Youthful exuberance and historical resonance don’t often find themselves in the sack together. But there are few hotels that arrange just such a tryst as seamlessly as Hotel Congress, the social cornerstone of Tucson’s scruffy downtown core.
It’s the chameleonic character of this 90-year-old gem that makes it so appealing. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a wide lobby that connects to a hair salon, a gourmet café, and a lauded live music venue. The walls surrounding a bar/lounge area feature work by a revolving cast of local artists, and the ceiling beams are flagged by the Congress’ signature souvenir: a series of tearaway calendars depicting iconic Mexican themes and figures. The check-in desk is buttressed by a compartmental shelf for keys (which you leave at the desk while coming and going) and a 1930s switchboard (which is operational, tapped to the rotary phones inside guestrooms), with a couple of closet-style phone booths to one side and a fridge-sized safe on the other. Upon my arrival, the hostess behind the counter was a perfect match to this modernized vintage pastiche, wearing grey wool shorts with rolled cuffs and tights underneath, a white tank top under a red cardigan, and thick-rimmed glasses peeking out from her black fedora.
Eclectic style flourishes on the second floor, too. The carpet weaving past the hotel’s 40 guestrooms is faded pink with a green, black and yellow quasi-vegetative motif, and book ended by orange and cream walls with a pattern borrowed from south of the border in grey, green and red. There are moody photos and kitschy prints hanging about, and leather- or velour-skinned wooden-framed chairs for hanging out. A small suntanning courtyard is accented by a medley of cacti in giant blue clay pots, and you’ll pass the only television on the premises to get to it (in the meagre common room, which also has a public PC if you’re not using the free WiFi).
Inside the creaky, humble rooms are relic radios, plain antique furniture and fixtures, and beds with wrought iron frames. Each has a private, black-and-white-tiled bathroom (rather than the communal ones that are often found in hotels of this era), and a few even have claw-foot tubs. If it all sounds a bit antiquated, add another sense to the picture in your mind: this time warp setting is often usurped by the thumping, thrashing, wailing and/or crooning of whatever band is on stage in the Club Congress downstairs—you’ll be told upon check-in that you’ve come to the wrong place for peace and quiet before last call.
The Club was hatched in 1985 as a venue for showcasing local talent once a week, and has evolved into a lightening rod for range of near-nightly performances that rivals what you’ll find in any large U.S. city. Bookings run the gamut; during our stay, there was a homegrown rock band one night, a free World Aids Day celebration the next (a sidewalk-sprawling bash boasting everything from a cabaret troupe to an African drumming juggernaut), followed by The Vic Chestnut Band featuring Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion. The Club is also connected to the smaller, kitsch-infused Tap Room, which spills onto a patio where you can often find droves of University of Arizona students getting sloppy. All told, the Congress’ various venues host 300-plus events and shows over the course of a year, from album releases to dance parties to art openings to poetry readings to community fundraisers to full-on festivals—including Labor Day weekend’s five-year-old HOCOFest, which mashes up an eco-fair, a farmers’ market, record bazaar and dozens of bands, headlined by the likes of Calexico and the Meat Puppets.
The Congress’ other marquee festival pays homage to perhaps its most enthralling historical curiosity: a hotel fire in 1934 that led to the capture of infamous bank robber John Dillinger and his crew, who were incognito upstairs with more than $20,000 in cash. January’s annual Dillinger Days commemorates their gloat-worthy arrest with reenactments, throwback bands, a classic car show, historical tours and lectures, a 1930s-themed carnival and an arts and crafts bazaar.
By: Eric Rumble