Interactive Process at Villa Lewaro Leads to Strong Public Engagement

By Brent Leggs posted 02-20-2015 10:55


In 1917 an article in the New York Times Magazine described Villa Lewaro as a “wonder house” with a “degree of elegance and extravagance that a princess might envy.” The real life princess was cosmetics entrepreneur--Madam C. J. Walker--America’s first self-made woman millionaire. Thanks to strong public engagement from new, diverse audiences, and an interactive curriculum designed to solicit ideas about the future of Walker’s beloved home and this National Treasure, the future looks bright at Villa Lewaro.

 Portraito of Madame CJ Walker | Courtesy of  Alelia Bundles and the Madame Walker Family Archives
Portrait of Madam C.J. Walker | Courtesy of Alelia Bundles and the Madam Walker Family Archives

A Self-made Woman

Born Sarah Breedlove (1867-1919) in Delta, Louisiana, Walker transcended plantation life to become a philanthropist, preservationist, and cosmetics pioneer. She founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, where she would claim to have employed more than 23,000 sales agents and workers in the United States, Caribbean, and South America. Walker said, “I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”

Villa Lewaro, located in Irvington, New York, is less than a mile from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst and three miles from Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate. The 34-room, three-story mansion and detached carriage house, both completed in 1918, overlook the Hudson River on three acres of sloping landscape. Designed by Vertner Tandy (1885-1949), the first licensed African American architect in New York, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Since 1993, the Doley Family has owned and lived at Villa Lewaro and invested millions to restore it. After 21 years of careful stewardship, the family is ready to downsize and sell the estate to the next appropriate stewards. The owners have engaged the National Trust to help protect the property with an easement and to help plan for its future preservation.

New Audiences

 Madame Walker Shampoo | Courtesy of  Alelia Bundles and the Madame Walker Family Archives
Madam Walker Shampoo | Courtesy of Alelia Bundles and the Madam Walker Family Archives

On May 6, 2014, the National Trust held a one-day visioning meeting titled Re-Imagining Villa Lewaro to come up with possible reuses for the property that would be guided by the mission and goals established by the National Trust. These goals included finding reuses that were economically sustainable and compatible with the preservation of the site’s character-defining features and aligned with Madam Walker’s legacy.

The visioning meeting was hosted by the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Pocantico Center is located just a few miles from Villa Lewaro, which allowed participants to visit the site. During the tour, participants were able to learn about the initial development considerations that they would explore the next day at the visioning workshop.

Meeting participants--five women and four men--included experts in entrepreneurship, preservation, and real estate development from Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. This mix of women, business leaders, and African Americans was crucial given the historical significance of the property and the National Trust’s desire to reach new audiences.

The Visioning Process

During an initial brainstorming session the visioning team came up with a long list of reuse options, both conservative and ambitious. From this list, they selected five scenarios for the building’s reuse: residential, commercial, recreational, institutional, and educational. Participants then divided into three teams to evaluate the pros and cons of each option based on their expertise in real estate development, entrepreneurship, and preservation. After this first break-out session, the group narrowed their choices down further to three reuse scenarios: a health and wellness spa and salon, a center for innovation in technology, or a corporate retreat venue and sabbatical space for academic institutions. In evaluating the potential of these reuse options, participants were guided by the following questions:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the site?
  • What types of development opportunities would respect the site’s architectural and historic significance?
  • Who is the audience/s and market/s for the project?
  • Who owns the building? Should it be privately owned, operated by a nonprofit, commercial business, or a hybrid approach?
  • What is the strategy to build support to launch the project?
  • What are the critical factors for success?
  • What is the anticipated development schedule from start-up to an operational business?
  • How should the deal be structured? Who are the potential investors? What partnerships are needed?
  • What are the next steps to advance the project?
 Attendees of the visioning excercise at Villa Lewaro | Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation, Photo by Todd Shepera
Attendees of the visioning exercise at Villa Lewaro | Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation, Photo by Todd Shepera

The National Trust has also concluded that Villa Lewaro could continue to be used as a residence and updated to meet 21st-century needs, protected by an easement in perpetuity.

By engaging new, diverse audiences early in preservation projects, and designing an interactive program with social opportunities for participants and staff to form relationships, the visioning meeting and subsequent report are helping the National Trust build meaningful relationships to protect Villa Lewaro and Walker’s iconic life. The ideas generated by this visioning team will help guide future plans for the site and lead the current and subsequent owners to consensus on the broad concepts of what might be an appropriate use.

 Brent Leggs is a a senior field officer in the Washington Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a Harvard Loeb Fellow.

#VillaLewaro #Interpretation #NationalTreasure #PreservationTools #HistoricSites

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