By Tara Kirkpatrick
Hip & Historic
Its new sign says it all: Hotel Congress has reached its 100th year in Tucson.
The landmark hotel – whose history is forever linked with the 1934 capture of notorious criminal John Dillinger and his gang – celebrates a storied history in which it began as the lodging for a young railroad city and, over the course of a century, has become the hip, urban anchor of downtown.
“I love every brick of the place,” said owner Richard Oseran, a third-generation Arizonan who bought the hotel with his wife, Shana, in 1985. “It’s the cultural hub of the community. When you walk through those heavy front doors, you get it. You just get it.”
Today, Hotel Congress is the city’s No. 2 Uber destination, behind Tucson International Airport. Thousands of people walk through the doors to listen to bands at Club Congress, eat at Cup Café, enjoy a drink at Tiger’s Tap Room and celebrate an event in Copper Hall. “We have taken a 100-year-old building and turned it into a multi-faceted art and entertainment hub,” said GM Todd Hanley.
Built in 1918, Hotel Congress was constructed as part of a broader development of Congress Street in tandem with the Rialto Theatre. The new hotel, near the Southern Pacific train station, opened with three floors and 100 rooms, featuring many modern conveniences of its time, including a telephone in every room, elevator service and steam heat.
Yet, it was a fire in January 1934 that truly put the hotel on the map. The blaze, which began in the basement, forced out members of Dillinger’s gang, who were staying on the third floor. The men cajoled the firefighters into going back into the hotel to retrieve their luggage and rewarded them with a handsome tip – a gesture that led police to their discovery and, eventually, the capture of Dillinger himself.
Embracing this accidental fame, the hotel has celebrated Dillinger Days every January since 1994, reenacting the historic drama and offering music, food and whiskey tastings to boot.
After the fire, the hotel was rebuilt with two floors and only 40 rooms. Club Congress opened in 1985 and was listed in Esquire Magazine’s 2011 “Best Bars in America.” The Cup Café, opened in 1990, has also received accolades for its food, including a 2015 Arizona Foodist Award for its cast-iron baked eggs.
The Oserans have spent the last 34 years restoring Hotel Congress to its urban digs today. “We’ve tried to do it by salvaging historic property, nothing trendy, nothing glitzy,” Oseran said. The wood paneling in Copper Hall came from the old Roskruge Hotel on Scott Avenue. Maple flooring on one of the floors is from the now-closed Small Planet Bakery. The “Southwest Art Deco” murals in the lobby were courtesy of Bay Area artist Larry Boyce in 1989.
“It has sort of taken itself where it wanted to go,” Oseran said.
And family has helped. Hanley is the Oseran’s son-in-law, married to their eldest daughter. The couple’s other two daughters have also worked in the hotel. The youngest helped redecorate the rooms and the middle daughter was married in the hotel plaza. “It’s a family business,” said Hanley. “Part of my love and passion for working here is rooted in my love and passion for my in-laws and my wife. But I come back every day because of the people.”
“All of our employees are pretty extraordinary. Some have been here 18 years, 30 years – people spend their entire lives here,” Oseran said. Perhaps the hotel’s most legendary employee is Tom “Tiger” Ziegler, who’s been the Tap Room bartender since 1959. At age 84, he still serves drinks in the bar that has since been named for him.
To commemorate its centennial, Hotel Congress is planning a free, family-friendly block party on Nov. 24 along with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Tucson Museum of Art and the Rialto, said Marketing Director Dalice Shepard. The staff is also creating a time capsule to be buried in the hotel plaza. The celebrations will culminate with an epic New Year’s Eve bash, she said.
The banner year also finds the hotel planning more capital investment, including plans to restructure the hotel plaza into a downtown amphitheater, she said.
“The 100th birthday is a significant milestone,” said Oseran. “When you take into account what the community has lost – most of the barrio, a lot of wonderful historic buildings – it stands as an example.”