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Smith : When El Con (the hotel) was mighty

The El Conquistador Hotel defined "posh" in the first half of the 20th century.

The El Conquistador Hotel defined "posh" in the first half of the 20th century.

All it takes is a memory with a half-century sleeve-length, and you, too, can recollect the grandeur that was El Con before El Con was El Con.

If your historic reach is sufficient to lay hand to the time when El Conquistador Hotel was the only thing the old-timers nicknamed El Con – 45 years or so will suffice, but half-century carries so much grandeur – you and I can share a memory at once pulsing with the warmth of fond memory and chilled by the shock of loss.

El Conquistador Hotel was old school when the architects of today’s old school were taking their first mechanical drawing classes. It was the kind of building nobody outside of OPEC can afford to erect.

For a glimpse of it, take a ride out Oracle Road and glance right at Casa Blanca Plaza, just north of Rudasill Road. The dome of the old porte-cochere sits atop a carpet store. Somebody got the deal of the previous millennium.

My rat pack of junior high and high school buddies used to go to the El Con for holiday dances, and the remainder of the calendar, trespass around the ground and back entrances, where the old hotel abutted the grounds of the Tucson Racquet Club – this, obviously, before Joe Tofel moved the Racquet Club to Country Club and the river.

Joe was married to Bill Selby’s mom, and thus Joe and the Racquet Club had to suffer the companionship of a large flock of declasse adolescents among which was yr. hmbl. svt.

We didn’t recognize it at the time, but change is not always welcome, even by those in whom change cannot happen soon enough. We were 14, yearning to be 16 and able to drive legally, yearning to be 21 and be able to drink legally, yearning to be covered in secondary body hair. Yearning to be covered in yearning for young women.

We welcomed the opening of El Con Mall, next to El Con the hotel. It was anchored by Levy’s Department Store, which was supplementing its downtown store.

One summer day, we lads strolled into Levy’s at its new home in El Con and bought Linda Ronstadt a 32AAA black lace bra for her 16th birthday. It was a joke, son, sizewise.

Linda showed up for the party in day-glo orange hair, the result of a peroxide job gone tragically awry. Another joke, son.

But it was no joke when they rolled in the wrecking ball and rolled away with the copper crown of El Conquistador Hotel. This was my first acrid, metallic taste of bitter loss to the powers of greed and change.

For a long time, the vacant lot where the old landmark had stood remained, a literal and figurative scar on the Tucson urban landscape. They had nothing better to do with the land then tear down one of the coolest places in town and just leave it.

(The same applies to the lot at 208 N. Stone where once stood the offices and press rooms of the Tucson Citizen, the Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Newspapers Inc.)

But soon enough, in real estate developer time, a large department store began to rise from the ashes of the El Con (who the hell among us wanted to be Phoenix-like?), and when the dust settled the name on the front was Levy’s.

The name on the now-abandoned store where Levy’s had begun the history of El Con Mall was Steinfeld’s, which meant yet another downtown landmark had disappeared. And then . . .

. . . a lot of stuff happened. Levy’s sold out to Sanger-Harris, which sold out to somebody else, which ibid, op cit, ultimately Macy’s.

Which announced Tuesday that it’s shutting down the El Con store. Not selling, not changing its name, but turning off the lights, locking the door and adios.

I have visions of that guy with the double-chin that starts at his belt buckle – the one with the two-gun salute and the scratch-and-dent appliance store – taking over the lease and turning the store into a theme park.

I just can’t think what theme.

How about an indoor shooting range? With paintballs? Straws and spitwads?

Howsabout free-for-all, no-quarter mixed martial arts? And the City Council and Board of Supervisors could hold their meetings there, rent-free, between rounds.

Columnist Jeff Smith is a local boy trying to make good. He may be reached at (520) 455-5667 or jeffyboy@wildblue.net

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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