You’ve often driven past it at the corner of Indiana Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but have you ever been inside? Opened in 1927, it housed the headquarters of the Madam Walker Hair Care Manufacturing Company. Known now as the The Madam Walker Legacy Center, the vision of Madam CJ Walker recently underwent a $15 million renovation and looks forward to welcoming the public to new entertainment opportunities and educational programming inside the historical venue.
The Madam Walker Legacy Center, which many remember as The Walker Theater, is a 48,000 square foot, four story, triangular building located at 617 Indiana Avenue. It is the oldest building on Indiana Avenue and the last surviving building of the Indianapolis Black Business Community. Originally, it was the headquarters to the Madam Walker Hair Care Manufacturing Company and employed 3000 women. Like a modern day mall, it also contained a drugstore, beauty school, salon, cafe, 1500 seat theater, offices, and ballroom. It was designed by Indianapolis architect firm Rubush and Hunter, which also designed the Columbia Club and Hilbert Circle Theater. With no heating or cooling system, peeling paint, bursting pipes, and layers of dust, in recent years it was in disrepair. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Madam Walker Legacy Center, IU, and the Lilly Endowment all teamed up to bring the building back to its original glory.
In 2018, the Madam Walker Legacy Center renovation began. The idea behind the improvements was for the building and community to be set for long term success. Many of the upgrades aren’t easily seen, such as heating, cooling, plumbing, and roofing. Restrooms, wheelchair ramps, and a larger elevator have also been added to adequately accommodate all who attend theater events. Within the theater, all seats have been reupholstered, new lighting has been added, and original hand-painted detailing and carvings have been carefully restored. The main stage, which has hosted Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Patti LaBelle, and more, has been extended, and the auditorium ceiling now looks like a night sky with stars. There is also now the Coffee Pot Lounge, where people can gather like they did in the original cafe, with windows overlooking the street where brick walls once stood. Offices of the original building have been renovated into conference rooms, events spaces, and IUPUI classrooms, and the original ballroom has been restored.
The Madam Walker Legacy Center wants to attract new entertainment opportunities for its venue to keep the theater sustainable in the future. They are working to schedule National artists, authors, performers, and local talent to perform at the theater. They are already planning a series focused on empowerment and programming to help students become entrepreneurs. The Legacy Center also plans to have a Sarah Breedlove Experience, where visitors can view videos, slideshows, and more about the history of Madam Walker and Indiana Avenue. A new Indiana Avenue segment of the Cultural Trail is also set to begin at the Madam Walker Legacy Center.
Madam CJ Walker
Madam CJ Walker was the first woman millionaire in America. She was named Sarah Breedlove when she was born in Delta, Louisiana in 1867. Her parents had both been born into slavery and Sarah was their fifth child, but their first child born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Orphaned in 1875, she began working as a maid when she was 10 years old. When she married Charles Joseph Walker, she became known as Madam CJ Walker. In the 1890’s, she lost most of her hair due to a scalp ailment, so she began experimenting with store products and homemade remedies. That is when she invented “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” and went door to door and to churches and lodges, mainly in the South, selling her product. In 1910, she moved her headquarters to Indianapolis and opened a hair salon on Indiana Avenue. In 1914, when she had to pay 25 cents instead of the 15 cents the white patrons had to pay at a local Indianapolis cinema, she vowed to build a theater for all those marginalized.
Not only did Madam Walker leave the legacy of the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company and the Walker Theater when she died in 1919, but she also left a legacy for women entrepreneurs. She is one of 15 women that has been inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame, and one of Business Week’s top 30 American Entrepreneurs of all time. She often told those seeking to become entrepreneurs her secrets to success: tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and God, quality products, and honest business dealings.
The Madam Walker Legacy Center is set to reopen in the spring of 2021. You can visit the Madam Walker Legacy Center website for more information. If you would like to learn more about Madam CJ Walker in the meantime, you can view “Self Made” on Netflix. The series stars Octavia Spencer, and shows how Madam CJ Walker rose from poverty to become a millionaire. You can also visit the “You Are There 1915: Madam CJ Walker, Empowering Women” exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society. At the exhibit, you are able to talk to an actress performing like she is Madam Walker in 1915 and view artifacts from Madam Walker’s company.