“I work closely with the wonderful women of the church,” remarks Michelle Holley, the six-year owner of an 18-room mansion on Dayton Street that was previously owned by Providence Baptist Church next door. Following the economic downturn in the last decade, the church sold it to Michelle after making “a Ladies’ Agreement over fried chicken and fresh rosemary.”
But the story begins much earlier. Michelle used to drive by the house years prior and fantasize about living in it one day. An assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC, she wasn't confident that she’d be able to afford a place on what was once “Millionaire’s Row.” But always a romantic, she wrote a love letter to the house and placed it in one of the abandoned mailboxes nailed to the front door.
The home went up for sale in 2011. Michelle’s good friend/surrogate mom, Anne Wainscott, insisted she pursue buying the property. After many negotiations, Michelle’s fantasy became a reality. She visited the original owner's grave in Spring Grove Cemetery and asked his permission to take over. Then, as the main house was a serious fixer-upper, the real work began. Michelle laughs at her priorities; she and Anne were planting roses in the garden before there was a usable toilet in the house.
LIFE AS A HOUSE IN THE WEST END
The history on the street is as rich as you can possibly get in our city: Michelle’s house was built in the 1860s by Alan Gazlay, a real estate magnate who developed much of Vine Street. Next door, a plantation owner lived, and on the same block stands the Harwood House, once a part of the Underground Railroad.
Anne, an illustrator and fashion designer who recently turned 100 and helped convince Michelle to purchase the house, remembers touring the homes on Dayton Street when she was around seven years old. Many were abandoned then, and she recalls the ornate fireplaces standing out among the dust and dirt. It was around that time, in the 1920s, that the nearby Cotton Club, the only integrated nightclub around, was the center of the city’s thriving jazz scene. Most hotel venues would invite jazz greats to play but would not allow musicians of color to book a room. Some of the still-occupied houses in the area provided rooms for those musicians.
When the West End was largely demolished for the construction of I-75 beginning in the 1950s, residents and businesses left, forcing those who remained to carve up the homes into multiple one-room apartments with shared kitchens to make ends meet. Michelle’s house was no exception, and was divided when the church acquired it. Currently, Michelle lives on the first floor, with tenants on the second and third floors, so it's sort of a happy medium between overly cramped and too extravagant.
Recently, a rejuvenated interest in the West End has centered on the beautiful architecture of the neighborhood, especially that of the former Millionaire’s Row. But Michelle has a different vision for the neighborhood. “Revitalization doesn’t have to be gentrification, or profiteering,” she insists. “Let’s celebrate the people here, not just the architecture. The soul of the area is in the jazz clubs, the gospel churches, and the kids playing on the street. We mustn’t lose that.”
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Head to the top to see photos of Michelle's West End mansion.