Monday, October 5, 2009

A Gangster, A Bicycling Artist, and Gun Totin' Guys

Our restaurant reviewer remains on the ill health list, so we postpone our entries on San Diego eateries another day.

As I turned onto Congress Avenue in Tucson, the sign for the Congress Hotel rose above other buildings and directed me to the hotel on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.

I debated entering the hotel when I noticed rather plain exterior and all the posters for upcoming events plastered in the street-side windows (photo below). But I entered and was rewarded with a memorable glimpse into the colorful character of this hotel.

Established in 1919, the Hotel Congress was built to serve the growing cattle industry and railroad passengers of the Southern Pacific Line and could have continued its existence as just another place of lodging for road-weary guests, except for the events of January 22, 1934.

After a series of bank robberies, the Dillinger gang came to Tucson to “lay low.” A fire started in the basement of the hotel and spread up the elevator to the third floor where the gang resided under aliases. The incognito gang escaped by aerial ladders and encouraged (with cash) two firemen to retrieve their heavy luggage. It was later discovered that the bags contained a small arsenal and $23,816 in cash.

Later, an astute fireman recognized the gang in True Detective Magazine. A stakeout ensued and they were captured. In the space of five hours, without firing a single shot, the police of small town Tucson had done what the combined forces of several states and the FBI had tried so long to do. When captured, Dillinger simply muttered, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

I was anticipating a weary staff at work as I entered what I expected would be a tired old hotel.

I found just the opposite to be the case.

The young staff members at the Registration Desk and others moving through the lobby were energetic and friendly.

The colorful lobby with its very artistic lighting fixture presented a warm welcome.

The design and colors of the lobby's artistry are certainly eye-catching. They are the result of the work of wandering artist Larry Boyce, who traveled throughout the West selling his wares.

While wandering artists of yesteryear traveled by horse, Boyce arrived on bicycle in the spring of 1989 and volunteered to decorate the lobby in "Southwest Deco."

The orange, green and purple jump out from the walls, which also hold framed pieces for sale from local artists.

Richard Oseran and his family have transformed Hotel Congress into a downtown landmark since purchasing it in 1985. The building has morphed from a rundown hotel into a popular spot to see a concert, go dancing, get a meal, hold a party, or get married.

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 fans of all ages.

The rooms still boast many pieces of their original furniture, as well as vintage radios (but no televisions), and a history of ghosts in four of the rooms.

States the Hotel: "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." However, these two fellas must have forgotten their guitars.

Although "armed," they seemed to be known to the managemment and presented little threat, but much interest.

Another cowboy who frequented the Hotel was rodeo cowboy and artist Pete Martinez. The Tap Room was his favorite haunt.

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.

Oseran's newest project is Maynard's Market and Eatery, a neighborhood-style restaurant, market and convenience store in the Downtown Historic Train Depot, across from Hotel Congress.

Sometimes "historic" places present big surprises.

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