“Blighted” was the word used to describe the rambling estate at 602 E. College Avenue in 1999. The once-grand property in Guthrie had suffered from neglect and vandals. The graffiti-covered walls showed evidence that too many adventurers had snuck into the abandoned buildings.
The City of Guthrie invited construction experts, Trey Ayers and his father-in-law, Calvin Burgess, to look at the possibility of converting the dilapidated buildings into a juvenile detention center. “A week later, Calvin called me and Julie (his daughter) and said, ‘I’m going to buy it, live in it, and move the Dominion Leasing office there,”’ Trey said. “We thought it was a pretty crazy idea, but we loved the beauty of the classical revival architecture and its deep sense of history. We had no idea how that decision was going to impact our lives for the next 20 years!”
It took four years to restore the central part of the property. During that time, Julie and her dad quickly realized that the main building had potential as a wedding venue. The structure already had a history of hosting large numbers of people, specifically, children. It was built in 1923 as a Masonic Children’s home–the nicest, most impressive orphanage in Oklahoma, built to house about 350 kids.
Julie saw that by keeping the beautiful terrazzo floor and adding decorative woodwork to the cement columns, the cafeteria could easily be converted into a large ballroom. The downstairs gymnasium was the perfect size for an indoor wedding chapel. With some outdoor landscaping, a bridal party could also choose a beautiful garden backdrop.
So, in 2004, the orphanage opened under the new name, Dominion House. The Burgesses lived in the main building and continued to run their construction business. Trey orchestrated the on-going building conversion, and Julie became a full-time on-site wedding planner. “I would call it a stressful, but fun transition,” Trey said. “We bought a house nearby, and Julie and I got to work together full-time to bring her vision to reality. One goal was to positively impact the community—and now, we bring thousands of guests into Guthrie every year.”
Some of those guests are the very children who once lived in the orphanage. “It’s been so neat to meet them and hear their memories,” Julie said. “They say that they were the lucky ones who had a home during the Depression.”
“They had a gym, an indoor swimming pool, and a skating rink in their own home, too!” Trey added.
Now, another generation is making the Dominion House their home–on a short-term basis. The dormitory wing of the house just opened as a 10-room boutique hotel. Each room is unique, with both modern and traditional touches. “I want people to walk in and say, ‘Wow, this doesn’t feel like a hotel!’” Julie said. “While other hotels are making their rooms smaller, we went the opposite.”
Most of the property’s interior structure had to be gutted, so the hotel rooms are completely new. To preserve the historical integrity of the site, however, the Ayers salvaged and repurposed what they could. The windowsills throughout the facility are made of the marble slabs that used to be bathroom partitions for the orphanage. Bricks from a torn-down dormitory were used to build new walls. Cast stones from a burnt structure became decorative elements.
The main building continues to undergo transformation, too. The Burgesses recently moved out, and the Ayers added a grand staircase up to the second floor, where wedding parties can now rent their own suites. Downstairs, the kitchen is almost ready to open for business as a public restaurant. The 602 Bistro will feature a brick oven for pizza and a menu that varies from steaks to rotisserie chicken.
The Ayers’ twenty-year project isn’t done quite yet. They hope to eventually install an outdoor pool, open to the neighborhood. “The idea is to develop this place as a social setting for the community–a place to meet up with neighbors, go swimming and have dinner,” Trey said. “It’s our version of Southern hospitality. We want Dominion House to be that hidden gem that everyone thinks they’ve discovered.”
Photographs placed along the Dominion House hallways tell the story of the 95-year-old building, which came tragically close to being lost. Thanks to the Burgess and Ayers families, the property is blighted no more. “It stands to impress once again,” Julie said. “And the people who lived here when it was an orphanage tell us they are happy we brought their home back to its grand glory.”
To learn more, visit www.dominionhouseguthrie.com