By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
George A. Hormel II went on a shopping spree in 1992.
With a $13 million inheritance in his pocket, Hormel, whom everyone calls "Geordie," had been lured from Los Angeles to buy the 57,000-square-foot McCune Mansion in Paradise Valley. Phoenix-area real estate values were still in the dumper, and, at $3.75 million, it was a cool deal.
"It wasn't hard for me to give up L.A. for here," he says, "even though I hated desert and heat and cactus and sand and Southwest decor and all that shit. It was solely because of people here being nice."
And they were nice enough to bring him a couple more real estate deals. He leased a nightclub in downtown Scottsdale that never opened because it would cost too much to bring up to code. Then he bought the Wrigley Mansion, an elegant, whitewashed adobe home on a hilltop overlooking the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, for $2.6 million.
The Wrigley had been run as a private club since 1983, though never successfully. It had gone into receivership more than once. Hormel decided to give it another try. And although it has become a prestigious spot to stage a wedding, throw a party, or hold a meeting, although its kitchen and dining room have gotten stellar reviews, it's never broken even, let alone drawn the clientele that Hormel thought he was saving it for.
Geordie Hormel and his wife, Jamie, who now runs the couple's businesses, asked the Arizona Biltmore Estates Village Association (ABEVA), the neighborhood association that controls the area, if they could change the zoning or rewrite the use permit to allow for a restaurant open to the general public.
The discussion opened with hemming and hawing, which segued into lawyer letters, which escalated to a flurry of shrill name-calling and dubious accusations on all parts.
The neighbors said that the Wrigley Mansion was a noisy nuisance and that Geordie Hormel was just trying to recoup his own bad business losses at their expense. The Hormels said they just wanted to break even and share an architectural treasure with a city they loved.
ABEVA accused the Hormels of using their wealth and clout to influence the media, the Hormels accused ABEVA of using its wealth and clout to influence the city.
It was a Biltmore standoff, two Porsches at an intersection and neither would yield right of way.
Then the Hormels hit the accelerator and spun out of the crossroads; ABEVA picked up its cell phone and dialed the authorities.
In May of this year, Jamie Hormel told ABEVA that she planned to keep the Wrigley as a private club, except membership would only cost $10 a year, making it a de facto public restaurant. As a final money-doesn't-matter gesture, she announced that the membership dues would be donated to a charity that helps battered women.
ABEVA has retaliated by asking the City of Phoenix to yank the Wrigley's use permit, and demanding that it set standards as to what kind of membership fee constitutes a "bona fide" private club.
In short, ABEVA wants to set someone else's prices.
Not surprisingly, the city zoning official that ABEVA lobbied has nothing to say about how and whether his department can settle the dispute. But the players in this soap opera called Biltmore Place have plenty to say.
"What country do we live in that they have to decide whether it's appropriate or not?" wheezes Celeste Nichols, manager of the Wrigley Mansion Club. "There's no ordinance that says a private club has to charge this or that amount of money."
"Geordie knew what he was buying when he bought it," says Brian Zemp, attorney for ABEVA.
Geordie Hormel is heir to the meat-packing firm that makes Spam, and, some might say, a study in old-money eccentricity. He was a dashing gourmet and seducer of starlets in his youth. Now, at age 70, he would just as soon spend the day playing the piano in a tour bus parked behind his home.
His gray hair cascades over his shoulders, he wears slouchy sportscoats, shuffles around his estate in those suede boots that used to be called "Dingos." His beautiful wife Jamie is 41 years his junior, which raises eyebrows. But Hormel couldn't care less.
When he moved in to the McCune Mansion, he brought his rock 'n' roll retinue with him--engineers from the L.A. recording studio he owns, musicians down on their luck, folks who just needed a job or a place to stay. For years the house was a cultivated clutter of unpacked boxes, uninvited guests and unhurried workmen.
The Wrigley Mansion, on the other hand, was an orderly reminder of Hormel's privileged upbringing. He fussed over its restoration. And even if his clothes were informal and unpressed, he could be mildly irritated if a spoon were misplaced in a formal table setting.
Though a substantial chunk of his income flows out of a trust fund, Geordie Hormel has made his own millions in the music industry. His Village Recorder is regarded as a prestigious recording studio. He had made a fortune in the early days of television by providing soundtrack music.
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.
Those insecurities notwithstanding, they are good at pulling strings to get their own way. Case in point: When a gullible Japanese investor named Kabuto Arizona Properties bought the Adobe Golf Course with the notion of building upscale houses on it, ABEVA was able to apply enough pressure on the city to put the brakes on the development. The outcome of that battle is pending.
Within ABEVA are various little villages. The one closest to the Wrigley Mansion is called Taliverde, and its homes are valued at more than $1 million each. Still, it was a stretch when Brian Zemp, ABEVA's attorney, referred to the Wrigley Mansion as just another house with a view in a letter to the city zoning authorities.
"I have been involved with the Wrigley Mansion one way or another since 1973, and frankly, people have never beaten down the doors to see what's inside," he wrote. Zemp had worked for previous Wrigley Mansion owners and had even had an office in the mansion. "It is an interesting house with a certain mystique, much of it contrived," he continued. "It is also large and has a great view. On the other hand, if the Hormels really wanted to satisfy the latent curiosity of an even greater number of Phoenicians, they would open up the McCune/Hall/Hormel Mansion to the public. Having been there in all of its incarnations, I can assure you that it is the more interesting attraction."
When ABEVA folk talk about the Wrigley Mansion, what most burns their Spam is the evening that James Bond himself stormed the grounds and shot it out with sinister spies. It happened in January 1996, but Tucker and other residents speak about it as if it happened last week, and the stench still lingers in the air.
