Ben's tradition opens new chapter

Danielle C. Malka

Special to the Arizona Daily Wildcat

University of Arizona students and faculty flock to Gentle Ben's Brewing Company for home-brewed beer, good food and live music, but the building has a rich history that has nothing to do with brewing.

Enjoy it while it lasts, because by next year's Homecoming, the familiar hangout will be no more.

Late this winter, the building at 841 N. Tyndall Ave. will be torn down to make room for a new hotel. But beer-guzzling fans need not fret: Gentle Ben's is not closing. It's merely relocating across the street, just a few hundred feet south of where it is now.

Over the past century, the building has been host to many diverse endeavors. It has served as a private residence, the official residence of UA presidents, the Pi Beta Phi sorority house and the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house, said Gentle Ben's owner and manager Dennis Arnold.

At one time it was the Yucca Inn, and then the Peppertree Inn, he said.

The building was used as a boarding house for students and soldiers during World War II and an apartment house for the growing UA community in the late 1960s, Arnold said.

In 1970, local attorney Richard Johnson and a partner bought the property and turned it into a restaurant, but they couldn't come up with a suitable name, Arnold said. He said the owners were going to hold a contest to find a name when Gregory Oswald, a now-retired UA history professor, suggested "Gentle Ben's," coined from a nickname the professor had for the restaurant manager at the time, a student in his Russian history class.

"He was this jovial, big guy, very friendly, but he always came in late to class. He was big and cuddly and one day I just started calling him Gentle Ben," Oswald said.

"It wasn't until later that he told me his name wasn't even Ben, I can't remember what his name really was."

Arnold said he thought the nickname originated from "Grizzly Adams," a television show which featured a big, cuddly bear, but Oswald denied the connection.

Regardless of its origin, the name stuck. Arnold said the establishment has been called Gentle Ben's since 1970, except for a one-year stint in 1990, when it was known as Dirtbag's West.

Although the property is now owned by the Marshall Foundation, Arnold, who took over the place in 1991, leases it and has renovation rights. In 1991, he changed the name back to Gentle Ben's and added the brewery.

"We did lots of renovating at that time. It was a pit," he said.

Now Arnold will be doing more renovation as he moves to the new location at 847 E. University Blvd.

He said he originally planned to raze the 1970 bank building on the property, but when he found it was constructed of foot-thick brick walls, he began making plans to use the original structure.

"I just love red brick," he said. "Even if we built a new building it would be made of brick."

Arnold said he plans to strip the stucco and renew the original brick, then make some additions to the building.

"It will be much of the same thing, but on a bigger, better and grander scale," Arnold said of the new location.

He said the new place will feature two different atmos



"In the downstairs area there will be a nice restaurant and bar and upstairs will be the 'bar bar,' pool tables, and live music," he said.

He said the restaurant will feature two separate patios, a lower one built off the side of the building and an upper deck on the roof.

"There's going to be a tremendous amount of outdoor seating and we should be able to seat 400 or 500 people inside," Arnold said.

Other perks include healthier food, a more efficient kitchen and a more efficient piping system in the brewery.

"We hope to offer a very healthy menu, heavy on the salads," Arnold said. We're going to get a smoker to smoke meats and we'll offer rotisserie chicken. If I have anything to do with it, we won't even have a deep fryer in the place.

"Basically we've only kept this menu because that's the hand we were dealt. The kitchen simply can't accommodate much more," he said. "In the new kitchen, 400 to 500 meals will be no problem."

As far as the brewery is concerned, Arnold said he will either build an underground cellar to house it or a separate building off to the side of the main one. Pumping the beer straight from the cellar will eliminate the excessive piping needed to transport the beer in the old building.

Although Arnold is excited about the new restaurant, he won't leave this one without some major celebration.

"We're planning some great last bashes here," he said. "Everyone should really keep their eyes open."

"I just ordered about 16,000 pounds of malt that will eventually be turned into 100,000 glasses of beer," he said.

Arnold said he plans to find some bands that played at Gentle Ben's "way back when" and bring them back in reunion concerts. He also said he'd like to have some reunion parties for UA alumni, and will probably hire an outside consultant to help organize them.

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