from Eyewitness News Online
Jan. 18, 1993 - Charleston's Holley Hotel Demolished
By Heath Harrison
November 10, 2013
On Jan 18, 1993, the nearly 80-year history of Charleston’s Holley Hotel came to an end, as 73 pounds of explosives reduced the seven-story building to a pile of rubble in the city’s first controlled implosion.
The hotel, located at 1008 Quarrier Street, was built by brothers Pat and John Crowley in 1914 and named for Charleston Mayor James A. Holley. It was once part of a string of downtown hotels hosting travelers to Charleston. While not as luxurious as the Ruffner, Daniel Boone, or other city establishments, the Holley was still considered a first-class hotel in its early years.
The Holley’s best-known owner came in 1970, when Frankie Veltri purchased the building from the Crowley family.
Veltri was a fixture in downtown Charleston in the latter half the 20th century. Having had to drop out of school in the third grade due to a learning impairment that made him unable to read or write, he was a self-made millionaire, who, upon returning from World War II, built his fortune by opening a series of poolrooms and clubs around town.
Veltri, who also owned the adjacent, smaller Worthy Hotel, converted the Holley to a residential hotel after his purchase.
He was famous for his generosity and humanitarian efforts around town, offering free Thanksgiving dinners every year to the city’s poor. The dinners were started in in the 1960s at his home and served to a few families, then moved to the Holley as the crowds grew. By the time of the hotel’s closing, the annual event drew hundreds of needy to the hotel, where they would be served meals created from the truckload of food Veltri ordered each year.
A social hub
The Holley’s downtown location made it a popular place of residence for many in the 1970s, including West Virginia Secretary of State A. James Manchin, future U.S. Rep. Bob Wise and future Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.
"He had a diverse crowd there. It was a catch point for a lot of different people," the Rev. Jim Lewis, who was a minister at St. John's Episcopal Church near the Holley, said.
The biggest source of income for the hotel was from miners suffering from black lung disease, who came to Charleston from across the state to get exams for workers compensation. None of the other hotels would take the miners, but Veltri made arrangements with the state to put the men, numbering about 50 a week, up for their two-night visits.
Refuge for the poor
After the state ended the black lung arrangement, the Holley’s income dried up, but Veltri kept the building running into the 1980s, offering the hotel’s 200 rooms to the city’s poor. He charged only $5 a week, but, if the residents could not afford it, he let them stay for free.
Lewis, who created the Manna Meal soup kitchen and helped to found the Covenant House shelter behind St. John's, came to know many of those who stayed at the hotel.
He said Veltri had a genuine concern for the Holley's residents.
"He really cared about people who were on the street and down and out," Lewis said.
Veltri withheld judgment for the circumstances that led residents to the hotel. Some of the hotel's tenants worked at the Outhouse Inn, a strip club that shared the Holley's basement. Others battled addictions, while some simply had no place else to go.
Lewis remembers the story of one who had a profound impact on his ministry, a man who ate meals at the church and had a sister who was a member of the congregation.
Lewis said he learned of the man's history and what led him to the Holley.
"I discovered he had been put away in Spencer because he was gay," Lewis said. "This was in the early craziness that they did with people."
Lewis said learning the man's story led to his ministering to Charleston's gay community, including performing blessing for gays, something which generated a great deal of controversy for him at the time.
"It was powerful," he said of the experience.
The hotel was not without controversy. The Holley gained an unsavory reputation for the numerous incidents that made the headlines in its final decades, including a body found in the basement, two residents falling from the building’s top floor, suicides, stabbings and attempted arsons.
On concerns of safety at the Holley, Lewis said Veltri did all he could to protect residents at the building.
"Was it safe? It was as safe as it could be for them," Lewis said, citing the staff Veltri kept at the building and efforts to care for the residents.
City officials sought to close the dilapidated hotel and the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority bought the building from Veltri in 1990, after a long series of negotiations on price and a guarantee that the hotel’s residents would not be turned out onto the street.
The last residents of the hotel moved out in 1992 and the building was gutted and prepared for its demolition the following year.
Lewis said he was disappointed to see the Holley close, since it was an example of the kind of help to the poor the city needed.
"I was sad when the hotel went down," he said, noting that the Holley's former location remains undeveloped and is currently used as a parking lot.
Following the Holley’s closing, Veltri continued holding his annual Thanksgiving dinners for the needy, paying $25,000 to install a kitchen in a Dickinson Street building to meet the event’s needs. A 2000 dinner honoring his charitable work brought him messages of praise from President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II.
Veltri died on Aug. 27, 2001 at the age of 78, following a long battle with prostate cancer. He left behind a portion of his fortune to establish a fund so that the dinners would continue.
The annual dinners are hosted to this day. More information can be found about this year’s event, set for Nov. 28, on the dinner's Facebook page.
Sources: Charleston Gazette, WV Culture Center, WV Humanities Council. Special thanks to Rev. Lewis for sharing his memories of the Holley for this piece.
What are your memories of Veltri and the Holley? Stop by our Facebook page and join in on the conversation.
This week's video, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives at the Culture Center, features vintage WCHS reports from the late 1980s/early '90s by Alan Cohen and Stephanie Holland on the hotel's final days, followed by a report from Bob Aaron, featuring a crowd of spectators, including A. James Manchin and a young Danny Jones, watching the building's demolition.
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