and residents of Monkey Island and Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.
Ironically, it was another highly successful manufacturing magnate who had originally developed the tip of Monkey Island into the sprawling empire that brought fame, fortune and a never-ending line-up of state, regional and national leaders to the Grand Lake area in the 1970s and 80s. Wichita manufacturer Charles Davis is appropriately credited with development of Shangri-La Resort into the national destination that hosted hundreds of thousands of guests through two decades of his leadership—and for bringing millions of dollars in real estate investment and tourism to this seven mile paradise.
Davis’ name is appropriately associated with the storied past of the resort, but he was not the original developer of what was then known as “Shangri-La Hotel.” Oklahoma City Contractor Frank Richards put together a group of local investors who opened the original hotel in May, 1964. Davis’ interests lay elsewhere, in his thousand acre “Island Farms” property on Monkey Island, home to a growing herd of Angus cattle, his beloved Quarter Horses, and a growing family.
The original Shangri-La Hotel struggled in those early days, changing management multiple times in its first five years before finally falling into disrepair, reduced to little more than a largely uninhabited fishing lodge. When Island neighbor Davis heard a rumor that prostitution might be a serious consideration for saving the hotel, it was more than he could bear. He purchased the property outright in May, 1969. From that day, the original dream began to grow in Davis’ mind – a dream of “…a luxury resort and condominium complex offering year round recreational and social activities…” As it turns out, that original vision was merely the tip of the iceberg.
Davis closed the hotel in November, 1969, gutted the old lodge and renovated it into an eclectic hideaway with unique and cozy dining areas. Seven months later, when he re-opened the facility in time for the 4th of July celebration, he added entertainment to the line-up. Initially patrons occasionally were entertained by The Forrest Wasson Orchestra. In later years, as the resort and its reputation grew, the music of Wasson’s orchestra became a nightly mainstay for the resort’s upscale clientele.
The vision grew. “Mr. Davis,” as he was still referred to by former staff decades after the resort was sold, purchased an additional 200 acres and built an 18-hole Championship golf course. In 1973, the 125-unit Shangri-La Estates residential project bordering the golf course was completed. In 1974 came the addition of the Polynesian-style “Tahitian Terrace” featuring indoor swimming, shuffleboard, food service and cocktails all under one roof. By 1976 work was complete on another unique nightly housing option, Golden Oaks (later renamed Bradford House and is now the Worldmark by Wyndham), with 144 rooms including 32 suites and two conference halls accommodating 300 each.
Simultaneously, Davis completed the Royal Hawaiian Conference Center in the main lodge, frequently hosting up to 600 conference attendees by day, as well as nightly musical entertainment at the nearby “Golden Eagle Ballroom.” All guests, both business and recreational, enjoyed countless hours of fun playing tennis and bowling in the newly completed Golden Leaf Recreation Center.
In 1977, the resort began to garner well-deserved regional and national attention. Mobil’s coveted Four-Star designation and AAA’s Four Diamond Award were bestowed on Shangri-La that year and each year thereafter for more than a decade. Buoyed by the success, Davis expanded his dream further, adding the 4,000-foot runway at the newly developed “Golden Falcon Airpark” (Grand Lake Regional Airport on Monkey Island today), and began construction on the high-end Shangri-La Chateaus – 46 privately-owned luxury homes bordering an additional nine-hole golf course. Nine more holes were added to the new course in 1982, giving the resort a total of 36 golf holes.
Davis converted his Angus Show Barn into 34 one-bedroom rental properties called “Country Estates.” The resort’s marina was constantly upgraded and expanded to accommodate vessels growing in both size and number. His investment of an additional $5 million had provided plentiful facilities to host the 1977 Midwestern Governors’ Conference – and Shangri-La’s spot in the national spotlight was assured.
In 1980, a future opportunity to host every governor in America, plus a chance at a national media spotlight, led to more resort development. In January 1981, construction began on Vista Towers, an eleven-story resort facility offering 168 bedrooms in 84 two-bedroom suites, plus a private penthouse adjoining an exclusive 120-seat restaurant on the eleventh floor.
