Harlem One Stop

How A’Lelia Walker And The Dark Tower Shaped The Harlem Renaissance

In 1920s Harlem, everyone clamored for an invitation to one place: a grand townhouse on West 136th Street.

There, in what was known as the Walker Studio and later, the Dark Tower, arts patron A’Lelia Walker threw lavish parties attended by poets and writers and artists and musicians and activists of the Harlem Renaissance: Countee Cullen (whose poem “From the Dark Tower” inspired the eventual name for Walker’s space), Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Muriel Draper, Nora Holt, Witter Bynner, Andy Razaf, Taylor Gordon, Carl Van Vechten, Clarence Darrow, Alberta Hunter, James Weldon Johnson.

Langston Hughes called Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” He wrote in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea:

“A’Lelia Walker had an apartment that held perhaps a hundred people. She would usually issue several hundred invitations to each party. Unless you went early there was no possible way of getting in. Her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour—entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests, with everybody seeming to enjoy the crowding.”

Indeed, these salon-like parties helped to shape the Harlem Renaissance. And Walker—with her seemingly endless generosity, charisma, and fashion-forward sensibilities—was a perfect host. She brought people together. She created a supportive, welcoming environment for artists to gather.

A’Lelia Walker—born Lelia Walker (she changed her name in 1922)—was the only child of Madam C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur and hair care industry pioneer who is recognized as America’s first self-made female millionaire. (Her Irvington, New York, home, Villa Lewaro, is a National Treasure of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

Madam Walker’s hair care empire had grown tremendously, and A’Lelia convinced her to expand into New York City. And so in 1913, Madam Walker purchased a townhouse on 108 West 136th Street in Harlem. Two years later, the Walkers acquired the adjacent townhouse at 110 West 136th Street. They hired noted architect Vertner Woodson Tandy to do a complete remodel, turning the two townhouses into one sprawling unit. Tandy was one of the first practicing African-American architects; he went on to design Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro.

Dark Tower - exterior

photo by: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Museum of the City of New York.

The exterior of the townhouse at 108 and 110 West 136th Street, circa 1916.

“In 1913, large numbers of African-Americans were starting to move to Harlem, but very few owned property,” says A’Lelia Bundles, the great-granddaughter of A’Lelia Walker. “For them to actually purchase a building and a home there was unusual. And by opening this double townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, they were making a statement about their prominence and affluence in Harlem.”

After the remodel was completed in 1916, the property, with its Neo-Georgian brick and limestone facade, was open for business. The ground-floor level housed the Walker Hair Parlor, and in the basement, classes were held for the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, where new Walker Company hair culturists and agents for company’s products were trained. The upper three levels were A’Lelia Walker’s living and entertaining quarters. (After several years of this arrangement, A’Lelia Walker sought a more private living arrangement. She moved to a new apartment a few blocks away on Edgecombe Avenue, but kept the West 136th Street townhouse as an events space.)

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Source: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 3/29/2017