New owner of free Dayton historic home feels like he’s ‘living in a dream’

A dilapidated Dayton home being given away — once the residence of Gov. James M. Cox  — has a new owner and chance for new life.

Chris Lewis, 22, a Vandalia native who recently graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, said he was “drawn to the home” when he saw a story about it.

“I wanted something big and historical, and when I found out it was Gov. Cox’s home, I thought that was super cool because then it’s not really just a house. It’s a piece of history,” Lewis said. “How many people can say they live in a home of a presidential nominee?”

In April, this news organization reported the owner did not have the resources to renovate the home. He asked Fred Holley, president of the Dayton View Historic District where it is located, to help find the right person to give it to who could renovate it.

Lewis saw the story and applied. He had been searching for a home to restore with the help of his uncle, Paul Fiamengo, an experienced house renovator.


More than 70 people initially responded to the offer of a free home. After an open house, Holley, along with the neighborhood board and a city of Dayton historic preservation officer, screened the remaining dozen applications.

Holley, who wanted the home to be owner-occupied, said he was impressed with the thorough application Lewis and his uncle prepared.

They provided a proposal of how the work would be done, examples of properties renovated by Fiamengo, their ability to fund the project and letters of recommendation from Lewis’ college professors and former employers. “We felt comfortable they were in it for the long haul,” Holley said.

Lewis “kind of fell in love with the city” when he worked a summer job during high school as a Downtown Dayton ambassador keeping the city clean and picking up during festivals, he said.

When he learned he was selected to receive the home, he felt like he “won the lottery,” he said. “I’m still shocked I’m the one. It’s like living in a dream.”

The house, built in 1905 near the intersection of Grand and Salem avenues, was home to Cox until he moved to Columbus as governor in 1913. Built in a combination of Queen Anne and Shingle styles, the foundation and first-floor exterior is made of granite boulders precisely fitted together and inside the original woodwork and fireplace mantels are intact.

The neighborhood was once home to Dayton’s elite but today there are homes that appear deserted and decayed. “Some homes down here are blighted, but it’s not going to get better unless someone comes and fixes it up and lives here and tries to make the area better,” Lewis said. “If you invest yourself, money and time in the area, it’s going to come out a lot better.”

Lewis, who will start at the University of Dayton School of Law this month in the Leadership Honors Program, said it is too early to estimate the timeline for renovation but hopes to move in soon and get to work restoring the home to its former glory. “I’m not really picky. I need the bare minimum. If I have electricity, water, a toilet and heat in the winter, that’s really all I need.”

Holley said giving the Cox home away was so rewarding,  the neighborhood association is considering trying it again with other homes. “New life is going to be bred into this property,” he said. “We hope it sparks some interest from other potential buyers to look at some of the other properties in the neighborhood.”

Lewis plans to document his renovation progress on a “Cox Home Restoration” Facebook and Instagram page.

“This is an amazing opportunity. I’ve never heard of anyone giving away a home,” he said. “I hope I live up to that generosity.”

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