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Hotel Congress Breathes History

Nearly a hundred years after it opened
—30 under the ownership of Richard and Shana Oseran—
there’s a little bit of Hotel Congress for everyone.

September 1, 2014

Issue 8: September/October 2014
Harold Garland has worked as a server at the Cup Café for more than 15 years.

Harold Garland has worked as a server at the Cup Café for more than 15 years.

It’s a bustling sunday morning at Hotel Congress: The Cup Café is full of hungry diners looking to start a new day with a hearty breakfast or shake off a hangover from last night’s overindulgence. Options abound, from the Gunpowder, a bowl filled with turkey chorizo, potatoes, and eggs, to the hearty Braveheart, a plate piled with house-smoked beef brisket atop toast and covered with sautéed spinach, Gruyère cheese, and two poached eggs. A line has formed at the lobby bar, where thirsty patrons are customizing their Bloody Marys with exotic ingredients—avocado, goat cheese, artichokes. The chatter echoing around the cavernous space mixes with bouncy jazz numbers from The Hot Club of Tucson.

The Cup Café

The Cup Café

As lively as it feels now, the lobby was even more charged less than 12 hours ago as the Saturday night crowd ate, drank, and otherwise made merry. Indie band Steff and The Articles were onstage in Club Congress, while the parking lot had been transformed into a plaza for Latin Tropical Block Party. Hundreds of people rolled through the doors looking for a good time.

The weekend’s shows brought guests to the hotel for an overnight stay. Richard Oseran is quizzing a young woman who is checking out. Where you from? Queen Creek. Oh yeah? What brought you down to Tucson? The concert. Did you have a good time? Oh, it was awesome. You enjoy your stay here? Everything was great.

It’s just the kind of thing Richard likes to hear. “This keeps me alive,” he says.

Richard has owned hotel congress with his wife, Shana Oseran, for nearly three decades. Over that time, the hotel has become renown around the world as a music venue, culinary destination, and historic landmark. The New York Times noted that live bands in Club Congress “often have crowds of dancers spilling out into the lobby”; Esquire magazine observed that “oddballs and rebels and holy drunks from all over the Southwest flock to the Hotel Congress”; and The Washington Post called the hotel the “crown jewel” of Congress Street.

Originally built to serve tourists, businessmen, and other travelers, the venerable Hotel Congress has anchored the east end of downtown’s Congress Street for nearly a century. Since its 1919 opening, the hotel has had plenty of ups and downs, including a fire in 1934 that destroyed the hotel’s third-floor rooms and led, in a roundabout way, to a brief capture of John Dillinger, then one of the nation’s most-wanted gangsters. (The hotel celebrates an annual Dillinger’s Days weekend, though even that has not been without a brush with the law; a few years back, a descendant of the Dillinger clan tried to sue the Oserans, claiming he held all rights to the use of Dillinger’s name. The case was settled out of court and the annual historic festival continues.)

The popular Cup Café, adorned with work by local artists, is often bustling on weekend mornings.

The popular Cup Café, adorned with work by local artists, is often bustling on weekend mornings.

These days, Hotel Congress is a little bit of everything: A restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A nightclub featuring live music and DJs seven days a week. A banquet room available for weddings, political fundraisers, and other events. And, of course, 40 charming, retro rooms for guests. (The accommodations, which range from $69 in the summer to $149 in the winter, don’t have TVs or minibars, but they do have old-time radios and one-of-a-kind paintings on the walls, mostly from local artists.)

Joey Burns of the Tucson band Calexico says he’s never seen a place like Hotel Congress in his tours around the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

“There’s no other place on this scale and this sense of style,” says Burns, who remembers playing his first Congress gig some 25 years ago, when he was still with Giant Sand. “All of the staff who have worked there over the years helped influence the direction. And Richard and Shana had an instinct to take the ball and keep running with it, but it was not an easy task. There’s been a lot of time and energy and cost dedicated to this shrine. And that’s what it is, really—it has the glowing aspect of a shrine.”

From brunch to bar: Late on a Saturday night, the lobby of Hotel Congress echoes with music, chatter, and drinks shaken not stirred.

From brunch to bar: Late on a Saturday night, the lobby of Hotel Congress echoes with music, chatter, and drinks shaken not stirred.

Richard and shana never set out to get into the hospitality business. Their purchase of the hotel was almost accidental.

“I don’t know if we ever had a plan. It all just sort of evolved.”

In lieu of TVs, rooms come equipped with radios.

In lieu of TVs, rooms come equipped with radios.

A Phoenix native, Richard had become a criminal-defense lawyer in Tucson—he successfully argued a civil-rights case in the front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the late ’70s—while Shana had moved out west from New York and spent a few years living on Mount Lemmon before getting a degree at the University of Arizona and landing a gig working to get drug addicts into treatment. They met on a blind date.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, the couple decided it was time to leave the country for a while. With a 2-year-old daughter and a second kid on the way, they struck out to see what the other side of the globe had to offer and landed in New Zealand.

