Historic hotel goes green

By Claire O’Connell/El Inde

When entering the crisp green doors of Hotel Congress, you are immediately met with hospitality. The historic building greets its guests as if it is still 1919. While it only offers 39 rooms, the small landmark hotel is adored by many for its classical charm.

Front desk manager Josh Osteen knows the history of the hotel like the back of his hand; he not only greets the guests, but he is also in charge of the graphic design, social media, and is a member of the renowned Green Team at the Hotel Congress, a group dedicated to implementing green initiatives. The large red sign reading, “Hotel Congress Breathes History” out in front of the building is nothing short of the truth, says Osteen.

The Hotel Congress was built in 1919 on Congress Street in Tucson, and it is perhaps most famously known for the capture of the Dillinger Gang in 1934. The Gang (John Dillinger, Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley and Russell “Art” Clark) had escaped to Tucson after a chain of bank robberies during the Great Depression and resided at Hotel Congress under fake names. When a fire sparked that January in the hotel basement, the Dillinger Gang blew their cover to two Tucson firemen. They were put in jail, where gang leader Dillinger would later escape and eventually be shot dead. Osteen recalled that since the fire in 1934, Hotel Congress has not operated the elevator again. 

Before bringing in Osteen, Hotel Congress looked like any other historic hotel with beautiful architecture and dated stories. But Osteen made the hotel relevant today through its present-day green initiatives.

As the Hotel Congress Green Team, staff come together to do everything as smart and economically friendly as possible. In the past 8 years, they have forged many partnerships with fellow ‘eco-friendly’ companies and clubs like UA CompostCats, Ecoblue and Refresh Glass in an effort to lead Tucson in its sustainability efforts.

“We have always been on the forefront of that,” Osteen says. The hotel has made clean choices such as solar hot-water savings, recycling of single-use toiletries, and even pillowcases made out of recycled bottle caps. Although Osteen appreciates the pillowcases, when asked how they were made he let out a laugh saying, “I couldn’t tell you!”

The Hotel Congress has been leading Tucson in their efforts since 1919 by drawing awareness and nudging other hotels to be environmentally friendly. Their sustainability efforts not only hold true in the hotel, but they are also prioritized by their café and bar. 

Cup Café first opened inside Hotel Congress 30 years ago. The cafė has held onto the green values by implementing compostable containers, solar-heated dishwashers, refurbished glasses, and locally sourced produce. One of the hotel’s most prominent partnerships is with One Less Straw, a campaign which seeks to educate people on the environmental damage caused by plastic straws. Since partnering with them, the hotel now uses glass straws and to-go straws made out of avocado seeds.

Cup Café’s general manager Jon Powers and his staff have put their best foot forward to make clean eating possible at the hotel and attract people for their environmental efforts.

One of the hotel’s greatest accomplishments includes the TripAdvisor Green Leader Gold Award which showcases the most environmentally-friendly hotels around the country. Osteen described it as, “a hotel that’s dead set on doing the right thing.” This award further showcased their success in being environmentally friendly in the hotel industry.

Last year, the Hotel Congress celebrated its centennial. To Osteen, Powers and the rest of the staff, it’s important that Hotel Congress holds onto the past and that visitors can relive it upon arrival.

“Not a lot has changed aesthetically, we just put on a fresh coat of paint and tried to really channel that southwestern thing,” he explained. One glance at the telephone booths in the lobby and all of the vintage ambiances that surround them make it clear that Hotel Congress has done just that.

Back of the Congress Hotel. The back patio includes Café seating,
a stage for live performers, and a bar. Photo by Claire O’Connell/El Inde.
Inside door of Cup Café, which is set on being environmentally friendly.
Photo by Claire O’Connell/El Inde.