The future of Madam C.J. Walker’s century-old mansion could be at risk since its owners are putting it up for sale.
Helena and Harold Doley bought the home in 1993 and are now ready to move out of the Irvington, N.Y., estate, according to the New York Post. The Italianate known as Villa Lewaro was built in 1917 after Walker’s successful Black hair care line made her the first self-made female millionaire.
Vertner Tandy, New York’s first licensed Black architect, showed Walker plans for a $250,000 three-story house, which spanned 20,000 square feet and included high ceilings, a marble floor and a $25,000 Estey organ.
“It was symbolic for her,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, told The New York Post. “For her to buy property in one of the wealthiest communities in America and then build this home, one generation out of slavery, it was her American dream.”
Helena Doley noted that the manufacturers were hesitant about building the organ for a Black woman.
“They questioned how could this woman know of such things and how does she pay for such things,” she told the publication. “But, in the end, they did it.”
In 1919 at 51 years old, Walker died of kidney failure, leaving her daughter A’Lelia Walker to take over the home and use it mostly for weekend parties. After A’Lelia’s death, Walker’s will stated that the home should go to the NAACP, but the stucco villa’s costs and property taxes were too expensive for the organization and it was sold in 1932. Afterward, it became a retirement home for 40 years.
According to Helena, the retirement home did not keep the property up well. Animals were living within the walls and the front porch was flooded. The home’s plumbing, electrical and heating systems were all outdated and much of the furnishings Walker supplied the home with were auctioned off by the business woman’s daughter due to the Great Depression.
The Doleys repaired the damage and lived in the home for 25 years before downsizing. That led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to seek an easement to oversee the property and protect it from any structural modifications as they “determine financially sustainable uses for the home beyond the house museum model,” according to the National Trust website.
“We would hope that whatever is decided that it’s open to the larger community, so that they can come and appreciate her and what she’s done,” Helena Doley said. “African-Americans have been contributing to the culture and growth and betterment of the country for a long time. It’s just that we’ve been written out of history books.”