Written by Brent Leggs, Senior Field Officer, Preservation Division
Imagine spending the night at Villa Lewaro, the estate of business pioneer Madam C. J. Walker, reopened as a luxurious bed and breakfast.
Imagine attending a holiday party hosted by the estate's future owners.
Imagine going on a date there for an intimate jazz performance.
What if you could take a private tour of the site, followed by a high-end spa experience? Enjoy an extended sabbatical at the exclusive property with other entrepreneurs and innovators? Or host a formal wedding or company retreat there?
These are just a few of the concepts for reusing one of the premiere landmarks in African-American and women's history, and the moment is now to bring the ideas to life.
In May 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation invited a small group of consultants, entrepreneurs, real estate developers, and preservationists to help it to identify reuse scenarios for Villa Lewaro. The nine consultants participating in the visioning workshop were asked to identify innovative solutions for Villa Lewaro that would increase public access, ensure its financial stability as a historic site, and raise the visibility of Walker's important legacy.
The results from this workshop are presented in the case statement entitled Envisioning Villa Lewaro's Future.
Principles for Preserving Villa Lewaro
In 1918, America's first self-made millionaire built Villa Lewaro as a monument to inspire African-Americans to reach their highest potential. Once described by Madam Walker (Sarah Breedlove, 1867-1919) as her "Dream of Dreams," this National Historic Landmark stands in Irvington, New York, as an elegant, historic residence that embodies the optimism and perseverance of American entrepreneurship.
Its future, however, is uncertain. After two decades of exceptional stewardship, the current owners, Ambassador and Mrs. Harold E. Doley, Jr., are ready to sell the estate, which is vulnerable without a long-term vision for continued preservation and legal mechanisms to ensure its protection.At this critical point, the Doley family is partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to protect the Villa Lewaro, designated a National Treasure in April 2014. To guide the visioning process, the National Trust developed the following principles to provide a framework for discussions concerning the building's reuse:
- The future stewards of Villa Lewaro should secure a financially sustainable and architecturally compatible use for the mansion to fund its restoration and maintenance.
- Preservation of Villa Lewaro should follow the highest preservation standards to retain the landmark's architectural and historical integrity.
- Protection of nationally significant historic sites like Villa Lewaro, using binding legal tools, is essential to preserve our shared cultural heritage for future generations.
- A reasonable level of public access and interpretation of Villa Lewaro is important to broaden the nation's understanding of the full stories of American history.
Envisioning Villa Lewaro's Future
The consultants at the workshop concluded that Villa Lewaro could be appropriately used for a non-residential purpose that is economically sustainable and compatible with the preservation of the site's character-defining features and aligned with Madam Walker's legacy. These might include a health and wellness spa and salon, a center for innovation in technology, or a corporate venue and events space.
The National Trust also concluded that Villa Lewaro could continue to be used as a privately owned residence and/or as a B&B, and updated to meet 21st century needs, protected by an easement in perpetuity.
Most important, future owners or users of Villa Lewaro will need to find creative ways to open the house to the public for future generations to learn more about Walker's life and accomplishments. The next steps are to conduct an appraisal on the property and to evaluate each scenario for its financial viability.
Consultants in the visioning workshop came up with four sustainable uses and the supporting case statement. Now the National Trust and the Doley family are prepared to cultivate and identify appropriate buyers to share a moment in history in the perpetual stewardship of this national treasure.
Located near John D. Rockefeller's Kykuit and Jay Gould's Lyndhurst estates, Villa Lewaro is a reminder of the important role women played historically, and today, in shaping the economic future of the nation. By preserving Villa Lewaro, Walker's remarkable life becomes real, and its continued use is symbolic of the advancements made by African-Americans and women in business and architecture in the early 20th century. Preserving this iconic landmark for public use is a shared responsibility that requires new partners and committed investors to realize its future use.For the next week, we'll be featuring stories and reflections about Madam C.J. Walker, Villa Lewaro, and the role that both have played in shaping the present. Check back often to learn more about this fascinating figure in American history.
Sign the pledge to show your support for Madam C.J. Walker's legacy and the protection of her estate, Villa Lewaro.
You can also donate to our campaign to save Villa Lewaro for the benefit of future generations.