by Steve Lackmeyer
Published: Thu, September 12, 2019 5:00 AM

A 120-room hotel named in honor of Oklahoma City literary icon Ralph Ellison is set to be built at Classen Curve with designs aimed at featuring local artists and authors.

The hotel will be the first in Oklahoma under the Tribute Portfolio, Marriott International’s newest brand that accommodates independent hotels with a variety of designs and emphasis on driving “social scenes” for guests and locals.

Developer Ryan Slater, managing partner of Plains Management Group, said the hotel has been in the works for five years and will be built on The Triangle section of Classen Curve just north of Whole Foods. The lifestyle boutique hotel will include a restaurant developed by Chris Lower and Joseph Royer, a rooftop swimming pool and bar, and 7,000 square feet of meeting space including a ballroom and library lounge.

“There hasn’t been a full-service hotel built in northwest Oklahoma City since 1980 when the Waterford was built,” Slater said. “Looking at the site with Classen Curve and the surrounding neighborhoods, it was exciting to us.”

Ralph Ellison, who died in 1994, is among the most celebrated authors from Oklahoma City, with a following that spread around the world. The novelist, critic and academic was best known for his book “Invisible Man,” which won a National Book Award in 1953 and was inspired by Ellison’s time growing up in Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce.

The naming caught some by surprise, with some in the city’s African American community questioning why a hotel named The Ellison Hotel isn’t being built closer to where he lived.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice chose not to respond to requests for comments for this story, but on Twitter she asked “Why is a Ralph Ellison hotel being located on Classen Curve and not near the grounds where he roamed and truly knew?”

The naming started about two years ago when Slater hired local branding firm Cooper House to come up a brand for the hotel that also would encompass art and programming within the hotel.

“Essentially, all Tribute hotels are a tribute to the city in some way, whether it’s the city, touchstone or person,” said Erin Cooper, creative director at Cooper House. “Sometimes it’s a renovation of an old building, and when that happens, they are limited to what is associated with that building, but with a new building, we had an opportunity to name it in a way significant for whole city.”

Cooper said the challenge was to help the owners decide what the story might be, and they chose to go with a story of Oklahoma — its artists and authors — that often is overlooked.

“If the nation is looking at us, what do we want them to know about us that might surprise them?” Cooper asked. “It’s a place for the local community to express themselves and a way for visitors to see something they might not know. We wanted to choose a name that would be representative of someone who is a creative of this state who has accomplished great things. When we chose his name, it seemed as if everything came into place.”

The deal wasn’t done until it was presented to Michael Owens, founder and director of the Ralph Ellison Foundation.

The proposal included creating a library of local books at the hotel and providing the foundation with a home for readings, presentations, meetings and banquets.

Currently, Ellison’s name graces a library at NE 23 and Martin Luther King Avenue, and Mayor David Holt championed including a sculpture as part of MAPS 4 that might be placed in front of the library if approved by voters.

Owens said he was “blown away” when he was approached with the naming proposal, adding “Ellison has been invisible more in his home city than outside the state.”

“Ralph Ellison is not restricted to the northeast community,” Owens said. “Ellison is a global icon. He has a statue in New York. The beauty of the hotel location is that Ellison will be introduced to audiences that ordinarily would not have engaged with him. We want to reach those not familiar with him.”

In response to questions and criticism voiced on social media, Owens said the naming and programming was approved by the foundation’s board and fits the vision expressed by Ellison during his lifetime.

“What we’re trying to do in Oklahoma City is to make it more inclusive, to celebrate all of us,” Owens said. “This gives us the opportunity to expand that vision. We will be doing the programming. This brought several board members to tears.”

Construction of the hotel is expected to start this winter with an opening in early 2021. Slater said the programming and operation of the hotel will be inclusive as will the invitation for locals to make The Ellison Hotel a venue for their own events.

“We welcome and invite everyone,” Slater said. “We think everyone will enjoy this hotel. It’s located in an area where it’s next to Chesapeake Energy, large company, and we have other business travelers we’ll be attracting. But we also think will have families and leisure travelers.”