Elite opulence: Madam C.J. Walker's New York estate still a showplace of nation's first self-made female millionaire.
IT WAS MADAM C.J. WALKER'S CROWN JEWEL, a mansion befitting the country's first self made woman millionaire.
The daughter of freed slaves and one-time washer woman had made her fortune creating and selling hair care products. She had amassed a sales force of more than 2,000 people and enough money to live among the country's elite.
So about 25 miles north of New York City, on the banks of the Hudson River, Walker built a 30-room showplace that was so magnificent, The New York Times called it "a place fit for a fairy princess" when it was completed in 1918.
She hired Vertner W. Tandy, one of the first Black architects licensed in New York state, to design the home she would later call Villa Lewaro, a combination of letters in her daughter's name (A'Lelia Walker Robinson). Sitting on more than seven acres, the 20,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home had eight bedrooms and five full baths. There was also a separate 4,000-square-foot carriage house for guests on the property. She spent about $350,000 on the home that was as much a social statement as a primary residence.
It was no accident that the home was built in Irvington, between the state capital of Albany and New York City, the country's financial capital. One of New York state's most exclusive neighborhoods, Irvington was listed in the 1900 U.S. Census as the wealthiest community in America.
Before Walker, the lily-White town was home to the likes of railroad developer and stock market pioneer Jay Gould, oil baron John D. Rockefeller and the Vanderbilt family, who built railroad and shipping empires.
After Walker moved in, Irvington would never be the same. She conducted business in the home and had extravagant parties. In fact, Villa Lewaro was a place to see and be seen. Famed dancer Isadora Duncan once performed on the front lawn. Langston Hughes spent hours writing poems on the walls.
Unfortunately, Walker lived in the house for less than two years. In 1919, she died in the canopy bed in her master bedroom from complications of high blood pressure. For a while after that, her daughter used the residence for a weekend house. After her daughter's death, all of the furniture, paintings, fine china and Persian rugs were auctioned to the highest bidder for a fraction of their value. Over the next half century, the site was bought and sold several times, at one point even becoming a home for seniors.
Enter Harold E. Doley Jr., who first saw Villa Lewaro in 1968 when he was in training to become a broker on Wall Street. "I knew of the home," says Doley, who, like Walker, is a native of Louisiana. "I knew of Madam Walker and took a train one day to come out to see the home. It was a magnificent structure. I did not go in. I just walked around the structure. I was 21 at the time, and when I saw it, it was the only home I wanted to live in."
Five years later, Doley had gone from a student of finance to a 26-year-old money manager on Wall Street, where in 1973 he paid $90,000 to own a scat on the New York Stock Exchange. Twenty years after that, in 1993, he would use his financial success to realize his longtime dream of purchasing Villa Lewaro.
But he would soon find out that time had not been kind to the estate. The plumbing and electrical wiring were in disarray. The roof needed replacing, the interior needed total renovation and "the outside of the house hadn't been painted in 20 years," Doley says.
When he bought the home, he says he had no idea how much time--and money--it would take to restore it. "With a 100-year-old house, you're going to have issues," says Doley, who is now an international financier. "We are still doing all sorts of things."
But what he has already done is nothing short of amazing. So much so that Home & Garden Television produced an hourlong documentary on the home's renovations.
From the street, the house is majestic. A long driveway leads to a dignified car covering, an amenity that Walker insisted be built to accommodate her car--a rarity in those days. Stately columns highlight a double-door entry. While the front of the home is impressive, in many respects, the rear of the home is even more breathtaking. A formal Italian garden surrounds a reflecting pond, which catches the water cascading from a fall. The backyard can be enjoyed from the ground level or from a large balcony off the dining room.
Once inside, a spacious entrance foyer is complete with a gloriously restored ceiling and original bronze chandelier. Fresh flowers and plants are throughout the home. Doley has decorated the house with one-of-a-kind artwork, including Romare Bearden, Rembrandt and Picasso silkscreens. African art and African-American art--including Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett and Jacob Lawrence--are also prominently displayed.
Perhaps the most unusual room in the house is the music room. It was Walker's pride and joy. The centerpiece of the room is a rare Estey pipe organ, which cost Walker $25,000 at the time. She was perhaps the first Black to own such a pricey instrument. Walker had the architect hide the organ pipes within the walls, unusual at the time. Today, after decades of neglect, the organ is not fully functional. But Doley says one day he wants to restore it to its original glory.
On the other side of the room is an 1880s Weimar piano, and several antique side chairs that were passed down from Doley's grandmother. Silks and velvets adorn the jewel-tone furniture in the well-appointed room. Sheer draperies hang from the large palladium window, while two Louis XV chests with gold inlay anchor the room.
Doley and his team of designers purchased much of the home's furniture either at auctions, antique shops and bazaars around the world, or the furniture is Doley family heirlooms passed down through the generations.
The kitchen is located in an above-ground basement that during the turn of the century allowed easy outside access for Walker's servants. While the kitchen had a utilitarian function during that era, today it is a place where the Doleys gather with family and friends. "Being from New Orleans, you end up spending a lot of time in the kitchen," says Doley, who has won several awards for renovation work on the kitchen. "You end up entertaining a lot of family."
Ninety years ago the house sparked curiosity and it still does today. Doley has gotten used to passers-by stopping to photograph the home, even knocking on the front door in hopes of taking a peek inside. Doley's adult children have left the home. Now, it's just he and his wife, Helena, along with their two dogs in the house.
Eventually, Doley would like to move and turn the home, already on the National Register of Historic Places, into a museum that would preserve and sustain the home, while sharing Walker's history-making journey with future generations.
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|Title Annotation:||EBONY HOMES|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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