No Vacancy – Fabled past still fills empty halls of Lincoln Plaza
Steve Lackmeyer. “No Vacancy – Fabled past still fills empty halls of Lincoln Plaza.” Oklahoman, The (Oklahoma City, OK) 22 Sep. 2007, CITY, BUSINESS: 1B. NewsBank Access World News. [UCO Library, Edmond, OK]. 19 Jun. 2009. .
No Vacancy – Fabled past still fills empty halls of Lincoln Plaza
The Lincoln Plaza may be dark now, but its corridors are filled with legendary tales – including the “secret” stays by Elvis Presley.
Former Gov. George Nigh still recalls running into Presley in a stairway on one of those visits, one of many fond memories of what was once a favorite gathering spot for state officials, lobbyists and industry titans.
“My campaign for re-election for lieutenant governor was based in a room we rented in that hotel,” Nigh said. “One night I was up working, and instead of going to the elevator to go get something from my car, I walked down the stairway.”
It was there, Nigh said, that he ran into the singer on one of his unofficial cross-country stops.
“I stopped, shook his hand and told him how much I enjoyed his music,” Nigh said. “He, of course, said ‘thank you very much…’ ”
By the time the hotel at 4345 Lincoln Blvd. was bought and closed last summer by Tom Parrish, the heydays of Lincoln Plaza had long faded away. The dinner theater, with its old-fashioned curved booths and walls adorned with photos of stars, had been closed years earlier. The room tower had closed as well, leaving just the smaller room annex open for guests.
Over the past year, Parrish has stripped the hotel of its contents, removed brush and debris from the exterior, and stripped the inside carpeting, wallpapering and paint.
He’s also selling furniture bought several years ago. He smiles as he recalls the furniture was bought by a previous owner at an auction of contents from the old Heritage USA theme park run by televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Parrish isn’t ready to share his plans for the property – he hopes to make an announcement within 45 days. He’s promising a major overhaul is in the works, one that will return the Lincoln Plaza to its former glory.
He adds the property itself is definitely worth saving.
“The integrity of the structure is poured in place concrete,” Parrish said. “No one could afford to build this structure today. The electricity is also good, it just needs a few code upgrades. The plumbing, the fire sprinklers – they’re all good. The mechanical systems are good, but we’ll be replacing it anyway to bring it up to today’s standards.”
He’s also planning to recreate the hotel’s Elvis Presley suite.
The property, Parrish said, made money even in its declining years. So how did it go from one of the city’s best hotels to a half-dark faded jewel?
International Trade Mart
The Lincoln Office Plaza, announced in 1967, was to be no ordinary office complex. Led by John Lewis, president of First Fidelity Corp., the 24-acre project was to include a hotel, trade mart and ample underground parking. Lewis estimated the development along Lincoln Boulevard at NE 42 would cost $15 million.
Everything was to be “ultra-modern” – including computers devoted to oil companies. Lewis proclaimed a trade mart at the complex would put Oklahoma City in competition with Dallas as a wholesale shipping hub.
“There will be a lot of consolidation here of offices from all over the country because of the efficiencies made possible by this location and facilities,” Lewis said. “That’s the reason we’ve got to get going in a hurry.”
The trade mart idea had already faded from the headlines when the complex opened with a Quality Inn banner on July 15, 1970. The hotel featured 312 rooms, a dinner theater with a rotating stage, a 14,000-square-foot ballroom, and 17 meeting rooms. At a time when downtown’s aging hotels were either going bankrupt or being torn down by Urban Renewal, the Lincoln Plaza offered modern accommodations, ample meeting space and free parking.
Meanwhile, a young Parrish who initially hoped to start a career in real estate development had been detoured to a banking firm in Texas. And it was there that he was assigned to oversee refinancing of the recently opened Lincoln Plaza .
“I knew the deal,” Parrish said. “We had fraternity parties there.”
Parrish would go on to enjoy a successful career in banking, becoming a bank president at age 27. He would later run Southwest Bank in Oklahoma City with Jack Abernathy.
Throughout the 1970s the Lincoln Plaza remained a top destination for travelers, politicians, executives and couples seeking a fun night at its dinner theater.
In 1984, the hotel was sold for $20 million. But by then, Nigh said, trouble was already looming. The collapse of Penn Square Bank had triggered a severe economic depression throughout the state, and Lincoln Boulevard itself was beginning to look shabby. Aging motels along Lincoln Boulevard, no longer attracting cross-country travelers, became havens for prostitutes and drug dealers.
The strip’s reputation suffered, and Nigh spent his final years as governor unsuccessfully attempting to clean the area up by making it a state park.
The property frequently changed hands throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Owners in 1991 promised an overhaul, and managed to bring in new furniture bought at auctions of the closed Heritage USA. That plan ended with a foreclosure in 1993.
More promised comebacks followed. Another set of owners in 1998 promised a sweeping overhaul that would rebrand the hotel as a Ramada and feature a theme restaurant owned by legendary coach Jimmy Johnson.
The Ramada banner didn’t stay up for long. The hotel tower closed. The restaurant closed after 18 months.
As the Lincoln Plaza ‘s fortunes continued to fade, Parrish was finally beginning to step into the development career he had dreamed of decades earlier. One of his acquisitions included the Lincoln Plaza office complex – and that brought him into a direct conversation with the hotel’s owners.
The owners liked Parrish and wanted him to buy the hotel.
“It had been making money, but the previous owners had taken it out and were not putting it back into the hotel,” Parrish said. “The current owners at the time were in their 70s and telling me ‘come on kid, you can do it. Just make us an offer.'”
Parrish replied he didn’t want to jeopardize their friendship – and felt his offer might be insulting.
His offer was rejected – but the owners came back with a counter-offer of $2 million.
Parrish took the deal.
That was in August 2006. Parrish, who isn’t a developer who seeks headlines, agreed to participate in this story.
He confirmed a major deal is in the works to restore the hotel as one of the city’s top conference centers. He’s encouraged by developer Richard Tanenbaum’s nearby apartment development, and has high praise for the cleanup of Lincoln Boulevard completed by former Gov. Frank Keating.
“Knowing the neighborhood and the history of Lincoln Boulevard, I’m following in some other’s steps here,” Parrish said. “And if the Lincoln Renaissance project hadn’t taken place, I wouldn’t be doing this. But Lincoln has been cleaned up and there is the sparkle again of what this area was once all about.”