The New York estate built a century ago by a daughter of slaves who made her fortune selling hair care products for black women has been purchased by an organization founded by the owner of Essence magazine.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced Thursday that Madam C.J. Walker’s century-old Italianate villa-style mansion in New York City’s northern suburbs was recently bought by the New Voices Foundation, started by Richelieu Dennis, founder of a skin and hair care products company. A purchase price wasn’t released.
One of Dennis’ companies, Sundial Brands, is the current maker of Walker’s line of hair care items, which are sold by the retailer Sephora.
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867 to former slaves. After marrying St. Louis newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker, she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and began selling her own hair care and beauty products made for black women, a venture that made her wealthy as her name became known across the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean.
Walker is arguably the first self-made female millionaire in the United States; her mentor and later competitor Annie Turnbo Malone has a rival legacy.
She followed her daughter, Lelia Walker Robinson, to Harlem in 1916. Two years later Walker built Villa Lewaro in Irvington, on the Hudson River in Westchester County. By the time she died of a kidney ailment there in 1919, her 34-room mansion had become a gathering place for leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes.
Dennis, a Liberian immigrant, started Sundial brands in 1992 with his mother, making products based on African healing traditions passed down by his grandmother. He acquired the Walker brand in 2013 and relaunched it in 2016 in partnership with Sephora, and purchased Essence from Time Inc. earlier this year.
Dennis’ New Voices Foundation, an organization that aids women of color entrepreneurs, will renovate and operate the former Walker estate, he said. It will house a think tank for Black women entrepreneurs.
“It is a place where — against all odds — dreams were formed, visions were realized and entrepreneurs were born, and we look forward to returning its use to support that mission,” Dennis said in a statement.
Dennis’ foundation bought the property in mid-September from Harold Doley Jr, a former U.S. ambassador and founder of a pioneering African American-owned Wall Street investment firm. Doley and his wife Helena had owned the estate for 25 years.
Villa Lewaro’s name was taken from the first two letters of each word in Walker’s daughter’s name. The home was designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first licensed Black architect in New York state. Built on the heights overlooking the Hudson’s east bank, the mansion stood out even in an area dotted with estates owned by such wealthy Whites as the Rockefellers.
Walker’s daughter, who changed her name to A’Lelia, left the estate to the NAACP after she died 1931. The organization, struggling financially during the early years of the Great Depression, sold the property immediately after acquiring it. It had several owners over the next few decades before the Doleys bought it.
The home was named a National Treasure by the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust in 2014. It’s now among a growing number of historically black properties being protected as part of the organization’s Cultural Heritage Action Fund, started last year to help ensure historical sites important to African-American history are no longer endangered.
The estate’s purchase contributes to a resurgence of interest in Walker that started with the re-launch of her brand. Next year is the centenary of her death, and she will be portrayed in a forthcoming Netflix TV series by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.