In 1909 Oklahoma City was pulsating with youthful vigor. The population of the 21-year old metropolis, doubling every half decade, already exceeded 40,000 hardy westerners.
Streetcar tracks, first laid in 1903 by visionary businessmen, pierced the city in all directions. The packing plants, rising from prairie soil just southwest of the central city, created thousands of new jobs. And the downtown business district, covering roughly a six-block area, was a battle zone of frenzied construction. A fever of activity, so common in frontier boomtowns, was pushing the youthful community ahead at a rapid pace.
Webmaster's Note: This article orginally appeared
in 1982 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Skirvin Hotel's opening.
It is copyright by Bob L. Blackburn, PhD, and republished here with the author's permission.
One man caught in the spirit of his city was William Balser "Bill" Skirvin. A native of Michigan, Skirvin had made the Run of 1889, then moved to Texas, where he made a fortune in land development and oil. In 1906 he and his family, including his oldest daughter Pearl, who later would become Pearl Mesta the Washington hostess, moved to Oklahoma City. Further investments in oil and land brought him new wealth, including four lots on the northeast corner of 1st Street and Broadway, just south of the Rock Island Depot.
Late in 1909, as Oklahoma City was entering the era of rapid expansion, an investor from New York City approached Skirvin with an offer to buy those lots, inadvertently stating that he intended to build the "biggest hotel" in Oklahoma. Knowing that his hometown had only one luxury hotel, the Lee-Huckins, Skirvin visualized the possibilities of such an investment. With his characteristic aggressiveness, the oilman refused the New Yorker's lucrative offer and announced that he would build his own showcase hotel to crown his chosen city.
To develop his plans for the dream, Skirvin approached his close friend, Solomon A. Layton, a regionally famous architect. Layton and Skirvin formalized plans for a six-story, U-shaped hotel early in 1910, and in March, Governor Charles N. Haskell turned the first shovel of dirt for the ceremonial groundbreaking.
As construction progressed, Skirvin and Layton painstakingly searched for furnishings and building materials. They found Malakoff bricks for the exterior, ornate marble for the lobby, and rare woods for paneling. The two men also were careful to make the hotel as self-sufficient as possible. Skirvin built his own gas pipeline to the building, dug three wells for a water supply, and built his own electric plant. Later, these innovations would allow Skirvin to operate his own laundry and cooling system.
By September of 1910 work on the fifth level was nearing completion, so Skirvin and Layton celebrated in the architect's well stocked office. According to Skirvin's daughter, Pearl Mesta, Layton used the "spirits" of the evening to convince Skirvin that the growth of Oklahoma City justified a larger hotel. Always a man of grand dreams, Skirvin agreed. Eventually, the building was raised to 10 levels, a result of Layton's persuasiveness and Skirvin's faith in Oklahoma City.
On September 26, 1911, Skirvin opened the ornate hotel for public inspection. Visitors attracted to the 10-story building found an unique exterior with two wings, each facing south, and a rounded bay between the wings running the height of the structure. The façade was red brick laid in a Flemish bond pattern, the lower level was faced with limestone, and two covered entryways were located on both 1st Street and Broadway.
Inside, visitors were greeted with a spacious lobby decorated in English
Gothic detail. On the west end of the first floor were the Skirvin Drugstore
and other retail shops. On the other wing customers found the Skirvin
Café, featuring chilled air ventilation and a stage for musicians.
The café was complemented by the Grill Room in the basement and
the Tea Room on the mezzanine.
Entering one of the two electric elevators, guests rose to the upper floors where they found 225 rooms and suites. Each room had a private bath, each was decorated with velvet carpets and hardwood furniture, and each had a telephone connected to the Pioneer Telephone Company lines through a large switchboard located behind the front desk. For ventilation, each room had an outside window and a transom above the door.
Most days, when he was not attending to his oil interests, Skirvin could be found in the lobby greeting guests or talking with businessmen and politicians.
