'If that building could only speak'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Even though it was demolished 19 years ago, the Holley Hotel continues to cast a large shadow across downtown Charleston.
The spot where the hotel stood is considered one of the marquee properties in downtown, and city officials are working hard to get the vacant lot developed.
The spot is considered to be such a prime location that City Manager David Molgaard has engineered an out-of-the box plan to build apartments there.
The apartments would be above commercial space on the ground floor, and the project would hinge on local businesses being willing to subsidize the rents of employees who lived there.
The hotel that formerly stood on the site was opened in 1914. It was built by brothers Pat and John Crowley and named after Charleston Mayor James A. Holley. It served as a stop for railroad passengers moving through town.
It continued to serve travelers for decades before becoming a haven for the city's down and out in its later years. There were some notable exceptions among the residents, however.
And although the hotel fell on hard times before its demolition in 1993, it was a hub for activity in downtown Charleston for its entire existence, Mayor Danny Jones said.
Jones, whose family was wealthy, lived in an apartment in the hotel for four years in the mid to late 1970s.
"It was an interesting place," he said.
The hotel housed an interesting mix of people within its steel and brick walls, Jones said. Individuals who may have been homeless if not for the charity of then-owner Frankie Veltri could be spotted there along with longtime public servants A. James Manchin and Bob Wise.
Former Gov. Gaston Caperton was at the hotel on numerous occasions, especially when Veltri held his annual free Thanksgiving dinner.
"It was always crowded with odd people and characters," Jones said. "And you could always find Frankie down there."
Jones refers to his time at the Holley as one the best periods of his life. The hotel was not just a place to sleep, but also a place to hang out and socialize.
Location was one of the main advantages to living there.
"I loved it because I could get up in the morning and walk anywhere downtown," he said. "You didn't even have to own a car."
Former Holley resident Vince White, 69, of Charleston, also has fond memories. White, who lived there from about 1977 until 1989, ran a power-lifting gym in the basement.
"All of the people at the Holley were friendly people," White said. "Manchin always seemed to talk to people; that was kind of his personality."
People were always coming and going from the various establishments within the hotel, White said.
Residents would gather in the lobby to watch a large black-and-white television.
"It was an important part of the downtown," he said. "It served a need."
Many people who had nowhere else to go would gravitate to the Holley, White said. Veltri never turned anyone onto the street, whether or not they could pay.
"One thing about Frankie is he didn't turn nobody away," White said. "If you couldn't pay rent, you didn't pay rent."
Poor folks could depend on a meal at the hotel. Veltri often had beans and cornbread available for those in need.
Although he died in 2001, he had set up a fund to continue the free Thanksgiving dinner. These days it is held at the First Baptist Church on Shrewsbury Street in Charleston.
"People would be lined up clear out into the street for Thanksgiving dinner," White said.
Former desk manager Judy Snyder, 62, of Charleston, started working at the hotel in the late 1970s or early 1980s. She lived there for $78 a month.
"I liked it and it was really close to work," she said with a smile. "All I had to do was get out of bed and walk downstairs."
Snyder liked meeting the colorful characters.
"It was like a little community or a big household there," she said.
The Holley had a long and storied life before Veltri purchased it from the Crowley family for $335,000 in 1968. He had bought the smaller Worthy Hotel, which also was on Quarrier Street, in 1966, Jones said.
The Holley's proximity to downtown amenities made it attractive for those moving through the area, said George Jarrett, a Charleston resident and former police officer.
Jarrett, 62, remembers a friend of the family staying at the hotel when he was a child. Jarrett could not remember the woman's name, but she was a lady of means from Louisville, Ky.
"She would always come in and stay at the Holley," he said. "At the time it was a nice hotel.
"She was in a financial position to stay anywhere in Charleston, but she always stayed in the Holley."
Bellhops would haul luggage to the rooms, and patrons could have a nice lunch or dinner in the cafeteria in the basement, he said.
"I remember the doorknobs on the rooms had H's on them," Jarrett said.
Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis, 69, remembers going to the Holley for lunch after church on Sundays.
"I remember how nice the floors were," she said. "They were either marble or marble tile.
"I remember how pretty everything was."
Davis wishes certain parts of the hotel had been saved before it fell into disrepair. She mentioned the iron handrail for the inner staircase.
"I have fond memories of the hotel," she said. "They were childhood memories."
L. Newton Thomas, 83, called the hotel a city icon.
"It was quite the hub of activity in downtown," he said.
Thomas said the hotel was not elegant but a comfortable, casual place to stay.
"I remember they had a lot of stuffed furniture and a couch in the lobby," he said.
On the decline
The Holley fell into decline in the 1970s and 1980s, Jones said. One reason was the state ceased paying for rooms for miners being tested for black lung.
"The miners would come down on a Sunday and stay until like a Wednesday," he said. "I'd say that put about $80,000 to $100,000 in the hotel a year.
"When that got taken away, the hotel started to lose money."
White thinks the rising cost of utilities could have been a contributing factor.
Davis said, "Hotels, like everything else, have good years and then they start to decline."
Veltri was blunt about the property in a 1993 article in the Charleston Gazette. That was the year it was demolished.
"At the end it was just a fleabag. Just a run-down hotel at the end, to be truthful with you," he said then.
Veltri said a colony of rats took up residence in the hotel as it was prepared for demolition.
The purchase of the hotel by the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority sparked a lengthy legal battle over price and other issues.
The agency purchased the hotel and demolished it shortly thereafter. At the time, city officials saw it as an eyesore and an obstacle to downtown development.
City leaders also saw higher potential in the plot of land on Quarrier Street.
"It's a very important piece of property," then Charleston Mayor Chuck Gardner said in an interview.
About 130 Holley residents were relocated to public housing projects, the Daily Mail reported at the time.
Seventy-three pounds of explosive reduced the hotel to a pile of rubble. About 1,000 spectators turned out to watch.
A. James Manchin, the fabled uncle of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin who served as a state legislator, secretary of state and state treasurer, was among the crowd.
"If that building could only speak, how many stories it would tell," he said after the building was demolished.
Judy Snyder, the front desk manager, said it was an emotional experience.
"When they tore it down, we all stood right there with Frankie and he cried," she said. "It was a sad day that day."