It turned out that it didn’t offer enough. By 1984, the Oserans were back in Tucson. Richard went back to practicing law, but in the mid-’80s, many people were getting rich off the real-estate boom. A few friends approached him about teaming up to buy the Hotel Congress. He recalls visiting the property and noting a group of elderly residents sitting in the lobby, watching an old console TV.

“It impressed me as a clean place,” Richard remembers. “It wasn’t seedy. Maybe a little tired.”

Before the deal was consummated in 1985, his fellow investors found themselves in a financial jam, so Richard ended up buying the place himself. And then he had to figure out what to do with it.

“I don’t know if we ever had a plan,” Richard says. “It all just sort of evolved.”

Downtown Tucson was a much different place 30 years ago. Retail stores had been leaving downtown behind for decades, and bars like the Manhattan and the Esquire catered to a seedier clientele.

“When we came down here they were finding bodies in the alcove of the [then-shuttered] Rialto,” Richard remembers.

Shana remembers chasing drug dealers away from the sidewalks around the hotel. “I went out there and said that if anyone’s going to be doing any business on this corner, it’s going to be me,” she says.

Although Richard and Shana Oseran didn’t set out to own a hotel, they’ve transformed the space into an anchor in the Tucson community.

Although Richard and Shana Oseran didn’t set out to own a hotel,
they’ve transformed the space into an anchor in the Tucson community.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who has presided over a blossoming of downtown in recent years, credits the Oserans for sticking it out through tough times.

A gloomy sky contrasts the upbeat blue skies of a "secret" patio on the second floor.

A gloomy sky contrasts the upbeat blue skies of a “secret” patio on the second floor.

“The Oserans were pioneers and spent time developing downtown when it was not fashionable,” says Rothschild. “Hotel Congress is a wonderful eatery, it is a wonderful entertainment venue, it is a center of community activity, and it is one of our prized historic properties.”

History is a big deal to the Oserans. Richard has always had an affinity for older buildings. “I was born in 1945,” he says. “All the buildings that I grew up in are basically turn-of-the-century buildings and 1930s buildings. So I’m kind of caught in that era.”

The hotel breathes history. Two wooden phone booths remain in the lobby, although a phone company tried to pull them out a few years ago. The hotel’s switchboard is still operational; another switchboard from downtown’s legendary Pioneer Hotel stands nearby.  When the chance came to salvage a gorgeous wooden bar from another Congress Street establishment—known over the years as Talk of the Town and Jack’s Pub—the Oserans bought it at auction and then had it installed in Club Congress.

“I paid $100 for it,” Richard says. “And then it cost me $20,000 to retrofit it.”

For all the historic touches, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes efforts to modernize the hotel as well. They’ve installed air conditioning—much to Shana’s relief—as well as solar hot-water heaters, so guests now longer have to depend on an aging basement boiler. Much of the electrical system was replaced in recent years and aging pipes often need repair. The brick walls need frequent reinforcement. “We’re always doing something,” Richard says.

The gorgeous wooden bar from another Congress Street establishment was salvaged for $100 and retrofitted for $20,000.

The gorgeous wooden bar from another Congress Street establishment was salvaged for $100 and retrofitted for $20,000.

While they still celebrate the artists who passed through the hotel in the past—the Tap Room is decorated with the work of cowboy artist Pete Martinez, who enjoyed drinking at the bar in the ’30s and ’40s—they’ve put some of Tucson’s best modern artists to work. Painter Joe Pagac has done murals in the club and on a second-floor patio; Daniel Martin Diaz created the elaborate ironwork that frames the club’s stage.

The colorful, elaborate symbols that cover the lobby walls were painted by Larry Boyce, a Bay-area artist who would ride his bicycle down to Tucson in the spring and break out his paint once he arrived. Boyce died in 1992; a tribute to him hangs at the front desk.

While downtown is booming today, keeping the hotel in business hasn’t always been easy. The last decade has brought a seemingly endless succession of construction projects, including the rebuilding of the Fourth Avenue underpass, the complete rehabilitation of Congress Street for the construction of the recently launched modern streetcar, and the construction of a new MLK housing project across Fifth Avenue.

“We’ve survived 12 years of construction on all sides of us,” Richard says.

The latticework surrounding the Club Congress stage—which has hosted an extensive and varied roster of bands—was designed by local artist Daniel Martin Díaz.

The latticework surrounding the Club Congress stage—which has hosted an extensive and varied roster of bands—was designed by local artist Daniel Martin Díaz.