By the following spring, work was completed on an expansion of the Golden Leaf Recreation Center with an indoor pool, racquetball, casual dining and a luxury lounge. Adjacent to the recreation center, a 48,000 square foot conference center sprang from the earth, with a “Grand Hall O’ the Cherokees” main hall that would seat 2,000 conferees in a single room – or transform into a ballroom that would leave a lengthy legacy of balls and dances.
In all, an additional $25 million was spent expanding and improving facilities in preparation for one of the nation’s most sought-after events with virtually unlimited conference accommodations and 470 luxurious guest rooms in addition to available condominiums and homes for rent. Oklahoma Governor George Nigh hosted the 1982 National Governors’ Conference at Grand Lake’s Shangri-La Resort, highlighting more than a decade of prestigious convention events. Charles Davis received the Oklahoma Tourism Award for his outstanding contribution to tourism in the state and Shangri-La Resort was named “Oklahoma’s Premiere Resort” by Governor Nigh.
From 1970 to 1983, the eye-popping growth and success of the resort impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of travelers from throughout the nation and abroad, as well as to local businesses and residents benefitting from tourism and real estate investment dollars in the community. A March, 1983 appraisal valued the resort at $46,800,000.00. Tragically, a confluence of regional and national economic factors combined to force Shangri-La into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1986.
A trustee was quickly named to oversee plans for Shangri-La’s future, setting in motion a series of ownership changes and changing business plans that gradually chiseled away at the once great property. Bank IV of Wichita took over in November, 1987. A year later, a coalition led by 4th National Bank purchased the property, recouping some of their investment by selling the airport and the marina. In late 1989, they sold the remaining property to the reputable resort operator, Club Corp.
Eight years later, in 1997, the resort was sold to Irving, Texas-based Highgate Hotels, which sold off much of the property including the “Bradford House” (originally built as the Golden Oaks condominium complex) and the premier waterfront property of the main lodge. Highgate attempted to hold some loyal patrons by maintaining a few rooms and operation of “The Waters” restaurant until the autumn of 2004. The following spring, Highgate sold the remaining real estate, main lodge building, recreation center, conference center and golf courses to Peter S. Boylan III.
Boylan promptly announced an ambitious hotel and condominium development project under a new name, “The Peninsula Resort & Club,” but a plummeting economy, rising construction costs and the worldwide financial crisis stalled the project. Five years later, only golf and some limited recreational opportunities remained. Deposits on the planned condominium project were returned, the recreation center and convention center were razed, one of the two golf courses was closed and the remaining Championship course fell into disrepair.
The lodge, once the host of dignitaries from around the world, became a nesting place for wildlife. Then, on March 12, 2010, the property sold once again – and a new era began. Ownership rights transferred to Tulsa manufacturing giant Eddy Gibbs who was, at the time, owner of Tulsa-based Ameristar Fence Products. And, although the footprint of the legendary resort had changed, his vision of creating a world-class golf resort has not.
Progress began immediately. The remaining buildings of the original resort, painful to see in their decrepit condition, were demolished. The Championship Blue Golf Course underwent immediate renovation. Tee boxes were rebuilt. Fairways were carefully manicured and deteriorating sand traps were totally replaced.
Work began on a stunning 13,000 square foot club house which opened July 14, 2011, including an 85-seat restaurant, bar, lounge, fitness center and golf shop. Two new magnificent golf holes were built to make way for the new club house and adjacent practice facilities, including a new driving range. Crews began work on a new nine-hole golf course on the site of the former Gold Course, closed two years previously due to lack of demand.
That new course, The Champions Nine, opened for play November 11, 2011, simultaneous with reconstruction of the north nine holes on the old Blue Course. Those nine new holes, the Legends Nine, opened for play in May, 2012, at which time the remaining nine holes were closed for complete redesign and renovation. With the completion of reconstruction on those nine holes and the subsequent opening of the Heritage Nine in May, 2013, Shangri-La’s golf course included 27 all-new Championship holes.