Skirvin was proud of his creation, and he continued to give the hotel
much of his attention, despite the daily presence of this first manager,
Frederick Scherubel. Most days, when he was not attending to his oil
interests, Skirvin could be found in the lobby greeting guests or talking
with businessmen and politicians. He donated a room to the Republican
Party, and he welcomed Democrats, so the hotel became a center for politics
during the early years of statehood.
To be close to his "225-room hobby," Skirvin moved his family to a five-room suite on the ninth floor. In addition to his three children, the Skirvin household consisted of the kids' menagerie of dogs, racoons, hawks, and other animals, which they kept on the roof.
During the next 10 years the guest register of the Skirvin Hotel reflected the frontier character of the young, bustling state. Guests included cigar-chomping politicians, free-wheeling ranchers, blanketed Indians from the state's 70 tribes, oil-rich millionaires, mud-covered drillers, and even notorious bank robbers such as the famed Al Jennings, the ex-convict who launched his bid for governor from the lobby. Skirvin, always impeccably dressed in his well-pressed suit, welcomed all with open arms.
By 1923 the hotel's success and the continued growth of Oklahoma City convinced Skirvin that expansion was justified. Again, the oilman went to Sol Layton, who developed plans to add another wing and bay to the east, replacing the one-story Skirvin garage, and to raise all three wings to 14 stories. In addition, plans called for remodeling all existing rooms, the first of many refurbishings which would change the hotel each decade thereafter. By 1926, with revisions in plans and the investment of $650,000, the hotel had a new wing of 12 stories and two wings still 10 stories.
Although his original plans had been temporarily halted, Skirvin persevered. In March 1928, as another prosperous era was overtaking Oklahoma City, the rotund entrepreneur announced plans to raise all wings to 14 stories and to initiate an extensive remodeling of the entire hotel. As Skirvin noted, "we are planning our improvement in anticipation of a greater Oklahoma City," an attitude which would consume every subsequent owner of the grand dowager of hotels.
One year later and three months after the first well in the world-famous Oklahoma City oil field was discovered, Skirvin let the first contracts for the renovation. When workers left in April of 1930, the proud owner opened the hotel for public inspection. The entire building had been raised to 14 levels, capacity had been increased to 525 rooms, a roof garden and cabaret club had been added, and the old café had been enlarged and converted into a modern coffee shop. The improvements carried a price tag of $3 million, almost twice the cost of the original building.
One the ground level, the lobby was doubled in size, furniture was reupholstered in floral designs, specially designed Gothic lanterns costing $1,000 each were suspended from the ceiling, and hand-carved English fumed oak was added to the walls and doors. Renovation of the lobby alone cost in excess of $75,000.
One of the most noted additions was the new Coffee Shop. Located where the old café had been, patrons could enter the air-conditioned Coffee Shop from either the lobby or from 1st Street. Eighty customers could be seated at three U-shaped counters, and altogether, seating was available for 300. Decoration was dominated by art deco geometric and floral designs. Even cast-iron counter seats and the hand-laid tile floors continued the art deco theme. From the hand-carved wooden entryways and the sun burst light fixtures to the carved glass windows and ornate display cases, the new Coffee Shop was a fine addition to the hotel costing more than $100,000.
Skirvin's most popular addition proved to be the 14th floor rooftop Venetian Room and Restaurant. The Restaurant, located on the middle wing, was decorated with Italian plaster on the walls, a parquet hardwood floor, and more than 100 casement windows for flow-through ventilation. Adjoining it on the east was a new kitchen, furnished with the most modern appliances.
On the west wing, and connected to the restaurant by a foyer, was the Venetian Room, a supper club featuring live music and dancing. Paneled with American walnut and draped with embroidered mohair, brocatelle, and damash, the Italian renaissance room also was decorated with murals depicting Venetian scenes. The floor was specially designed for dances with alternate blocks of red and white oak polished to a high sheen. The arched ceiling was covered with acoustic tile, and Venetian lanterns provided light.
