Ask Tucson’s oldest and most famous bartender what’s changed in the nearly 60 years he’s spent pouring drinks for weary travelers and thirsty locals inside Hotel Congress’ Tap Room, and Tom “Tiger” Ziegler can’t think of much.
Outside of his long, dark, shotgun-style bar, Hotel Congress, Tucson and the world look very different from when Ziegler first started tending bar at the Tap Room in 1959.
Since then, downtown Tucson has gone through several waves of boom and bust, tracking alongside the national and local economies through the decades.
And Hotel Congress, under the guidance of longtime owners Richard and Shana Oseran, has been transformed from a tired, old inn catering to elderly full-time residents, into the beating heart of a vibrant downtown Tucson.
But ask Ziegler what’s changed inside the bar, and he notes that the beers were cheaper back in the day, at just 25 cents a pint.
“Now we got all these fancy beers. We got Kilt Lifter and Barrio Brewery and pilsner and stout and IPA and Purple Haze. All $5 pints,” which, he notes, isn’t a bad price nowadays.
Other than that, not much has changed at the Tap Room in 60 years. Not even the bartender.
Tiger and his Tap Room—it was renamed “Tiger’s Tap Room” in 2013 to celebrate his 80th birthday—illustrate the delicate balancing act between historic preservation and modern creation that the Hotel Congress, under the Oserans, has mastered.
They keep best of the old, like the Tap Room’s historic vibe, down to the chatty octogenarian behind the bar. But they’re constantly innovating, attempting to restore the building’s glory, create new spaces and new events and perfect their recipe for success.
In 1985, when the Oserans first purchased Hotel Congress, the hotel and Downtown had seen better days.
Since then, through persistence and endless hard work, the couple has become cultural ambassadors and stalwart defenders of downtown Tucson. In their more than 30 years at the helm of Hotel Congress, the Oserans have helped usher in a golden era for the historic hotel, and by extension, all of downtown Tucson.
From humble roots, the Hotel Congress has earned international acclaim as one of the southwest’s go-to destinations for food, drinks, rock and roll and style.
But it hasn’t always been easy.
Built in 1918, the original “Congress Hotel” was heralded in the local paper at the time as the southwest’s first “flatiron” hotel, owing to the triangular shape of the building and the plot of land upon which it sits. The railroad adjacent hotel aimed to serve the expanding number of passengers heading west on the then Southern Pacific line.
A 1918 advertisement offering a “most cordial” invitation to “visit and inspect” the new hotel boasted that it was “Tucson’s newest and most elegantly appointed hosterly” and that its furniture was “exquisite and in good taste, and the conveniences are such as to fulfil the requirements of all.”
But a basement fire in 1934 destroyed much of the building (and led to the capture of several members of famed bank robber John Dillinger’s gang—which is now memorialized in the hotel’s annual “Dillinger Days” festival).
The remodeled hotel reopened just a few years later, but much of its former grandeur was lost—the building had lost its top floor and more than half its habitations, leaving it with just over 40 rooms.
When Richard Oseran arrived in Tucson from Phoenix in 1963, downtown Tucson was once again booming. But as a member of the young, hip, creative class, he never hung out in the hotel. At the time, it just wasn’t that kind of place.
Instead his first impression of the inside of Hotel Congress was that it was “tired, but clean.” In the lobby during his first visit were a handful of aging residents watching a big boxy TV. It wasn’t quite a retirement home scene, he said, but it wasn’t that far off.
By the time the Oserans bought Hotel Congress for $425,000 in 1985, downtown was in shambles.
“Most of downtown was boarded up,” Richard Oseran said. “There were a couple bars where you could get your heroin or whatever.”
But many of the Oserans’ creative friends were moving downtown and the barrios were slowly being rejuvenated, and the couple was encouraged to try to revitalize the hotel as a creative hub for the community. They hired friends, artists and designers to help run the hotel, and gave them room to experiment to see what would work to draw in both tourists and locals.
“If you come into the hotel today, that flair, that feel of those artisans coming in is still there,” Shana Oseran said. “You can look around the hotel and the light fixtures that were made by resident artists who would stay at the hotel. The murals. Club Congress. Ultimately the Cup Cafe, all of that comes from that period.”
Steve Farley, a longtime Democratic state lawmaker from Tucson by day and professional artist by night, recalled his first experience with Hotel Congress in 1993, as he was setting out from from his home in San Francisco in search of a more affordable town with the same artsy vibe.
“Walking into the Hotel Congress and seeing what an amazing place it was, even in the middle of what was a devastated downtown at the time—you walk into this place and there’s so much love dripping off of it, the restoration, the history, the art, the food, the music,” he said. “All the rest of it just came together.”
Since moving to Tucson in 1995, Farley has held campaign fundraisers and celebrated election night victories at Hotel Congress. He’s watched his then-12-year-old daughter, with an electric guitar and a set of original songs, open up a concert for Tucson blues legend Stefan George.
He even holed up in the hotel for a weekend in the summer of 1998 to sort through the 217 photos he had collected for what would become one of his most famous works of art: The giant black and white tile murals along the Broadway Underpass.
“It was June and they didn’t have air conditioning yet, so it was hot as hell, but I wanted to conjure up the ghosts of Congress to sort of help me as my muse,” he said, alluding to the legend that several spirits inhabit the hotel. “And people still love the mural so the ghosts must have helped.”
Farley calls Hotel Congress the “beating heart of Tucson” and the “cultural hub of the community.”
But the Hotel hasn’t always been at peace with the city or its neighbors. Richard Oseran, a former attorney who once argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, has fought several legal battles with a city that hasn’t always seen the value in his vision, and neighbors who disagree over how historic property should be used.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Oseran said his business was “under assault” from those within the city who he said would rather have another upscale shopping complex, like La Encantada, than a quirky, eclectic, historic hotel. For a rocky period, it seemed they were perpetually fighting with the city over noise complaints and parking spaces.
Despite the occasional legal battles, and the constant construction that has surrounded Hotel Congress in the past decade, the Oserans have breathed new life into the old hotel. And they attribute much of their success to the grassroots support they’ve received from friends and employees, who have taken a kind of ownership mentality towards the hotel and helped it grow and innovate and stay fresh.
They treat their employees well, and were offering health insurance and 401(k) plans long before it was the norm, Richard Oseran said. Though “Tiger” Ziegler, the bartender, easily has seniority, it’s not unusual for employees to stay at Hotel Congress a decade or more.
In fact, Ziegler said he notices one other major change that took place over his nearly 60 years at the Tap Room bar inside Hotel Congress. Since the Oserans took over, it’s morphed from simple hotel with a bar into something more.
“The old owners were catering to their guests in the hotel,” Ziegler said. “Richard and Shana cater to the guests, but they also invite all the Tucson people.”