In May, 2011, Eddy Gibbs purchased Shangri-La Marina, restoring an important piece of the original Shangri-La Resort puzzle. Experienced professional boat sales personnel were added and full boat and yacht sales operations and a service department were quickly added to complement the ship store, fuel dock and pump-out facilities. Improvements and expansion continued, including additional rental slips now totaling 220. On-site outdoor dining, boat and personal watercraft rental, parasailing and yacht charters are all a part of the total on-the-water recreational offerings at Shangri-La Marina. The Shangri-La Boat Sales operation now offers Chris Craft Boats and, through a partnership with Nichols Marine, Chaparral Boats and Bennington pontoon/tritoon boats.
The next phase of development was residential, beginning with “The Gallery,” fifteen patio homes adjacent to #9 Champions Nine. With groundbreaking in December, 2014, development of the initial fifteen townhomes is scheduled for completion in 2016. Those projects will be followed by additional patio home development adjacent to the Champions #1 and Champions #2 fairways. That phase will be followed by development of additional single family homes near the famed “Mickey Mantle Hole” on the Legends Nine. Four phases of residential construction will total approximately 100 homes.
Phase II includes a $120-$150 million investment in residential development on the resort property, including condominiums, single-family homes, and individual lots for private development. Phase III includes plans for hotel, conference center development, retail facilities, restaurants, clubs and commercial office space.
April 15, 2016 ground was broken for construction of an all-new 120 room resort hotel and conference center, for opening in the Spring of 2017. Former Oklahoma Governor George Nigh was reunited with Monkey Island as the featured speaker at the hotel groundbreaking. Nigh’s long history with Shangri-La dates back to days at the original resort when he hosted the 1982 National Governor’s Conference at Shangri-La. The new hotel includes 8,000 square feet of conference space, outdoor and indoor pools, a casual dining restaurant, indoor and outdoor bar & grill areas, horse shoe pits, sand volleyball, and balconies in the rooms overlooking the lake.
The completed development cost will be in the $250 million range in less than 15 years, ensuring that Shangri-La Resort once again serves as the anchor tenant for business growth throughout northeastern Oklahoma.
The “Shangri-La” name was restored to the property immediately after Gibbs’ purchase. The airport, renamed Grand Lake Regional Airport, is now privately owned and fully operational. Shangri-La Estates and Shangri-La Chateaus continue as highly sought after properties, each unit under individual ownership. Similarly, condominiums at Vista Towers and Country Estates are individually owned, the buildings operated by owners’ associations.
The former Golden Oaks is now a popular time-share property, Worldmark by Wyndham, and former resort waterfront properties have been developed into new luxurious residential areas, Shangri-La Place, The Villas, and Pointe Marin. Charles Davis’ son Bill and his wife Patty are Monkey Island residents and active club members. And throughout the Grand Lake area, the talk is once again about Shangri-La.
Wichita industrial designer Richard Ten Eyck once designed and crafted a spectacular 1,000 pound eagle to sit atop Charles Davis’ Shangri-La Resort as a demonstration of freedom, strength, independence and unparalleled commitment to dreams of greatness. There is no irony in the fact that Eddy Gibbs refused to sell the highly sought-after sculpture. Instead, he retained it to sit atop a specially constructed pedestal welcoming all who approach the Shangri-La Club House to join a new age of greatness – a symbol of the dream shared by two men of two different eras.
Charles Davis left a legacy of excellence and beauty of a day gone by. Eddy Gibbs maintains the same vigilance in the pursuit of a dream to restore that unparalleled standard of excellence to the new Shangri-La Golf Club, Resort & Marina for Grand Lake’s future generations.
For long-time Grand Lakers, the rise of Shangri-La from the proverbial ashes is a wonderful déjà vu moment. It is a rare and exciting experience to see the rebirth of a magnificent facility following the demise of a legendary resort property at the same location and with the same name. Perhaps that is because it is equally rare to see two men of two different generations who share the same vision and destiny — two champions of industry, lake lovers and visionaries willing to invest their time and hard-earned money into an enterprise that bolsters the hopes and dreams of neighbors and strangers alike. It is a symbol of renewed commitment to excellence for a new era that lies ahead for Shangri-La Golf Club, Resort & Marina.
*Special thanks to Bill and Patty Davis, as well as longtime Shangri-La Country Club & Resort mainstays Suzy Bloom and Stephanie Gragg for their outstanding memories, their treasured documents and their valuable contributions to the development and compilation of this history of Oklahoma’s most legendary resort property.