Crusader Staff Report
It was supposed to reopen in July after a $15 million renovation, but the historic Madam C.J. Walker Building in Indianapolis will not open its doors until spring 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the past two years, the Walker Building at 617 Indiana Avenue has undergone renovations. It is the last surviving building of Indianapolis’ Black business community. The renovations have cemented the building’s future as the Madam C.J. Walker Legacy Center in the gentrified Ransom Place business district.
Most of the physical improvements at the building have been behind the scenes, with the Lilly Endowment Inc., paying for new heating, cooling, plumbing, and roofing.
The Walker Building opened in 1927 to realize a dream of the late African American hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, who died in 1919. She was believed to be one of America’s early Black millionaires along with her mentor Annie Turnbo Malone, who was also a hair products magnate.
Walker’s life story was the basis of “Self-Made,” a Netflix miniseries that premiered in March 2020.
The building served as the world headquarters for the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which at one point employed 3,000 women at the factory. The Walker Theater Company, a separate entity from the Walker Manufacturing Company, leased the theater space from the manufacturing company and operated it as a stage/movie theater until the mid-1930s.
Inside, the theater’s décor is Egyptian and West African heads of sphinxes flanking both sides of the stage and there are two carved chimpanzees that sit high above it. Small elephant heads adorn the theater’s ceiling, and battle shields serve as light covers.
But despite its rich past, the theater has struggled in the present. It lacks air-conditioning and other modern amenities. In January 2018, the landmark suffered severe damage when water pipes burst, flooding parts of the historic structure.
That same month, the Lilly Endowment Inc., a private foundation, announced that it would award the center a grant for more than $15 million, which would fund a complete renovation to cement its future for generations.
The announcement coincided with an announcement from Indiana University, which pledged to partner with the facility to provide transitional operational support and develop new programming “to ensure the Walker’s sustainability and economic viability.”
The future Madam C.J. Walker Legacy Center is a triangular, four-story, 48,000-square-foot building that houses a ballroom and several offices. The building was designed by the Indianapolis architectural firm of Rubush & Hunter, whose contributions to the city include the Columbia Club and the Hilbert Circle Theatre.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, in 1867, and she became an orphan when her father died in 1875. She moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, with a sister where she worked as a maid when she was just 10. Breedlove became Madam C.J. Walker after she married Charles Joseph Walker, her third husband. Walker was a newspaper advertising salesman she had known in Missouri. The two first formed the idea of the company in Denver, and then relocated to Pittsburgh before settling in Indianapolis in April 1910. On Indiana Avenue, she opened a hair salon in the home of Dr. Joseph H. Ward, the first Black doctor to head a Veteran Affairs Hospital in Indianapolis.
Today, the Madam C.J. Walker Building is listed as a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.