Madam CJ Walker’s Mansion

Shea Moisture CEO could Turn Madam C.J. Walker’s Mansion into a Training Center for Black Women Entrepreneurs

The ac­tual sale of Irv­ing­ton’s Villa Lewaro, home more than a cen­tury ago to Madam C. J. Walker, the Black en­tre­pre­neur who made a for­tune sell­ing skin and hair care prod­ucts to African-Amer­i­can women, took place last sum­mer, but the iden­tity of the new owner—and his plans for use of the 34-room man­sion—are emerg­ing only just this month.

Riche­lieu Den­nis, 48, founder and CEO of Sun­dial Brands, man­u­fac­turer and mar­keter of cos­met­ics for women of color, is the new owner of the es­tate on North Broad­way, hav­ing pur­chased it from Harold and He­lena Do­ley, who lived there for the past 25 years.

Riche­lieu Den­nis

Mr. Den­nis is sched­uled to ap­pear at the reg­u­lar meet­ing of Irv­ing­ton’s board of trustees on Mon­day, De­cem­ber 17, when he is ex­pected to out­line his plans to use the es­tate as a train­ing cen­ter/​re­treat, de­signed to sup­port black women en­tre­pre­neurs in their ef­forts to turn their ideas into flour­ish­ing en­ter­prises. The 7:00 p.m. meet­ing is open to the pub­lic.

Madam CJ Walker’s Mansion

His tim­ing could­n’t be bet­ter. Irv­ing­ton has only just passed a new zon­ing law that per­mits adap­tive reuse of reg­is­tered his­tor­i­cal build­ings for non-res­i­den­tial pur­poses, in­clud­ing schools, tours and cer­tain kinds of events. The pur­pose of the new law, which grew out of the re­cent Com­pre­hen­sive Plan up­date even be­fore the sale of the es­tate, is to give the own­ers of such prop­er­ties some re­lief from the high up­keep and tax ex­penses that bur­den own­er­ship. At pre­sent, only three such prop­er­ties meet the cri­te­ria for the new law: Villa Nu­its in Ard­s­ley Park, the Oc­ta­gon House and Villa Lewaro.

The pre­vi­ous own­ers, Am­bas­sador Harold Do­ley and his wife He­lena had worked with the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion to cre­ate an ease­ment on Villa Lewaro that would al­low it to op­er­ate as a mu­seum as well as their res­i­dence.

Do­ley, who had served as Ronald Rea­gan’s am­bas­sador to the Ivory Coast, en­vi­sioned some­thing like the Barnes Foun­da­tion, on whose board he sat, which once housed one of the world’s great col­lec­tions of Im­pres­sion­ist art in an el­e­gant home in a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood of Philadel­phia that is not un­like Irv­ing­ton.

While us­ing Villa Lewaro as a mu­seum is one of Mr. Den­nis’s op­tions, the en­tre­pre­neur­ial cen­ter con­cept bet­ter meshes with his on­go­ing com­mit­ment to pro­mote African-Amer­i­can wom­en’s busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties and a log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of his busi­ness. Sun­dial, now a sub­sidiary of Unilever, al­ready in­cludes a Madam C.J. Walker line of hair care prod­ucts.

More to the point, last year, he launched the New Voices Fund, seed­ing it with $100 mil­lion to sup­port black women en­tre­pre­neurs through train­ing, men­tor­ship and net­work­ing. Other sup­port­ers in­clude Chase Bank, Gold­man Sachs, Bank of Amer­i­can, Har­vard and Amos Tuck grad­u­ate busi­ness schools and Bab­son Col­lege, from which Den­nis grad­u­ated. Villa Lewaro would seem a nat­ural venue for New Voices de­vel­op­ment pro­grams.

Some of the es­tate’s im­me­di­ate neigh­bors have ex­pressed con­cern about the po­ten­tial for noise and traf­fic un­der the new zon­ing guide­lines. Vil­lage of­fi­cials have as­sured them that the lan­guage of the new law gives the trustees full au­thor­ity to limit the num­bers of ve­hi­cles com­ing in and out of the prop­erty, the types of events held there and any changes in the prop­erty it­self. What­ever Mr. Den­nis pro­poses must first meet with their ap­proval.

 

Source: The Hudson Independent

 

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