Opening of the Venetian Room on April 23, 1930, began a tradition of music and dancing at the Skirvin. Featured performer was Hal Pratt and his "Fourteen Rhythm Kings," and the two supporting acts were Hilda Olsen, the Radio-Keith-Orpheum vaudeville star, and the Ruth Laird Rockets, four dancing girls all the same size. As an added attraction WKY-Radio contracted to broadcast live from the Venetian Room from 11:00 to Midnight every evening. The opening night performance, which cost $15 a couple for dinner and dancing, was a complete success.
For years thereafter Skirvin changed bands roughly once a month. As one stop on the orchestra circuit, the Venetian Room attracted well-known musical groups such as Zez Confrey, Ted Weems, Ted Fiorito, Jimmy Joy, Johnnie Johnson, Charlie Straight, and the Seven Aces. On the opening night of the 1932 dance season, Skirvin booked the Ligon Smith Band, who featured Lois Nixon, a well-known Blues signer. Special entertainment included Peppino and Rhoda, ballroom dancers who were known for their tango. During the first two years of operation, the Venetian Room headlined 15 orchestras, 12 of which were described as "big name" bands.
Despite the growing depression, Skirvin could afford such bands due to increasing patronage. Oklahoma City was somewhat buffeted from the mounting economic chaos by the local oil boom, which began in December of 1928 and continued until the late 1930's. Resulting construction of major office structures such as the 1st National Building and the Ramsey Tower provided jobs while oil money provided investment resources. Skirvin reported in early 1931 that patronage and revenues still were rising, and that as a result he had increased his staff from 225 to 300.
Skirvin interpreted his continued prosperity as a sign that Oklahoma City would be spared the winds of economic disaster. With this typical boldness, Skirvin announced that he would expand the capabilities of his hotel by building an annex across Broadway.
Skirvin interpreted his continued prosperity as a sign that Oklahoma City would be spared the winds of economic disaster. With this typical boldness, Skirvin announced that he would expand the capabilities of his hotel by building an annex across Broadway. In March of 1931 crews broke ground for the planned 26-level Skirvin Tower, and work continued until January of 1932, when suddenly Skirvin's resources crumbled. With only 14 levels of the superstructure completed, Skirvin was forced to temporarily abandon the project, a victim of spreading financial ruin.
Early in 1934 Skirvin resumed work on the Tower, but it was not competed until 1938, and even then only a few of the 14 floors were ready for occupants. Described as a "luxury apartment-hotel," the Tower was linked to the hotel by a tunnel and many of the service employees worked in both buildings. Later owners would finish the interior and operate the Tower as a hotel until 1971, when it was completely remodeled into a glass-enclosed office building.
Despite problems with the Tower, troubled years during World War II, and legal problems with stockholders and family, the aging Skirvin maintained the best possible service at his Oklahoma City landmark. Only death in 1944 ended the era of his influence. His three children, without the leadership of their father, decided to sell the properties.
In May of 1945, only weeks after Germany's surrender, the hotel and tower were sold for a reported $3 million to Dan W. James, owner of the Black Hotel, another of the City's six luxury hotels. James brought considerable hotel management skills to the Skirvin, for he had worked in hotels from Louisiana and Arkansas to Texas and Oklahoma. In 1931 he came to Oklahoma City and bought the Black. When he assumed control of the Skirvin properties he faced a formidable task, as high traffic, scarce replacement materials, and absent employees had taken a heavy toll during the war.
To resurrect the quality and elegance of the Skirvin, James embarked on a 10-year modernization program. He installed air conditioning for the entire building; he replaced the original entryway canopies with a wrap-around awning; he added a drive-in registry and a parking garage to the north side; and he redecorated all of the meeting rooms on the east side of the mezzanine. James invested even more in the Tower, where he remodeled the Persian Room, created the Tower Club, and refinished many of the luxury apartments and suites.
James realized that a luxury hotel could not succeed in the 1940's without offering a wide range of services to the public. He made every effort to provide room service, in-by-nine-out-by-five laundry, a stenographer and notary, a beauty shop, a barber shop, and a house physician. All of this was in addition to the usual benefits of gourmet cuisine, maid service, and attendants.
