Let’s start with some context first before we delve into this week’s flashback. First off, every person I’ve spoken to about the history of the Skirvin hotel report Norton Locke was a disastrous pick to become manager during the landmark’s dark days in the late 1980s. He was a Meridian Avenue hotelier who, those who worked with him or witnessed his style, was totally unsuited to run a downtown hotel.
Next thing to note: with or without a boycott, the Skirvin was likely doomed to close in the late 1980s. And if it hadn’t closed, it likely never would have gotten the extensive top to bottom makeover in 2006 that made it the success story it is today.
Final note: I think it’s important not to rush to judgment against those who were dealing with issues in another time – and facing decisions that aren’t quite as easy as they appear now in hindsight. But history can be a wonderful teacher. And with all the hostile words being exchanged today, I just hope today’s lesson isn’t lost on those who might need it most.
Skirvin Scarred by Past Siphoning, Blacklisting Blamed for Decline
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, September 9, 1990
Edition: CITY, Section: BUSINESS, Page 01
Siphoning revenues from the Skirvin Plaza Hotel to another building venture shares the blame for the national landmark’s series of downfalls.
Blacklisting of the hotel in retaliation for a former manager’s anti-tax politics also may have contributed to the historic hotel’s 1988 decline.
For 30 years, these and more misfortunes have taken a toll on the historic structure that sheltered presidents, royalty, famous personalities and heads of state through seven decades.
Now standing empty and forlorn in downtown Oklahoma City, the property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was sold at a sheriff’s auction Tuesday. It was the second time since January 1988 that the Oklahoma County sheriff had auctioned off the classic property to satisfy a mortgage debt.
The Skirvin stands in the shadow of the city’s tallest building, Liberty Tower literally and figuratively Oklahoma County district court records show.
Stanton Young, appointed receiver in 1971 for the bankrupt Skirvin and its sister hotel, the Skirvin Tower, alleged in a 1972 lawsuit that Skirvin revenues were funneled into construction of Liberty Tower by Griffin Enterprises Inc. and a group of New York investors.
Griffin Enterprises had acquired the two Skirvins in 1967. The eastern businessmen were added to the owners’ list through a complicated financial arrangement with Griffin, the court petition says.
Griffin also developed the skyscraper located just across Park Avenue and a broad plaza from the hotel. The defendants never admitted they diverted Skirvin revenues to the construction, but the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
The settlement was used to pay the bankrupt hotels’ secured and unsecured claims, and the Skirvin never closed during the 18 months it was in bankruptcy proceedings, Young said last week.
Through the 1970s and ’80s, the Skirvin changed hands several times.
Owners included a group of Oklahoma City businessmen headed by managing partner Ronald Burkes; a 17-investor group based in Miami, Fla.; and, most recently, two Fort Worth partners in Savoy Hotels and Resorts.
The boycott came during the Florida group’s ownership, and has been identified as one possible cause of the October 1988 closing of the Skirvin. The blacklisting at least contributed to the Skirvin’s financial difficulties, four sources speculated at the time.
Several civic and cultural leaders acknowledged in January 1987 that they steered business away from the Skirvin in the latter part of 1986 because its manager helped defeat four of six economic development proposals intended to help pull central Oklahoma out of depression.
Three sources said the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce moved scheduled events to other hotels.
The manager, Norton Locke, had publicly opposed some of six municipal revenue proposals on a June 1986 referendum. Locke also allegedly gave $17,000 to defeat a proposed increase of the municipal hotel/motel room tax from 2 percent to 5 percent. A few months later, the Florida hotel owners were sued by the city for failure to pay $23,000 in room taxes.
“I can’t tell you the business that has been taken out of the Skirvin because of that stand (against the room-tax increase),” one civic leader said in January 1987.
Herschel Lamirand, a member of the mayor’s task force that promoted the economic development measures, and James Tolbert III, longtime civic and arts leader, were among those acknowledging in 1987 that they had personally influenced bookings and lodgings away from the Skirvin.
Andy Coats, then Oklahoma City mayor, also confirmed that several downtown groups canceled meetings and accounts with the Skirvin.
Lamirand, executive director of the OU Health Sciences Center Foundation, stressed this was his own philosophy and not that of his employer.
“Opposing the tax was one thing, but financially supporting opponents was the last straw,” he said then.
But Lamirand said last week that the Skirvin had not been boycotted.
He also voiced solid support for attempts to resurrect the hotel.
“(We) weren’t really blacklisting the Skirvin. That was the misinformation last time. What people really wanted to get the attention of was a fellow named Locke who was acting pretty independently and not really representing the ownership of the Skirvin.
That hurt the development of Oklahoma City,” Lamirand said.
“There was a great number of people who felt very strongly about Norton Locke, but … I don’t think there was anybody who was actually trying to destroy the Skirvin. It was a move against what he (Locke) stood for.”
Before its troubles piled up, the Skirvin hotel enjoyed a long and distinguished reputation. It was built in 1910-1911 by the late William B. Skirvin, who made a fortune in the Spindletop oil fields in east Texas before bringing his money and search for oil to Oklahoma. The Skirvin lobby is part of the oil lore of early Oklahoma, with such names as Skelly, Champlin, Getty doing business there.
The hotel remained in the founding family until 1945, when it was sold to Oklahoma City businessman Dan James. It was acquired in 1963 by a group of midwestern investors headed by John Grande, formerly an executive with the Statler chain. Two years later, Grande’s group added the 3,000-capacity grand ballroom the largest hotel banquet hall in Oklahoma a swimming pool and other improvements.
The next owner-operator after Griffin was O’Meara-Chandler Corp. of Houston, which acquired the property from the principal mortgage holder, New York Life Insurance Co., and changed the name to Skirvin Plaza.
Then, a group of Oklahoma City businessmen, headed by managing partner Ronald Burkes, purchased the property to keep the hotel open.
The Florida group acquired the property in 1985. Among them were several executives of a Walt Disney Productions subsidiary. Skirvin GP Inc., headed by Gary Engle, took title to the property.
By late 1987, spokesman Engle acknowledged the Skirvin was near bankruptcy, and could not make its mortgage payments. The title was relinquished to Business Men’s Assurance Co. of Kansas City, the principal mortgage holder.
Fort Worth businessmen Peiter Streitt and Michael Profitt, partners in Savoy Hotels and Resorts, became owners of record after the January 1988 sheriff’s sale returned it to BMA.
Profitt and Streitt had taken over management of the hotel for BMA in 1987, almost a year before completing the purchase. They shut it down in October 1988.
Last Tuesday, New Orleans-based Empire Land Co. took title to the hotel with a $2.22 million dollar bid at the latest sheriff’s sale.
Prior to the auction, Empire, headed by New Orleans businessman Louis J.Roussel Jr., became primary mortgage holder by purchasing the foreclosure judgement from previous lender Mutual Savings Life Insurance Co. Empire is expected to entertain offers from buyers interested in restoring an reopneing the downtown lankmark, but no timetable has been established for such transactions.
Last week, Lamirand and others voiced strong support for any attempts to reopen the Skirvin.
“I think everybody in the community desperately wants that facility open. We all miss it so much. It’s incredible how much it plays a role in all of our lives,” he said.