As with so much of the hotel, Club Congress came about almost by accident. Designer Gary Patch and some of his friends wanted to create a cool club whose theme would change every week, and Richard figured: Why not? Within a few weeks, Shana remembers, lines for the Counter Club were stretching out the door of the hotel.

“I thought, what is going on here?” she remembers.

As the club’s popularity continued to grow, the Oserans knocked out walls until Club Congress took over the entire southeast corner of the hotel.

A quiet board game in the morning.

A quiet board game in the morning.

The list of musicians who have played inside the club or outside on a stage set up in the parking lot is so long that when you ask Dave Slutes, the hotel’s entertainment director, about his favorite shows, he draws a blank.

“That’s too much,” he says. “From the Lazy Cowgirls and the Feelies in the early ’80s to the—there have been a million shows. I’m actually paralyzed thinking about it, because there have been so many great shows. There are too many. My social life has revolved around this place. I fell for my wife when she performed onstage here.”

Slutes, a musician whose local bands have included the Sand Rubies, Silverfox, and the Zsas-Zsas, says that “in some ways, I think I have the best job in town—for me, at least, as a musician working in a popular venue where we bring in all sorts of artists, music and otherwise. It’s always busy, always challenging but always fun. There’s no other place like it that I can imagine. All these little parts make up something much bigger.”

Southern Arizona Congressman Ron Barber has done get-out-the-vote concerts as well as benefits for the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, a nonprofit group that he formed in the wake of the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting in Tucson.

“The Oserans have done a lot to welcome community groups and political groups to use the venue,” Barber said. “I have nothing but the highest praise for them and what they’ve done to create a really strong attraction there. I think they have a big vision and have done a lot to bring it into reality.”

The patio holds hundred of merrymakers enjoying an outdoor concert.

The patio holds hundred of merrymakers enjoying an outdoor concert.

It’s a similar story with the Cup Café. The Oserans never really wanted to run a restaurant, so they originally leased the space out to Anne Bowen and Jefferson Bailey, who opened Bowen & Bailey Café in what is now the first room in the Cup.

When Bowen & Bailey moved to a larger space in 1990, the Oserans decided it was time to take over the restaurant themselves. There wasn’t much to work with: a convection oven, two hot plates and a three-compartment stove.

Over the years, the Cup has undergone numerous remodels and expansions and now fills the northwest corner of the building, with additional seating on the patio outside. Still, there’s often a wait to get a table on busy nights or weekend mornings.

The Cup is open almost every day a year—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day. “There are a lot of people with no place to go,” Shana says. “They have no family or they’re away from their family and they come here to be with somebody.” It only closes for a few days in the summer so the staff can give the kitchen a thorough cleaning and shine up the Cup’s penny floor.

Richard says he wants the Cup to be “exactly what it is.”

“It’s hard to describe,” he explains. “I guess you have to say it’s a comfortable, eclectic café that serves great food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

The menu is indeed eclectic. Breakfast—served until 4 p.m. for late risers—features the usual eggs, omelets, and pancakes, but you’ll also find crêpes filled with seasonal berries, a tofu scramble with fresh herbs and vegan sausage, and a dish of eggs, leeks, and Gruyère cheese baked in cream and delivered in a small cast-iron skillet. Lunch is a wide selection of soups, salads, and sandwiches, including the house-made brisket—the aroma of barbecue often drifts across the parking lot from the smoker—topped with chimichurri, Jack cheese, pepper slaw, chipotle mayo, and pickled onions; a thick, Angus beef burger; and the legendary Queer Steer veggie burger, crafted from quinoa and oats. Dinner ranges from jambalaya to rainbow trout to a pork tenderloin brined in cider and served alongside cranberry beans, spinach, butternut squash, and roasted fennel ragoût, with a touch of sweetness provided by a currant chutney and pears poached in white wine.

Bill Roberts crafted many of the recipes for the deserts that fill the ever-rotating display case at Cup Café, all of which are made in house.

Bill Roberts crafted many of the recipes for the deserts that fill the ever-rotating display case at Cup Café, all of which are made in house.

One of Richard’s favorite dishes is a chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms and goat cheese, served with butternut gnocchi in a Madeira wine sauce. “I swear to God, I could pick up that plate and lick it afterwards,” he says.

While the menu has plenty of temptations, the most alluring might be the Cup’s dessert carousel, filled with pies, cakes, and other sumptuous treats baked on the property. The desserts were created Bill Roberts, who says the recipes were just something he came up with: “Some I steal, some I combine, some I make up … You might say I’ve put lots of fat on people over the years.”

Roberts worked in the kitchen for many years—once, in a flash of anger after dropping a freshly made pie on the floor, he threw a plate across the room and through one of the hotel’s plate-glass windows; he paid for the repair and for several years the Oserans were none the wiser—but eventually he wanted to try his hand at accounting. The Oserans put him to work on the hotel’s books, a job he still holds today.

