Oklahoma City’s oldest hotel was built in 1910 and opened in 1911 by oilman W.B. Skirvin who had made his fortune in the Spindletop oil fields in east Texas. The hotel was designed by Solomon Andrew Layton, whose other work includes the old Central High School, the Oklahoma State Capitol, and the Oklahoma County Courthouse.
The hotel gained fame when Skirvin’s daughter Pearl Mesta, who lent her name to Mesta Park, hosted lavish parties with foreign dignitaries as guests.
Many of the photos in the Retro Metro OKC collection were given by George James to authors Steve Lackmeyer and Jack Money.
George James was only 18 when his dad, Dan James, bought the hotel from Skirvin’s heirs in 1945. The Skirvin family had spent the previous seven years battling over the hotel’s control, and during much of that time up until Skirvin’s death in 1945, the hotel and adjoining tower had been placed under the receivership of a Dallas operator.
Dan James was born into the hotel business and was working as a night clerk at his father’s Crystal Hotel in El Dorado, Ark., at an age when others were in college.
James moved his family to Oklahoma City and bought the Hotel Black at Hudson and Sheridan Avenues. The young family spent the first few years living at the hotel, making improvements and turning it into an upscale operation that attracted celebrity guests like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
Dan James transformed the hotel into a civic and community center where the finest banquets, balls and parties were held in the Skirvin’s Persian Room and Tower Club.
Dan James had his son George work his way up the ladder. He started out in the hotel’s laundry room, wearing a khaki suit and white coat, and then worked his way up to room clerk and the cashier’s cage.
Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhour both made stops at the Skirvin. While sharing stories about the hotel, George James recalled driving a visiting Robert F. Kennedy along a then seedy stretch of Grand Avenue (now Sheridan) on the way to the hotel. Passing some burlesque theaters, James said, Kennedy asked if they could take the same route back to the airport at the end of his visit.
Celebrities were frequent guests at the Skirvin throughout the 1950s, but George James’ most vivid memory was a 1954 stay by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
At check-in, James said, the pair were all laughs, with Lewis joking he couldn’t stay in the Perle Mesta suite because he was a married man. But once the pair escaped the glare of photographers and reporters, Martin left for the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club with James and oilman Carl Anderson while Lewis stayed downtown and saw a movie.
“For 18 holes, all Dean Martin could talk about was Lewis trying to get in on his royalties for ‘That’s Amore,’” James said. “I heard the whole works. And when we got back, we found out he (Lewis) had cut all the pants legs off the suits for all the orchestra players. It was a prank.”
Neither Martin or the band were amused. Reporters buzzed the pair, asking whether a break-up was imminent. They declared their partnership was solid.
The family sold the hotel in 1963, leading to a long, slow decline under a series of owners until it closed in 1988.
The Skirvin reopened in 2006 after an extensive renovation and quickly restored its legacy as both a civic gathering spot and host to some of the biggest names in entertainment and sports. As with the earlier days under Dan and George James, guests in the 21 century included icons like Henry Winkler, Harrison Ford, Stevie Wonder, Steven Tyler, Paul McCartney and Terry Bradshaw.