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Thursday, May 7, 2020


Interior courtyard Arizona Inn built in 1930 by the Isabella Greenway & Family
By Eric Peterson, Award winning novelist, culinary bon vivant and Editor-at-Large, daily online magazine.

If ever you wish to experience hotels in quantity, buy a motorhome.

They break down. Repairing one can take days or weeks, sometimes even months.

This means a lot of time in hotels.

But the news isn’t all bad. Were it not for our 42’ Country Coach Lexa and its quirky, failure-prone window latches and some seductive equipment upgrades, Teresa and I never would have made the acquaintance of the Arizona Inn, a sublime 92-room hotel in the heart of Tucson.

Thick walls, oak timbers, stone columns, lavishly furnished public rooms with enormous wood-burning fireplaces—this jewel of a property holds its own as one of the great overnight retreats in the American West.

The Arizona Inn opened for business on December 18, 1930. The hotel’s early guests reached Tucson by train. Most of the Inn’s rooms have oversized closets, designed to accommodate multiple steamer trunks and enough clothes to last the season.

Here’s a sampling of the Inn’s famous guests: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Bob Hope. One junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, reportedly enjoyed a stay at the Inn and left his bathing suit behind.  Raise your hand if you think there’s more to that story …

Another engaging storyline of the Inn is the biography of its founder, Isabella Greenway. A self-described New Deal Democrat, she served as Arizona’s first Congresswoman. The twice-widowed, can-do entrepreneur and businesswoman, born in Boone County, Kentucky, was a bridesmaid in Eleanor Roosevelt’s wedding. When Isabella built the Inn, she insisted the floors be triple-layered to eliminate creaks.

On one dark, memorable night in Tucson, while our Country Coach motorhome was beached in a cavernous service bay at a local RV repair shop, Teresa and I checked in to the Arizona Inn. The friendly desk staff winked as they gave us our room key—an upgrade to a favored room called “The Treehouse” for its second-story deck, which has a sweeping view of the Catalina Mountains.
One corner of the Inn’s Library, where afternoon tea is served.
Photo by author
We quickly unpacked our things in the spacious, welcoming guest room, oblivious to the dramatic view that awaited us at daylight. We took a walk through the fragrant, amply lit grounds and back to the main building, where we peeked into the Library, a plush, oak-timbered refuge with hardwood floors and a blazing fire. The seating areas were inviting: leather wingback chairs, overstuffed sofas, rugs in a decidedly Southwestern motif. The books on the floor-to-ceiling shelves were suitably dusty. The American cherrywood cabinet in the corner, it was said, came from Isabella Greenway’s house in Santa Barbara.

Across the way, we found the Audubon Bar and Patio, a perpetually busy watering hole that we suspect serves as the informal outpost to the faculty lounge at nearby University of Arizona. The mature clientele was tastefully dressed: colorful scarves, skirts and layered sweaters for the ladies; coats, slacks and more than a few bow ties for the men. The rattan furniture was arranged around a tall potted palm in the center court.

Teresa and I timed our arrival exactly right. We snagged two coveted seats at the bar. Though a Manhattan is my go-to cocktail in most hotel bars, I instead bit on the Arizona Inn Old Fashioned, which is listed on the drink card (Four Roses Bourbon, Bitters Angostura, Orange and Luxardo Maraschino Cherry). It was superbly prepared by our bartender, an affable young man named Sullivan, and I had another, just to be certain Sullivan’s first wasn’t a fluke.
The Dining Room. Photo by the author.

The Arizona Inn’s Main Dining Room, a hushed, AAA Four-Diamond restaurant, serves dinner until 9:30 p.m.—it’s one of the things we like about it. Another is its classic menu: French onion soup, chilled vichyssoise, lobster corn chowder, Caesar salad, duck breast, grilled lamb loin chops, beef bourguignon, braised short ribs. For you native Southern Californians, there’s also seared salmon and diver scallops.

We put the menu through its paces. My French onion soup had a thick layer of Gruyère cheese and was sweetened with just the right amount of dry sherry. The Caesar had a good kick. Our attentive server, Melody, was quick to bring extra anchovies. 