To provide such services, James employed more than 250 people just for the Skirvin Hotel. On the staff were desk clerks, auditors, managers, decorators, cigar stand operators, cashiers, and doormen. The larger crews included 12 room service attendants, 30 people in the laundry room, 32 bellboys, 50 maids, 18 engineering crew members, 4 switchboard operators, 9 elevator operators, 9 beauty shop operators, 10 barbers, 23 cooks and chefs, and 33 catering attendants.
James instituted several programs to insure good employee relations and maximum effort. He created an 8-page in-house magazine, Inn-Side Stuff, which carried news about employees, contests for efficient service, and information about other divisions of the hotel. James also introduced employee benefit programs such as company-paid insurance policies for longtime workers and annual Christmas dinners for all staff members and their families.
In 1948 Harry Truman arrived at the Skirvin, followed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both events helped establish the Skirvin as the queen of hotels in Oklahoma City.
Such policies made the Skirvin one of the most successful hotels in the Southwest, an important role in a city, which was third only to New York and Chicago in the number of conventions attracted each year. This status was enhanced during the post-war years by presidential visits. In 1948 Harry Truman arrived at the Skirvin, followed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both events helped establish the Skirvin as the queen of hotels in Oklahoma City.
James, like Bill Skirvin before him, did not rest on past accomplishments. In 1959 a swimming pool was added to the north side of the hotel, and one year later he built the Four Seasons Lounge next to the pool. Despite such attempts to modernize his properties, James and other hotel operators were confronting the decline of the central city. Beginning in 1959 suburban shopping malls were built every few years, drawing shoppers away from downtown. Another factor in the central city's decline was the new age of motor transportation, which shifted emphasis from railroads and streetcars to busses and automobiles. City streets, designed for pedestrian traffic and only limited motor use, were too congested for heavy traffic, while limited space impeded convenient parking.
In 1963, just as the problems confronting downtown Oklahoma City were mounting, James announced that he had sold the Skirvin to a group of investors from Chicago. Although this partnership added a $250,000 banquet room to the hotel and made grand plans for the development of both the Skirvin Hotel and Tower, they sold the properties to H.T. Griffin in 1968.
Griffin, who planned to build the proposed Liberty Tower just to the south of the Skirvin, unveiled a two-year plan intended to rejuvenate the Skirvin and reverse the exodus from downtown Oklahoma City. With an investment of $2.5 million, he redecorated the Sun Suite, added a new restaurant in the tunnel below the Skirvin, replaced all the window sashes with bronze-colored frames, replaced all furniture, added color television sets to each room, and remodeled the lobby, kitchen, and coffee shop.
Despite this massive investment Griffin encountered difficulties. Urban renewal construction was active during the late 1960's, further congesting traffic and discouraging movement downtown. Occupancy rates as a result declined, reaching a nadir of only 32 percent in 1969, a period when occupancy of 70 percent was necessary to pay operating expenses and outstanding bank notes. In 1968 the hotel made a small profit, but in 1969 and again in 1971 the Skirvin suffered losses. Combined with Griffin's heavy investment in Liberty Tower, the negative cash flow forced the investor into bankruptcy in late 1971.
At this low point in its celebrated history, the Skirvin was placed in the hands of a trustee, Stanton L. Young, who borrowed money for operations and searched for a way to pay off debts and return the hotel to its former grandeur. One year later, after the Tower had been sold to a local savings and loan firm, Young negotiated to sell the Skirvin Hotel to CLE Corporation, a Texas firm that already owned and managed a chain of hotels across the nation. Purchase price was approximately $2 million.
In late 1972 the new owners announced that the name of the hotel would be altered to "Skirvin Plaza Hotel," and to launch their era of possession, they pledged to invest $2.3 million in a general remodeling campaign—a figure which would increase to $8 million by 1974. Much of the work was exterior facelifting, such as repointing mortar, cleaning bricks, and replacing old awnings. Most of the remodeling, however, was in the interior. Every guest room was gutted and redecorated in one of eight different styles; all new plumbing and electrical wiring was installed; all meeting rooms were refinished; the private club, the Sun Suite, was remodeled and renamed Peabody, I.T.; and the hotel's two restaurants, renamed Terrace Café and the Sooner Room were remodeled. The most extensive work on the hotel was completed in November of 1974.
