumbed to her chronic high blood pressure in 1919. Harold Doley has a small office in the northwest corner of the first floor, but for the most part, the couple spends daily life in the basement, where the kitchen is. The adjoining carriage house that once housed Madam Walker’s servants is now home to their son and his family.
The grand salons of the main floor have not gone unused, however. In addition to a family wedding, Helena’s 60th birthday bash and several celebrations of “Juneteeth” (on June 19, 1865, Texas abolished slavery), Villa Lewaro has hosted a Westchester Philharmonic concert, a number of art exhibits and a United Negro College Fund gala. “My husband and I thought that’s what we should be doing,” says Helena.
When the National Trust got involved with Villa Lewaro, they began to explore systematically what use of the house, beyond exhibits and fundraisers, would make the most sense. Three years ago, Brent Legg, a Senior Field Officer for the Washington-based organization, assembled a group of experts who produced a series of scenarios for the villa’s future. One envisioned a health spa, another a center for innovation and technology, yet another a corporate conference center. But the one that is emerging as the most viable is to devote most of the main rooms to a museum celebrating Madam Walker and black entrepreneurship.
“There’s no other practical use for this house,” pronounced Harold Doley. “A museum is the logical choice.” Brent Legg of the National Trust agrees. His organization already manages similar properties that have gone that route, including Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. The Village of Irvington, which is developing a new Comprehensive Plan, due out by year’s end, is likely to join in that recommendation.
Who will visit the museum and how it will be organized present challenges of their own, as does the villa’s location on a state road in the middle of a suburb. The three-and-a-half-acre property is not conducive to parking, and planners are cognizant of the danger of alarming neighbors with big yellow school buses filled with tourists. Harold Doley likes the idea proposed by Howard Zar, executive director of nearby Lyndhurst, which would pair the two 19th Century mansions in a tour that would allow visitors to park on Lyndhurst’s 67-acre property, visit the Castle and then take a shuttle bus the half-mile down Broadway to Villa Lewaro. Zar even floated the idea of getting approval from the Old Croton Aqueduct Park to run the shuttles down the wooded trail that connects the two estates.
Another concern is in creating a museum that will attract young people. Surveys have shown that millennials aren’t attracted to inert museum designs, wanting more interactivity. “But,” says Harold Doley, “we really haven’t gotten that far.”
Contrary to at least one story, the Doleys say they have no plans to move out. “We’re exploring how we might use this house and still keep it as our home,” says Helena. “We’re not trying to sell the house.” With any luck, however, they will be sharing it with more people exploring the life and achievements of Madam Walker.