The oak-timber trusses overhead, a fire snapping and popping in the corner fireplace, the white tablecloth with its glittering flatware—the romantic atmosphere demanded beef entrees accompanied by a bold, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. I was thrilled to discover one of our all-time favorites on the wine list: a Frank Family Cabernet (Napa Valley, 2014).

Teresa ordered the beef bourguignon—the meat and vegetables came out properly tender, and the velvety chorus was loaded with notes of Cognac, bacon, and onion. I couldn’t resist trying the short ribs, which came highly recommended. The ribs were well-marbled and full of flavor, served over a creamy polenta, with enough rich wine sauce left at the end to justify tearing chunks of ciabatta bread and mopping up the muss. Stuffed to the gills and borderline light-headed, I was at that desperate point of pushing back from the table when Melody surprised us with a plate of desserts. The medley included a piece of dark chocolate cake, a crème brȗlée, a mousse cup, and a square of cheesecake.

“Shoot me now,” I thought as we reduced the pastry chef’s selections to rubble.

We closed the dining room. Groaning, I followed Teresa into the night, my shirt buttons strained to the point of popping. With the feebleness of a Henry VIII lookalike, I lumbered up the concrete stairs to our room.

The Treehouse had a king-size sleigh bed. I stretched out and slept soundly, dreaming of duck breast and baby lamb chops and of a future pipeline flowing lobster chowder direct from the Inn's kitchen to our home in San Diego.
The Treehouse guest room patio. Catalina Mountains in the distance. Photo by the author.

We awoke to a brilliantly blue Arizona sky, a newspaper at our door. From our sundeck, the promised view of the Catalina Mountains was absorbing: steep rocky cliffs and deep, dark ravines, the sand-colored mountains jagged at the top. The sun was already hot.

I checked in with our RV repairman. The Country Coach was ready, but I bought us a little more time. We took a stroll through the fastidious grounds, past the citrus trees and vibrant flowers, the swimming pool and tennis courts, the wedding fountain and cactus gardens,  the manicured lawns and pink cottages, until we found ourselves back at the Main Dining Room, being seated for breakfast.

The dining room was quiet. A fire burned in the fireplace. Over coffee, we perused the menu. My smoked salmon eggs Benedict arrived with the two poached eggs cooked to perfection: shaped like flying saucers, the yellow knots of yolk runny at the touch of a fork. The salmon was Lox-style, meaning cured but not smoked. It had a silky, oily texture and was satisfyingly salty. The hollandaise sauce, sown with plenty of lemon and vinegar, was buttery enough to beat any hangover. I licked my plate clean.

Over several more cups of coffee, I tried reading the newspaper but couldn’t make heads or tails of it—all the bleating about things gone haywire in a world that suddenly seemed so far away.

On the Arizona Inn’s opening night in 1930, Isabella Greenway promised her guests privacy, quiet, and sunshine. Ninety years later, her heirs are still fulfilling that promise.

It’s amazing what you can experience traveling in a motorhome.
Plus ca change...
Plus c’est la meme chose.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Eric Peterson's debut novel, Life as a Sandwich, was a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards. His most recent book, The Dining Car, won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for Popular Fiction, the San Diego Book Award Gold Medal for Best Published Contemporary Fiction, and the Readers’ Favorite Book Award Silver Medal for Literary Fiction. The story follows a former college football star who signs on as bartender and personal valet to a legendary food writer and social critic who travels the country by private railroad car.

Isabella Greenway (seated) campaigning with Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt and [then] Montana Senator Thomas J. Walsh (right) in Williams AZ in 1932.  She was elected to Congress in 1932, as the only Representative for Arizona.

In 1988, the National Register of Historic Places added the Inn to its roster. It is still family-owned. Isabella Greenway’s great-grandson Will Conroy is president of the company.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent many years in Scottsdale, visited the Inn and praised the architecture. The Spanish Colonial Revival main building was designed by Tucson architect Merritt Starkweather, 1930-31.

Gutzon Borglum, who went on to sculpt Mt. Rushmore, created the statue of John Greenway, husband of Isabella Greenway, the entrepreneuress behind the Arizona Inn. The statue can be found outside the entrance of the Arizona Museum.

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