How adroit, for Vertner Tandy, Madame C. J. Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia Walker Robinson, to do just what whites would have maintained they were incapable of. Employing what a century ago was regarded as the epitome of "good taste", exercising disciplined restraint, they used Charlston's renowned Nathaniel Russell house and Boston buildings built from the 1790's through the early 1800's as the model for their hybrid Walker townhouse-salon, that combined home and business long before it was ever considered at Bergdorf-Goodman or Elizabeth Arden.
Ambition and opportunity were half of what had moved her. Her only child, Lelia was the other part of the equation. The woman who became famous as A'Lelia Walker always came first where her mother was concerned. Frequently she was cross about her extravagance, yet, repeatedly, Madame Walker indulged her child. She was also ambitious for Lelia, for whom she desired to provide all that she had missed, including Paris hats, travel abroad and an education. That rarest of rarities, a Negro heiress, her mother was right to fear that some would attempt to take advantage of her daughter. However, her daughter also made Madame Walker proud. Neither possessing the requisite fragility, fair skin, or delicate features to be regarded as a beauty in her day, tall and statuesquely handsome Lelia always made an impressive, even a striking appearance. Moreover, true intelligence and common sense underlay Lelia's impulsiveness and occasional self-indulgence. Always, not unlike Sportin Life in Porgey n' Bess, the bright lights and good times of the big city beckoned alluringly to Madame Walker's child. In 1913 she had bade her mother to relocate with her to the new Negro 'promised land' of Harlem, a quarter with as many dance halls, cabarets and salons as churches, hundreds! The women attending church and bars mightn't be the same women, but Lelia pointed out, that all hundred thousand wanted to get their hair done before they went there.
So off to Harlem they ventured. According to historian Christopher Gray, in 1913 and 1915 Madam Walker bought two old-style brownstones at 108 and 110 West 136th Street. In 1915 she filed plans to completely rebuild the two houses as one and give them a new front, in the same way that many midtown and East Side rowhouses were being reconstructed
On the second floor, the main level of Madame Walker's residence. drawings show a double-size drawing room stretching the full width of the building. Three "chambres" occupied the remainder of the second floor. A billiard room and other additional bedrooms were found on the third floor.
When the Walkers next decided to build a country house, neighbors were horrified, first seeing 'the dressed up Negresses with their comically aloof airs in a chauffeur-driven automobile' pull up. But her white lawyer had secured the deed for Villa Lewaro's acreage, fair and square!
By combining her home and business in two converted brownstone houses, made into a single building, Tandy maximized the grandeur of both.
Once A'Lelia Walker moved to a one-bedroom apartment at 80 Edgecombe Avenue, she transformed her mother's grand abode into a deluxe catering hall, the storied Dark Tower, where the best parties were always the ones she gave.
The Reception Room of the Walker Beauty Parlor, College and Spa.
Two photographs staged to show styling, care and wig making techniques in the Walker's Lelia Beauty College manual.
In reality, the Walker's clients were groomed and styled in private, curtained booths. While awaiting an appointment, one could take tea or play a hand of cards.
Drawing room, Madame C. J. Walker residence
For bedrooms and other lesser interiors, architect Vertner Tandy economically retained the configuration and old-fashioned Victorian woodwork original to the two 1890's row houses combined to form the Walker townhouse-beauty salon. However, for this space and other formal reception rooms, every component was newly built.
A grand piano, an 18th-century French tapestry fragment and an allegorical statuette were among the elegant elements of decorators, Righter & Kolb's chic decor.
Madame Walker and her daughter so admired this depiction of Terpsichore, the muse of dance and chorus, that it was moved and given place of honor in Villa Lewaro's white and gold music room
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground...”
1926: A'Lelia Walker is shown in a cassock's uniform she purchased at Wanamaker's in New York, for a costume party at Webster Hall
Even Madame Walker's heiress daughter was adversely impacted by the Great Crash in 1929. Forthwith, 108-110 was leased to the city, for a much needed Harlem health clinic. A year later, it was sold outright. By 1947, the one-time home to the rollicking Dark Tower, was no more. It was replaced by a public library branch, ironically, named for A'Lelia Walker's friend, poet Countee Cullen.
How much, one dares to wonder, might it take to restore, on the outside, Vertner Tandy's elegant architecture of such rare refinement?