Villa Lewaro, The Mansion of Madam C.J. Walker (1918- )

Villa Lewaro
© Historic New England/David Bohl, Fair use image

Villa Lewaro, built by Madam C.J. Walker in 1918, is a thirty-four-room, 20,000-square-foot mansion located at Fargo Lane and North Broadway in Irvington, New York. The estate is situated near the resident of the Franklin D. Roosevelt family on the Hudson River. Walker, a self-made African American millionaire, hired Vertner Tandy, the first African-American architect in New York, to build the mansion.

Constructed at a cost of $250,000, Villa Lewaro was furnished lavishly. It included a Louis XV-style music room that contained an Estey pipe organ with speaker ducts, a walnut center table designed and manufactured by the Grand Rapids Berkey and Gay Furniture Co., a bust of Booker T. Washington, an English China tea set, and a glided harp, among other rare items.  The white neighbors, upon discovering the estate belonged to Walker, were shocked, saying it was impossible for black people to own a property so lavish.

The name, Villa Lewaro, was coined by the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso from the first two letters of each word in her daughter’s name, Leila Walker Roberts later known as A’Lelia Walker, whom he met while visiting during its construction. Once the house opened, Walker hosted gatherings to discuss race related issues with guests such as W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson.

Walker, however, lived in the house only briefly. She died in 1919 and left the estate to her only daughter, A’Lelia, who owned the residence until her death in 1931. The house was then bestowed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACCP) to serve as a conference site and retreat. The day after the association came into possession of the estate, it sold it to an organization which turned the house into the Annie E. Poth Home for Aged members of the Companions of Forest in America. The NAACP sold the house because the Great Depression had undermined the organization’s financial solvency. NAACP leaders needed the proceeds to keep the organization afloat.

The house became a private residence again in the mid-1980s when it was purchased by Harold Doley, the founder of Doley Securities LLC, the oldest African-American owned and operated investment banking firm on Wall Street. The Doleys upgraded and reconstructed part of the original home. They have maintained ownership until today. Occasionally, they allow the home to be open for public use as in recent benefits on behalf of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

In May 2014, the mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Soon afterward, a project called “Envisioning Villa Lewaro’s Future” was established to determine the appropriate reuse. Suggestions included: a spa, a center for technological innovation, corporate event venue, continued residential use, and an information center on Walker and Tandy, the architect.