By Jackson Sharp
Dressed in dark red brick and standing at nine floors tall, The Waterford Hotel was Oklahoma City’s first ticket to a world-class luxury experience for its visitors and residents. Built on the cusp of one of Oklahoma City’s most exclusive zip codes, and having weathered nearly four decades of a rapidly changing metro that put others out of business, the hotel still signifies a passage that took Oklahoma City from a dirty little cattle town to a cosmopolitan metro.
Nestled on the rolling green hills of what used to be an orphanage, the hotel was originally part of a mixed-use community development led by real estate developer Charles Givens. The Waterford Project began in 1982, construction of the hotel beginning nearly a year later, at a time when the northwest suburban areas of the city were exploding with construction of large executive homes and planned communities. Givens’ decision to place the 40-acre development at the southeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 63rd Street was intentional.
“It was a highly contested site to buy, there were multiple bidders on it,” said Givens.
The leafy plot lies just south of the Nichols Hills city boundaries and had been under the ownership of the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention since 1917, according to their website. By the time Givens took over, the area had been engulfed by upscale shopping centers like Penn Square Mall and neighboring country clubs. By 1987, Nichols Hills was the 9th richest suburb in the United States, according to the Oklahoman.
Givens began development of the $100 million Waterford project just after his 30th birthday, designing a mixed-use community that included 350,000 square feet of office space, a 1,200 car parking garage, 121 condominiums and of course, the then-192 room hotel with its adjoining conference center. The natural beauty of the property was preserved, sprouted with trees and a large pond across from the hotel. A single winding street dubbed Waterford Boulevard splits the development in half, connecting each phase.
The hotel opened in January 1985, enchanting Oklahomans and its visitors with a level luxury never experienced in the state before.
“There really wasn’t a grand hotel in Oklahoma City at the time. The closest thing would have been the Skirvin and I don’t know what the condition of it was at the time,” said Givens.
The iconic Hotel Skirvin, Oklahoma City’s only other luxury hotel since 1911 had fell into disrepair by the 1980s and closed its doors in 1988, according to Hilton’s website. This opened the door for the Waterford as the natural choice for guests seeking a plush night’s rest.
With arched ceilings, parquet flooring and oversized crown molding, the lobby alone raised the bar for Oklahoma City hotels. But it was the two restaurants, massive event center and impeccable service that set the Waterford apart. Movie stars, rock bands and oil tycoons made the Waterford their choice of stay when they found themselves in the Big Friendly. For residents of Oklahoma City, the Waterford was a top destination for wedding receptions, reunions and holiday dinners, according to James Baze, who was a bellman at the Waterford from 1990 to 1999.
But after an oil bust in the mid 1980s caused financial turmoil for major banks across the state, Givens faced difficulty with maintaining the hotel’s prestige. According to a report by the FDIC, between 1980 and 1994 Oklahoma saw 122 banks fail, including a majority of the banks that had financed Givens’ project. Shortly after the Waterford’s opening, Givens sold the hotel alone to the Landmark Land Company.
Despite a floundering economy and, according to the FDIC, a rapid increase in foreclosures and office vacancy across Oklahoma City, the Waterford stayed afloat. Under the control of Landmark, the hotel maintained its status as the state’s longest running four star hotel, according to current general manager Chase Rollins.
“I would definitely say, back in the 90s, we were the best hotel in Oklahoma City,” said Baze. “We had the Waterford Dining Room, which was a four star dining room at the time. We had seven doormen, seven bellmen.”
Undergoing a $3 million renovation in 1996, according to the Oklahoma County Assessor, the Waterford became a staple for northwest residents of the city for Sunday brunch and holiday dinners. Operating the massive Waterford Dining Room and the sundrenched, all-white-wicker Veranda café on the back of the restaurant, the hotel and its legendary service had become important to the people of Oklahoma City, Rollins said.
“We call it the gem of northwest Oklahoma City,” said Rollins. “I talk to people and they say ‘oh I had my wedding reception there 30 years ago, ‘that’s where I proposed to my wife.’”
Today the hotel is under control of Renaissance, after an overnight exchange from Marriot in 2016. After undergoing a major remodel in 2015, the Waterford Dining Room was opened up to make room for the hotel’s new restaurant, Ember. The Veranda was taken out and became an added event space. But according to Rollins, the hotel’s charm and sentimental value was not lost. Brunches are still booked out for major holidays featuring dishes with imported seafood and an extensive list of wine and signature cocktails, Rollins said.
“I think when people think about this hotel, I used the word iconic, but really I think it’s just elegant,” said Rollins.
With the massive revitalization of downtown Oklahoma City in the last decade, the Waterford is no longer the only luxury experience offered to visitors of this once sleepy city. But Baze feels the Waterford offers something unmatched anywhere else in the city – incredible service and people who care.
“I definitely think that the service we give is going to keep guests [coming back,]” said Baze, who returned to the hotel in 2017.
Although the Waterford has changed ownership a few times in the past 34 years, surviving a catastrophic economic collapse and a resurgence of interest toward downtown Oklahoma City, it is clear that Givens’ dream for the Waterford still lives on. As the hotel that helped redefine the city approaches its 35th birthday in the new decade, Sunday brunch at the Waterford is something that is here to stay.