by Barrett Seaman –
Most applicants for non-traditional uses of prominent properties in Irvington can expect to be greeted by skeptical regulators and nervous neighbors worried about disruption of their placid village lifestyle. But not Richelieu Dennis.
The new owner of Villa Lewaro, the 34-room mansion built more than a century ago by entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, was greeted at the December 17 board of trustees meeting with a virtual love fest. From Mayor Brian Smith (“We’re very excited that you are now the caretaker of that historic home”) to Dennis’ prospective next door neighbors with friendly tips about the need to shovel snow off the sidewalk, Irvingtonians expressed support for his plans to use the villa not as a residence but as a meeting place—possibly a think tank—for the furtherance of black female entrepreneurship.
Taking the meeting room mic off its stand, Dennis worked the room, walking his listeners through his own story as an immigrant from Liberia who used his grandmother’s recipes for African black soap and shea products and sold them on the streets of Harlem. From that start on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, he said, “We built that business to one of the largest natural beauty products company in the country.”
That company, Sundial Brands, now a subsidiary of Unilever, includes the Madam C. J. Walker line of hair care products. Dennis, now 48, recounted how, as a boy growing up in Liberia, he learned about Madam Walker and said she was “hugely inspiring for me as a child.” When civil war in West Africa drove his family to flee to America, he brought her notion of “community commerce,” spreading the profits of the enterprise throughout the communities from which profits were derived, to the management of his own entrepreneurial efforts. He wanted to “build a business that contributed to the equality of women.”
Last year, Dennis’ Sundial Brands launched the New Voices Fund, seeding it with $100 million to support black women entrepreneurs through training, mentorship and networking. While he did not specifically link the New Voices program with Villa Lewaro, there appears to be a natural symmetry between New Voices’ emphasis on promoting black female entrepreneurship through training programs on the one hand, and Madam Walker’s legacy on the other.
For some years now, Dennis said, he has been thinking about creating a think tank “where we would have some of the best minds in the country, from some of the best institutions in the country thinking about entrepreneurship and the challenges of entrepreneurship for women and women of color in particular.”
What he and his colleagues discovered, however, was that the existing think tanks, large investment firms and major business incubators have not yet given much thought to using modern technology to promote entrepreneurship among women of color. So, it would seem that Sundial and New Voices, using Villa Lewaro as a centerpiece, will have to create such a system themselves.
What he envisions, he said, would be to have 10 or 12 graduates of some sort of training program gather afterwards at Villa Lewaro to share and to learn. Such a program might take place every six months in Irvington. “And those 10 to 12 people would then get an opportunity to come together in one place and talk about their challenges, their successes, get to exchange new ideas, get to share in their experiences.”
“That’s the big vision,” he said. “We haven’t nailed it all down yet. (But we) now have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before.” And in the process, he added, give Irvington some recognition.
Dennis thanked Ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena, the previous owners, for preserving the villa, but he then added, “the first thing for us is to secure the villa, prevent it from falling into disrepair. We’re focused on stabilizing it and restoring it.”
What allows Dennis to use the villa for anything beyond a residence is a new law, on which the board put the final touches less than an hour after Dennis and his followers left the meeting. It permits adaptive reuse of registered historical buildings for non-residential purposes, including schools, tours and certain kinds of events. The purpose of the new law, which grew independently out of the recent Comprehensive Plan update, is to give the owners of such properties some relief from the high upkeep and tax expenses that burden ownership. Currently, only three such properties meet the criteria for the new law: Villa Nuits in Ardsley Park, the Octagon House and Villa Lewaro.
The new law gives trustees complete control, within the statute’s parameters, over how the program affects the historic building itself as well as whatever impact it might have on the surrounding neighborhood, including size and frequency of events and parking. “People want to know where we are in the process,” said Mayor Smith. “We’re nowhere.”
No official application for adaptive reuse has been filed, but when it is, the mayor assured, the hearings will all be public.