Historic Oklahoma City hotel gets a new life

  • By Tim Talley / Associated Press
  • Saturday, April 7, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I ts spacious lobby was the meeting place of politicians and oil-rich millionaires.

Its guest rooms and restaurants bustled with the frenetic pace of freewheeling ranchers and drillers.

Its banquet rooms were the boisterous stumping ground of Oklahoma governors and at least four presidents.

The ornate Skirvin Hotel – opened in 1911 just four years after Oklahoma became a state – is the historic social hub of Oklahoma City. The 220,000-square-foot behemoth was a place residents and visitors to the new state wanted to see – and where they wanted to be seen.

The hotel’s luster, hidden away for almost 20 years as it sat boarded up, is brightening the cityscape once again since reopening Feb. 26 as the Skirvin Hilton.

Following a $55 million top-to-bottom renovation, the structure’s re-emergence as a full-service hotel coincides with the 100th anniversary of Oklahoma statehood and is a centerpiece of the centennial celebration.

It also marks an urban revival in Oklahoma City that has doubled the number of downtown hotel rooms to more than 1,400 in just seven years.

“It’s difficult to completely sell the idea of a renaissance as long as the Skirvin Hotel was boarded up,” said Mayor Mick Cornett. “We always saw this thing as a gem and a jewel,” said John Williams, the Skirvin Hilton’s general manager.

Robert Henry, a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and former Oklahoma attorney general, kept a room at the Skirvin for more than two years before the hotel closed its doors in 1988.

“The Skirvin is a romantic place,” said Henry, cousin of Gov. Brad Henry. “People are passionate about it. Its history is inseparable from the history of Oklahoma City.”

During his stays at the hotel, he recalled seeing football icon Joe Namath, opera star Luciana Pavarotti, pioneer heart surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard and ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, and having dinner one night with comedian Danny Thomas in the Skirvin’s restaurant.

“If you were in the lobby of the Skirvin Hotel, whatever was going on in Oklahoma City would pass right in front of you,” Henry said.

Built by William Skirvin, who participated in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 and later made a fortune in land and oil, the Skirvin is near railroad depots and is an example of the grand hotels that prospered during the golden age of railroad travel, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“If you went anywhere in style and you could afford it, you went by railroad,” Blackburn said.

The hotel was renovated periodically over the years, including expansion in the late 1920s that added a new wing and raised the hotel’s height to 14 stories. But the Skirvin struggled in the 1950s and ’60s as railroad travel and downtown areas declined.

Closed during the oil bust of 1988, the Skirvin fell into disrepair and was vandalized over the years. Its roof became a roost for pigeons and its once-grand lobby a haven for the homeless as the building moved perilously close to the wrecking ball in the 1990s.

Plans to rehabilitate the structure were finalized four years ago by Skirvin Partners LLC, Marcus Hotels and Resorts of Milwaukee and Hilton. Construction included replacement of two-thirds of the building’s roof, 900 new windows and updated mechanical facilities to bring the structure up to modern standards, said John Williams, general manager of the Skirvin Hilton. “Every pipe, every valve, every wire in this building is brand new,” he said.

Throughout the rehabilitation project, planners and craftsmen worked to maintain the structure’s historical character to qualify for federal and state rehabilitation tax credits that could reduce the cost of the project by up to 40 percent, said Catherine Montgomery, an architect with the state Historic Preservation Office. The tax initiative, called Metropolitan Area Projects, has also financed and encouraged other public-private partnerships like the one behind the Skirvin.

The process included painstaking repair and rehabilitation of the lobby, including 29 hand-carved Bacchus busts accented by gold leafing that peer from the top of structural pillars. Each pillar is enveloped by stained wood.

“To their credit they went back and put a lot of effort into recovering those details,” Montgomery said.

Restoration work included four plaster gargoyles perched on lobby pillars near the hotel’s new elevators and their original ornamental doors. Two of the gargoyles – complete with thick mustaches and piercing eyes – look suspiciously like William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, who was an advocate for statehood, served as Oklahoma’s first House speaker and later as a governor.

The lobby’s arched wooden entry ways and tile floor are all original to 1911. Ornate art deco tile in the Skirvin’s Park Avenue Grill date to the hotel’s expansion in the late 1920s.

“They really respected the history associated with the building,” said Montgomery.

If you go …

Skirvin Hilton: 1 Park Ave., Oklahoma City; www.skirvinhilton.com or 405-272-3040. The hotel’s 225 guest rooms include 20 suites and a presidential suite. Facilities include 18,500 square feet of meeting space, including the 2,600-square-foot Venetian Room, an elegant former dinner and dance club on the structure’s 14th floor, and the 1,444-square-foot Continental Room. Corporate rates for a standard room start at $189 a night. Rates for the hotel’s rotunda suites are a little over $300 a night. Weekend rates begin at $139 a night.

Oklahoma Centennial: www.oklahomacentennial.com or 405-228-2007.

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