Clubbing Wrigley

The Wrigley Mansion's owners want to open a private restaurant with $10 memberships. But its well-connected Biltmore neighbors want no part of cafe society.

And yet, when he moved to Phoenix, he was regarded as a fool and his money. He was listed in the phone book. Shyster inventors, brokers of everything, down-and-outers would beat a path to his door to ask for hundreds or thousands of dollars, and often, whether he believed their pitches or not, Hormel would give it to them.

The "nice people" that attracted him to Phoenix, he told New Times, also attracted predators. Hormel was a fawn in the forest.

He invested in dizzy research projects, most notably the digital deliriums of UFO computer "expert" Jim Dilettoso.

In 1995, he bought a $2 million art collection from people he thought he knew. It turned out to be a houseful of spectacular forgeries. He sued the sellers of the art and lost in court, and so he hung the paintings in the Wrigley Mansion.

"I tell everyone that it's a $2 million collection of fakes," he says now.
In 1996, he invested $2.5 million in a magazine about baseball that struck out.

"I literally ran out of money," Hormel says.
He tired of all the acrimony and delegated authority to his wife.
Jamie Hormel has a baby-doll voice, but she speaks with a cool sense of purpose and authority. She'd always disliked her husband's entourage, and so she set out to clean house, literally and figuratively. The hangers-on and advisers were swept from the McCune Mansion, the free-money faucet was turned off, and business was tended to.

She turned an eye to the Wrigley Mansion.
At first ABEVA had allowed the Mansion to open its dinnertime to the public in the hope of luring club members. The Hormels offered cheap memberships to Biltmore residents. They staged elegant Sunday brunches; Geordie, who has made a living playing piano bars between wives while his assets were tied up in divorce court, would entertain the Sunday guests. It didn't work, and none of the chefs or managers the Hormels hired, for good or bad, could make it work.

According to Celeste Nichols, its current manager, the mansion is booked to near capacity during the event season, and yet it has not broken even. Nor has it attracted enough visitors to satisfy Hormel's desire to show it off.

For one thing, private clubs are white elephants. The IRS now looks closely at club memberships written off as business deductions. And although the food has always been excellent, the menu is intentionally as old-fashioned as the setting, the prices high enough that one might tend to save it as a spot to celebrate special events. And given the number of high-end restaurants in the Phoenix area, who wants to plop down $1,000 and marry one's dinner engagements to just one?

That would be excessive.
But the Wrigley Mansion has always been a symbol of excess. It was built in 1931 as one of many residential retreats from the nasty Chicago weather by the Wrigley family, manufacturers of chewing gum, former owners of the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Cubs, and the Biltmore Hotel. It has gilded ceilings, paneled walls, ornate ballrooms, expansive verandas, meticulously trimmed lawns. It remained in the Wrigley family until 1973, when it began to pass through the portfolios of corporations that could never figure out exactly what to do with it.

Then it became a symbol of 1980s corporate excess when it was purchased by Western Savings and Loan to be used as a coffee house for its richest depositors. Western also built lavish corporate headquarters down the hill from the mansion, which now house the Del Webb Corporation and a conference center.

The mansion's zoning does not permit restaurants unless they are part of a hotel, as in the Biltmore next door. But Gary Driggs of Western Savings obtained a use permit from the city to allow a restaurant and banquet center catering to the club's members.

It was a hairsplitting distinction that allowed Driggs to bend the zoning rules, and the neighbors regretted it.

"Western, for all practical purposes, totally ignored that and did what they damn well pleased," says Norm Henry, whose house lies just downhill from the mansion. "They really had some tough parties up there."

Western Savings crashed and burned spectacularly in 1989, taking much of the Phoenix area's economy with it. The entire complex went up for grabs. Ironically, the Western crash was one reason that real estate prices stayed low enough for Geordie Hormel to buy Western's mansion for a song. But ABEVA would just as soon he dropped the lid on the piano and shut it up altogether.

Nancy Tucker, the executive director of the Arizona Biltmore Estate Village Association, does not like to reveal the names of Biltmore residents. She won't say exactly who those people are. But the 1,800 or so residences in the area--defined as Camelback Road north to Lincoln Drive, and 24th Street east to 32nd Street--house doctors and pro athletes, major developers and real estate brokers, a heavy-hitting lobbyist and political consultant, and the former chairperson of the Republican party.

They are, in effect, successful capitalists worshiping at the altars of the free market and private-property rights--their own property rights, that is. More than one ABEVA combatant referred to Geordie Hormel as being able to "buy and sell" them, perhaps cowed by the old money they aspire to.

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