Roberts says there’s a reason people love the hotel: “Everybody thinks they own a little part of it and it means something to everybody.”

Four years ago, the Oserans decided to take a risk and asked the city for the chance to manage the restaurant space across the street in the historic train depot after a rival restaurant failed. Richard says—only half-jokingly—that the main motivation was to get more parking spaces for his hotel’s guests because the city kept eliminating spots that his customers used. (We won’t get into the long battles they fought with city planners, attorneys, and city council members.)

So was born Maynards Market + Kitchen, a spot that has gone through its own share of fits and starts. Most recently, the market space was trimmed back to make more room for a coffee counter, but they still carry a number of wares from local merchants, including Lusby’s Honey, Isabella’s Ice Cream, Tucson Tamale Company, and Caffe Luce Coffee. The Oserans plan to start offering chef’s dinners—entire meals that you can take home and heat up in your own kitchen—and hope to bring back a weekend farmers’ market.

Every night before dinner service, the wait staff at Maynards’ inspects and cleans the glassware on every table.

Every night before dinner service, the wait staff at Maynards’ inspects and cleans the glassware on every table.

The restaurant celebrates locomotive culture, which is entirely appropriate, given that Union Pacific trains roll past the restaurant’s spacious back patio dozens of times each day. Train rails serve as decoration; the front door features a steampunk latch with visible gears; the long, narrow dining room, with its crisp white tablecloths, evokes a train’s dining car. It’s not unusual to see waiters taking extra care to polish the glasses and silverware ahead of each day’s opening.

“We believe it’s the little details that are going to set us apart,” says Jared Scott, who took over as executive chef earlier this year after working about four years in the kitchen. “Everyone who works here takes a lot of pride in what they do.”

Scott plans to mix up the dinner menu a bit this fall but intends to keep the general style of a French bistro, serving dry-aged steaks, a seasonal salmon dish, confit duck leg salad, and the like. Scott is especially partial to the lamb shank, which he braised in a German Riesling instead of the traditional red wine. “It takes a lot of the heaviness associated with lamb out of the dish,” he says. “It’s a bit lighter, it’s just fun for me right now.”

While Maynards is not focused on a farm-to-table ethos, Scott does try to use local ingredients when he can: produce from Sleeping Frogs Farm, fresh eggs from ReZoNation farm, bread from downtown’s Small Planet Bakery. “We do our best we can to utilize local and small businesses,” Scott says.

The Maynards’ happy hour is “the Oserans’s gift to Tucson,” says MOCA director Anne-Marie Russell.

The Maynards’ happy hour is “the Oserans’s gift to Tucson,” says MOCA director Anne-Marie Russell.

Maynards hosts a wine tasting every week and once a month, Scott assembles a special dinner to accompany the tasting. The August dinner featured Australian wines paired with a rack of lamb, short ribs pot pie, and a dessert of lamington, “which is similar to sponge cake and has chocolate and coconut and a lot of fun things,” Scott says.

While the restaurant isn’t yet performing as well as the Oserans would like, it has its loyal fans. Anne-Marie Russell, the executive director of Tucson’s Museum of Contemporary Art, calls the happy hour menu—which includes pizzas, salads, a generous burger and fries, and other dishes for just $7—“the Oserans’ gift to Tucson.”

In the late ’90s, the Oserans decided to take a more hands-on approach to managing the hotel. Shana quit her job to focus on the hotel while Richard eased back on his legal work. Later, they brought in their son-in-law, Todd Hanley, to become the general manager.

As a result, it’s become a family business. And in some cases, longtime employees have started to feel like family. Just last year, the hotel’s bar was renamed Tiger’s Tap Room after Tom “Tiger” Ziegler, the longtime bartender who started serving drinks in 1959. Tiger is now healing from injuries suffered in a car accident, but when he’s ready to return, there will be a job waiting for the 81-year-old bartender.

At 310 E. Congress, the front doors are always open.

At 310 E. Congress,
the front doors are always open.

And there are always more stories—about the original residents who were living in the hotel when the Oserans purchased it; about the ghosts that some people—though not Richard and Shana—have seen walking the halls; about the time the SWAT team did a drill next door, complete with gunfire and explosives, without warning the Congress staff.

But ultimately, it comes down to taking care of Hotel Congress. “Our philosophy is to preserve and perpetuate the hotel as a community asset,” Richard says.

Richard is proud of the fact that the wooden doors—original, historic doors—on the hotel’s south entrance don’t have locks because the hotel never really closes. As he puts it, “I like to think that when you push those doors open, it’s your door and your place. And it is. It really is. Without people who come here, it wouldn’t exist.”

Hotel Congress Breathes History

Hotel Congress.
311 E. Congress St. 520.622.8848.
HotelCongress.com.

Lloyd Charles is a
Tucson-based reporter.


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