Suffering from sagging occupancy despite their investments, CLE Corporation in 1977 sold the Skirvin to the Businessman's Assurance Company, which routinely announced plans to spend $250,000 in renovating the dining room and ballroom. Again, however, the route to success was not found, so the firm looked for a new buyer in 1979.
It was a critical juncture for the venerable old Skirvin. Three successive corporations from out of state had been unable to turn the hotel's fortunes around. The City's other fine hotels, such as the Huckins, Biltmore, Tower, and Black, already had been abandoned, demolished, or converted to office space. A new attitude, a new strategy had to be found if the 68-year-old Skirvin was to survive the passage of middle age.
The life of the Skirvin, hanging in the balance for the past 16 years,
received a new chance in 1979 when a small group of visionary investors
recognized the latent potential of the hotel. With a faith in their City
reminiscent of old Bill Skirvin, the new investors purchased the hotel
for a reported $5.6 million. With the combined resources and talent of
investors Ron Burks, Bill Jennings, John Kilpatrick, Jr., Bob Lammerts,
Jerry Richardson, Dub Ross, and Joe Dann Trigg, the Skirvin Plaza Investors
approached their new challenge aggressively.
With a $1 million commitment, the investors undertook an extensive remodeling campaign. In the lobby workers removed an added staircase in order to regain the openness of the original design. Then, while tearing off other additions, workers found an original wooden archway, which served as a pattern for the design of other arches and wood trim. Above the refurbished walls, a painter from Norman, a town 30 miles south of Oklahoma City, recreated ceiling murals, and workers installed massive chandeliers imported from Czechoslovakia.
In addition to work in the lobby, the investors removed walls from the basement, cleared old equipment, demolished the swimming pool and cabanas, and replaced the pool with a greenbelt area. They also attracted new and innovative personnel—a new general manager, a new chef, a marketing expert, and a new food and beverage director. The Skirvin, after suffering two decades of decline, was to get a second chance.
In 1980 the future of the Skirvin seemed assured. The interior renovation was nearly completed and events were unfolding around the Skirvin that would attract new visitors. Urban renewal, which had slowed during the mid-1970's, gained new momentum when a developer from Dallas began work on the Galleria, the long-promised retail and office complex just a block west and south of the Skirvin. And Myriad Gardens, a two-block garden park west of the convention center, inched closer to completion. The promise of urban renewal, made in the early 1960's was at last close to fruition.
Another remarkable new development downtown was the preservation of several of the City's foremost historic buildings. Spurred by mounting prosperity, tax incentives, and the growing demand for office space, investors purchased and renovated structures such as the Colcord, the Harbour-Longmire, the Black Hotel, the Montgomery Wards, and the Oil and Gas. This facelifting injected new life into the central city.
Managers of the Skirvin added to the new excitement by staging spectacular events designed to attract attention. "Classic Dinners" preceding performances of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra were served; dinner/theater packages for the Oklahoma Theater Center were offered; and special events such as the "Happy Days" party celebrating the completed renovation of the Skirvin were staged.
Topping the list of special events was the "Prelude to Victory" dinner in September of 1980. A Republican Party fund-raising event, the $1,000-a-plate dinner featured former President Gerald Ford, entertainer Wayne Newton, and a closed circuit television broadcast linking 30 cities across the nation. Attended by more than 1,200 guests, the extravaganza was a complete success, a tribute to the capabilities of the Skirvin and the skills of the staff.
The significance of the Skirvin in the history of Oklahoma was officially recognized late in 1980 when two plaques were unveiled by Governor George Nigh. One plaque designated the inclusion of the hotel on the National Register of Historic Places; the other marked a similar honor from the Oklahoma City Historic Preservation and Landmark Commission; both paid tribute to an outstanding hotel on the Oklahoma City skyline.
For 70 years the Skirvin had been synonymous with elegance and innovation. With a new beginning, the "Grand Old Dowager" would continue its role as the showcase of Oklahoma City.