Marjory Holly bought the Victorian mansion a few miles shy of downtown Minneapolis with $500 down and a handshake.
Hers was among a cluster of ornate homes along Interstate 35W built in the late 1800s for some of the city’s wealthiest families.
Freeway construction had claimed 15 of the storied Queen Anne homes by the time Holly arrived in 1966. In the decades that followed, porn shops opened on nearby Lake Street. Absentee landlords, gangs and crime seeped into her block. By the late 1980s, with the crack epidemic in full swing, the neighborhood reached a tipping point.
Holly found herself at the top of her stairs one night after a break-in, holding a borrowed pistol in one hand and a fistful of Rolaids in the other.
“At a time when her friends were fleeing to the suburbs and giving up on the city, we were there to stick it out,” her daughter, Mercedes Austin, said.
Holly died Feb. 8, after a long illness. She was 80.
Holly hounded johns, pimps and prostitutes, reportedly taking a punch to the nose from one. She picketed Gov. Arne Carlson’s mansion to protest plans to expand I-35W. Officials at City Hall got to know her.
“She wouldn’t be silenced,” said longtime neighbor David Piehl.
Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who represented the area as a City Council member from 1983 to 1993, once described Holly as “relentless and tenacious.”
She now credits Holly and other determined neighbors with a multiyear fight resulting in a $1.4 million comprehensive revitalization effort in which the city purchased several former crack houses and provided low-income loans for homeowners and landlords.
“They said we don’t want a Band-Aid approach,” Sayles Belton said. “They sent a very powerful message to City Hall.”
Holly grew up in Clara City, a small farming community in western Minnesota. After graduating from art school, she worked as an animator for an advertising firm, and later as a receptionist at the Dayton Hudson Corp. In the 1990s she returned to the retailer, known by then as Marshall Field’s, as a chocolatier.
Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1980, her daughter said. In 1982 she married Peter Holly, a woodworker who ran his business out of the basement of the home.
Times were tough after her parents split, Austin said, and her mother searched dumpsters for discarded food. She took in renters and never forgave herself for selling off a few stained-glass windows to pay bills.
Austin and her older brother, Mark Matilla, have fond memories of the 15-room home, where their stepfather still lives. It was common to see their mother on a ladder, refinishing woodwork or scraping off old paint, heat gun in hand.
“She’d get done painting the north side of the house,” Austin said, “and by the time she’d make it around the other three sides, the north side was already peeling.”
The home, built in 1891, is one of 14 remaining houses along Second and Third Avenues designed by Minneapolis architect and builder Theron P. Healy. Holly helped get the Healy homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and worked to protect another 10 in the two-block area with local historic designations.
“She left a lasting impact,” said Piehl, who in 1992 bought a home Healy designed for jeweler J.B. Hudson. “A lot of times you hear about neighborhoods getting back on their feet, it’s just a gentrification story. This wasn’t that.”
After years of working with city planners to address aesthetics and livability concerns, the current I-35W project will move traffic farther from the houses and includes a 10-foot-wide green space median.
“This is a big part of her legacy,” Piehl said. “She was at the forefront of a 25-year fight.”
The family plans to hold a private service this spring.