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Oklahoma City’s “magic mirror”

All photos courtesy Skirvin Hilton

Susan Titus was looking for a splashy site for a centennial celebration. Joe Kisicki was seeking a “fancy” location that would appeal to a group of women. Both meeting planners found what they were seeking at the Skirvin Hilton, the most historic hotel in Oklahoma City and, for that matter, Oklahoma.

The Skirvin, as locals call it — “No one in Oklahoma City cares that it is a Hilton,” said John Williams, general manager — has had ups and downs that coincided with the booms and busts of the state in which it resides.

As Robert Henry, a former legislator and judge, wrote in his introduction to Skirvin, a 168-page history of the hotel, “The Skirvin Hotel is Oklahoma City’s magic mirror that reflects virtually the entire history of this unique city that was a prairie field one day and a city of 10,000 souls the next (after the Land Run).

Once a 500-room hotel with a twin
At its biggest and boldest in the early 1930s, the Skirvin was a 500-room hotel with an identical twin, the Skirvin Tower (now an office building) across the street. Those were the days of W.B. Skirvin, the speculator who opened the hotel on the corner of First and Broadway in 1911 and continued to expand it, adding an entire wing in 1926 and two floors shortly after. At the hotel’s lowest point, from 1988 to 2007, the Skirvin was a decaying, desolate landmark, home mainly to vagrants and pigeons.

Today, the Skirvin once again mirrors its hometown, sparkling and new, a storied survivor. Off its handsome lobby, where original dark oak is a thick framework, and gargoyles carved from the same dark wood peer down from the tops of posts, live jazz courses from the Red Piano Bar, home to a shiny red piano discovered in New Orleans. In the hotel’s Park Avenue Grill, Andrew Black, another find from the South, formerly the No. 2 man in the kitchen at the Peabody in Memphis, serves as executive chef.

The revival of the Skirvin didn’t come quickly or easily. “There were probably 100 sets of plans that got dashed,” said Williams. The city and various developers spent nearly two decades on the hotel’s resurrection.

Among those developers was an Indonesian businessman who sold a number of influential locals on his plan before disappearing with their money and with hopes for the Skirvin’s return.

Two years ago, through a combination of 11 funding sources totaling $56 million, the Skirvin reopened as a 225-guest-room, high-end Hilton affiliate with Marcus Hotels at the helm as manager and owner. The Milwaukee-based firm likes historic hotels and has a track record of taking good care of them. Among its 20 hotels is the 1893 Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, “the most prized in the collection,” said Williams, who worked there six years.

The Skirvin almost instantly regained its stature as the place to stay, be seen and meet in Oklahoma City, helped by its healthy amount of meeting space.

1970s annex added ballrooms

A good piece of its 18,500 square feet of meeting space is in a boxlike annex added in the 1970s to the north side of the hotel. A covered, drive-up entrance has been added so visitors don’t have to go through the historic hotel to reach the newer section.

The annex’s interior, dominated by the 6,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom, blends seamlessly with the historic hotel.

“Usually when a hotel is added onto, the addition has a totally different personality; but in this case, the designer effectively carried the design of the original hotel through,” said Williams.

There are numerous meeting spaces within the historic hotel, among them boardrooms, the 1,700-square-foot Crystal Room with original restored chandeliers, and the local favorite, the 14th floor’s Venetian Room, a site of banquets, dancing and meetings for decades.

Lined with casement windows, paneled in wood and with its original arched ceiling restored, the 2,600-square-foot Venetian stepped right back into the spotlight, becoming the site of Oklahoma City’s successful negotiations for a local basketball team with the National Basketball Association.

Among the reasons the hotel has so quickly regained its status are planners like Titus. In early 2006, she was planning the centennial convention for the Independent Insurance Agents of Oklahoma when she heard that the Skirvin was scheduled to reopen about a month before the insurance agents’ April centennial conference in 2007.

Having the big event at the Skirvin would take the group back to a place where it had met in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Everyone wanted to come back and see it,” she said.

The new Skirvin was happy to have the business; the insurance agents were happy to be among the first groups to use the reopened hotel. “It [the Skirvin] made our centennial event the success it was,” said Titus.

Since then, Titus’ group has returned each year to the Skirvin, and it did so again this year. As attendance has grown, it has gotten a little harder to do so.

“We just keep going back,” Titus said. “It is really a little too small for us, but our members love it so much that we make concessions, and we make it work for us. The last three years, our trade show was in two ballrooms plus the hallways.”

Not quite three blocks from the city’s Cox Convention Center, the Skirvin doesn’t market itself as a convention center hotel.

“We tend to run a higher room rate than the business that goes into the convention center,” said Williams. “We tend to do a lot of corporate business and regional association business.”

Hotels closer to the convention center, especially the Renaissance Oklahoma City and the Sheraton Oklahoma City, tend to get the majority of the convention center trade. “Our strategy is to let those guys fill up the convention center,” said Williams.

By doing so, management has made the Hilton the first choice for planners who want something smaller and special. Kisicki, who chose the Skirvin for an April 2009 conference of the Professional Women Controllers, did so to entice members back to Oklahoma City, where they had done their training.

Not all had fond memories of their time there, and some had not returned in 20 years, so Kisicki hoped the chance to meet and stay in a handsome, restored hotel with enough history to merit its own book would sway skeptics.

He also choose a hotel that could compete with those that have housed the group in larger cities like Baltimore. “This is sort of a getaway for them, and they want it to be nice,” said Kisicki.

Like Kisicki’s group, the residents of Oklahoma City wanted to see something nice return to their downtown. Over the hotel’s history, multiple owners had covered up much of what gave the Skirvin its sparkle. They’d “modernized,” laying green shag carpet and hanging the latest in lighting fixtures.

Throughout the renovation, people read about the project in the newspaper and anxiously awaited the reopening.

“People were nervous,” said Williams. “They wondered, ‘Would they get back what they had?’”
Titus and others proclaim that they did.

“They preserved the history, where a lot of others would have totally cleaned it out and made everything brand new,” said Titus. “Here they took the time to preserve everything they could. There is not another hotel like it in Oklahoma.”