Hotel Congress is located at 311 E. Congress Street in Tucson. Information: 520-798-1618 or www.hotelcongress.com.
© Edward McCain
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Hotel CongressCozy rooms, great bar, ghosts, gangsters … there are plenty of reasons to spend a night in Tucson's classic old hotel.
By Edie Jarolim
When it opened its doors in 1919, Tucson's Hotel Congress was regaled for its grandeur and praised for its modern comforts. Its fame didn't extend far beyond Arizona, however. Located across the road from the Southern Pacific depot, it was just one of the many upscale lodgings in the West that rode the railroad boom into existence. Not until January 23, 1934, when a fire led to the capture of John Dillinger, did the hotel and the sleepy city it was in grab the nation's attention.
John Dillinger, America's "most wanted," never slept at the Congress, but two members of his gang, Charles Makely and Russell Clark, had registered there under false names. Forced to evacuate the burning building, the pair tried to return to their rooms to grab their valises, but were forbidden access. Distraught, Makely and Clark offered two firemen a reward to retrieve their bags. The firefighters complied, hauling down the gangsters' heavy luggage — later found to contain $23,816 in cash and several Tommy guns.
In the process, the jittery out-of-towners aroused the suspicions of the firemen, who decided to do some sleuthing. Combing through photos in True Detective magazine, one of them recognized Clark. The hunt was on — and quickly over. Without firing a shot, the cops in the "hick town" of Tucson had accomplished what several state police forces and the FBI had failed to do: Put the cuffs on Dillinger.
In the hallway behind the Cup Café, today's visitors to the downtown landmark can view photos of the players in this cops-and-robbers drama.
But the Hotel Congress had far more going for it than the occasional gangster guest. In the 1930s and '40s, for example, its Tap Room was the favorite haunt of rodeo cowboy and artist Pete Martinez. His nationally renowned Western scenes — New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was among his early celebrity collectors — still hang on the walls of this atmospheric watering hole. Contrary to rumor, however, Martinez didn't settle his booze tab with his art; he donated the pieces because he liked the bar and enjoyed his drinking partners. The hotel inspired generosity in later artists, too. In 1989, Larry Boyce arrived on a bicycle from San Francisco and volunteered to paint the lobby with the distinctive Southwest Deco designs that are still there today.
The Congress pays homage to its history in many ways. The rooms still boast many pieces of their original furniture, as well as vintage radios, windows that open and steam heat in winter. A handout available at the front desk — behind which you can glimpse the same switchboard used to alert guests to the 1934 fire — notes that four of the rooms also offer a different type of blast from the past: ghosts, several of whom are described in rather specific detail. Room 214, for example, often plays host to a "little man, nicely dressed in a seersucker suit." And the annual Dillinger Days in January celebrate the hotel's claim to fame with re-enactments of the capture.
Nevertheless, the Congress is far from living in the past. The Cup Café, a popular Tucson gathering spot, dishes up delicious contemporary fare. And Club Congress, dubbed one of the top 10 rock venues in the country, is a hub for hipsters of all ages. Today's outlaws might carry guitars, not guns, and the heat might be generated by dancing, not a conflagration, but the hotel still gets pretty fired up.