Two veteran newspaper reporters who chronicled the turbulent years and subsequent rebirth of downtown Oklahoma City in a 2006 book have returned with a volume about the rise, fall and rising again of what many consider the city’s crown jewel: the Skirvin Hilton Hotel.
Jack Money and Steve Lackmeyer covered downtown for years at The Oklahoman and watched numerous failed efforts to re-open the Skirvin ” which was shuttered in 1988 after operating since 1911 ” as a string of developers and investors tried their hands and fortunes on the historic hotel. It was only after the Milwaukee-based Marcus Hotels and Resorts came into the picture in 2003 that the site was refurbished using private dollars coupled with city, county, state and federal funds and tax credits.
Their book, “Skirvin,” chronicles the hotel from its inception by oilman W.B. Skirvin ” who began plans for the place in the years following statehood ” through years of ownership changes, legendary characters, scoundrels, scandal and the site of some of the most important meetings, gatherings and sit-ins in state history.
Over the years, the hotel hosted celebrities, dignitaries and U.S. presidents. Since re-opening in 2007, politicians, actors, musicians and athletes have not been uncommon guests checking in at the storied structure.
DE FACTO HISTORIANS
Money and Lackmeyer, arguably becoming the de facto historians of all things downtown, had just wrapped up the seven-year process researching, writing, editing and publishing “OKC Second Time Around” just months before the Skirvin re-opened. At that opening-night reception, both were asked by a number of people if the pair had considered writing a book about the Skirvin. Up to that point, they had not.
“Several individuals approached us that night asking if we could go forward and do a book,” Lackmeyer said. “We were looking for another book project to work on, and the Skirvin didn’t immediately pop up.”
After discussing the issue, Money and Lackmeyer decided it was worth their time and efforts to pursue a complete volume on the life of the hotel, warts and all. Fortunately, they found support for the project with Jim Tolbert, whose Full Circle Press published “Second Time Around.”
“Jim Tolbert was a true supporter of doing a real history,” Lackmeyer said.
Less than three years later, the book was completed. The two conducted extensive research from Skirvin family records, in-depth interviews and historical documents, and built on the hotel’s early history compiled and written by Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
When he heard they were thinking about writing a Skirvin book, Blackburn encouraged them to go for it. He said it is crucial for future generations to know what happened starting in the late 1990s when community leaders began eyeing a viable way to re-open the site. He said the real story is the redevelopment.
“We should treasure the Skirvin and appreciate its history, but that’s been done in the fact that it’s still there,” he said. “What we might lose is the memory of how this thing was reborn.”
Skirvin General Manager John Williams agreed that no one should forget those who worked tirelessly to see that the place was saved, restored and brought back to its former glory. He was hired to run it in 2006.
“This was done out of love of the city and passion for the city,” Williams said. “Steve and Jack recognized the importance of the Skirvin and the rebirth of the Skirvin.”
Williams also was not bothered that the pair did not dance around issues like Prohibition, ghosts and segregation laws that, for many years, did not allow black citizens the right to stay at the hotel or eat in its restaurants.
“Steve and Jack did a great job getting the story right,” he said of the sometimes checkered past.
And then there is Effie.
SPIRITUAL EFFIE That name was given to a supposed spurned lover of W.B. Skirvin who is said to have leapt to her death from one of the rooms with their child. No account of such a person exists, but Money and Lackmeyer dedicated two pages to stories of spirits like Effie that some claim still roam the floors.
For other stories ” from Skirvin’s spirit sitting in a lobby chair, signaling with a raised eyebrow to the front-desk attendant if a potential guest should be shown to the best room in the house, or shown the door, to the days of famed owner Dan James and his observation of “liquor by the wink” during Prohibition ” readers will have to pick up the book.
The book will be available for sale at the hotel and local bookstores.
At the end of the day, the authors got most of their questions answered. But one in particular remains, pertaining to a suspicious hit-and-run accident in 1945 that ultimately led to the death of Skirvin, then an octogenarian, who had just won back control of the ailing hotel in court from his children.
“I’d like to ask him, ‘Who ran you off the road?'” Lackmeyer said. “Kelley Chambers