A liquor manufacturer threw a wild party to fete the opening of a James Bond movie starring Pierce Brosnan. During the event, a helicopter hovered over the mansion--which is strictly forbidden by the use permit--and fired blanks.
"That was ludicrous," says Tucker. "There were helicopters circling there with searchlights, and there were guns going off.
"We had people getting their children down on the floor," she continues. They thought there was a shooting up there and those were the police and it happened late at night. The neighbors called 911."
Tucker told the Arizona Republic that the residents "thought they were getting shot at by police," which makes Celeste Nichols go apoplectic.
"Oh puhl-eeze," she says, dragging out the syllables as long as she can.
"What are those homeowners doing that they think the police are firing at them?" asks Jamie Hormel.
"We were totally out of line," she admits, "and a manager let [them] throw this big party, which would have been fine except they had a helicopter flying around shooting blanks."
The offending manager had been fired before the party even took place, but it was too late for the mansion to back out of the agreement to host the party.
"It's the only incident we've ever had. That's why that's all they can talk about. In six years, we only did one thing."
ABEVA's complaints about noise and parking and traffic problems, however, have more to do with the club's currently legitimate function as a banquet center.
Tucker told the Arizona Republic, "All of the traffic from that club empties out onto a residential street," which is only half true. The road to the club passes between commercial properties, but the residences in question lie well beyond the turnoff to the mansion.
The parking is insufficient, ABEVA says. There are 140 spaces at the mansion and more than 100 more down at the convention center.
The guests are noisy, Tucker says, and Wrigley revelers on their way to the Biltmore Hotel have awakened residents.
"Many of those people have been loud and have been boisterous," says Nancy Tucker. "They leave there at midnight and walk down the hill to the hotel and wake up the guests. That happened many times."
The Wrigley management claims that they get blamed for noise that really emanates from the hotel.
In an April letter to the city zoning department, Foster Mori, an attorney for the Hormels, wrote, "Recently a call was received from Mrs. Tucker representing ABEVA to complain about the noise of the outdoor activity in the Wrigley parking lot. Of course, ABEVA did not bother to try to verify the complaints. Wrigley investigated the matter and confirmed that the Wrigley had not had any such activities on the date complained about. It was then determined that the activities ABEVA was complaining about were originating from the Biltmore Hotel.
"As a further example of the hostility that ABEVA has demonstrated, there are the calls that are being made regularly to the mansion (anonymously). The most recent caller stated: 'You can't tell us what to do. We will tell you.'"
But the current debate is over a restaurant, which Nichols and the Hormels allege will change very little. Based on the prices on the menu, it's unlikely that it would either attract or accommodate unwashed hordes.
Dinner for two would run about $100 with drinks. Men must wear a jacket and, in season, a tie, both in the restaurant and in the bar.
So there won't be a lot of pickup trucks in the parking lot. And the dining room will only seat 50 people at a time--as opposed to the mansion's 750-person legal maximum capacity. And with the current use permit, it will close down by 11 p.m. each night.
"There's not going to be anything different about this place other than there's going to be an additional 50 people in here for lunch or dinner," says Nichols. "Fifty people! That's it. We're not going to increase parking. We're only going to accommodate what we can accommodate."
But nonetheless, the low membership fee is a way to get around zoning, and ABEVA worries that the constant eroding of regulations may eventually lead to rezoning, which they do not want.
And besides, the rules are the rules.
"We could make it a halfway house," Geordie Hormel says without masking the amusement in his voice.
And actually, under the current rules that the residents frequently wave in his face, he could.
The official zoning category is R-5, multifamily residential, meaning that it can have houses and apartments and condominium buildings. But it can also have group and recovery homes, a medical center, a copy center, a hotel or a bank.
The use permit that Western Savings negotiated with ABEVA and the City of Phoenix in 1983 allows the mansion to be a bank branch office. It could also be used as a private club with a restaurant and as a banquet center if the outside verandas were closed in. Limits were set for noise and hours of operation, parking, entrance and exit to the club. Fireworks would only be permitted on July 4; helicopter and balloon ascents and descents were strictly forbidden.
Anything else would require a new use permit or a zoning change. Which is what the Hormels asked for, and they almost reached agreement, at least with the Taliverde homeowners association.
At the beginning of last December, Taliverde sent a letter to ABEVA listing the conditions by which they would consider letting the Mansion Club operate as a public restaurant.
The Hormels would have had to clean up the one vacant lot they hold down the hill. It has an outbuilding on it and both building and grounds are used for storage. ABEVA worries that the Hormels will build condos there. Under the tentative terms of agreement, the Hormels would also have had to deed to the Taliverde association an easement for entry into that lot. At present, that easement appears to be part of a residence's side yard, and by deeding it over, it would block entry into the lot from the Taliverde side.
Furthermore, the Hormels would have had to write new deed restrictions forbidding expansion to the mansion or condos on the vacant lot, and ensure that if they ever sold the building, the new owners would not be able to operate a restaurant there.
The Hormels wanted to rezone the property, but thought that with such an agreement in place with the homeowners associations, they might get special dispensation from the city.
"I could probably get a use permit from the city," Jamie Hormel says, "because when ABEVA's happy, the city's happy."
But in the end, she decided it was too much to give up, because the agreement to run a restaurant might only be granted on a provisional basis.
"I'm not going to give them yet another deed restriction on that property just for the okay to open to the public with their yearly approval of it. We could just sign off on that deed and then a year later they say, 'No, it's not working out and they've got their deed restriction and I've got nothing.'"
Tensions mounted. During an ABEVA meeting, one member claimed that he had tendered an offer to buy the mansion from the Hormels but that he had been turned down. The Hormels denied any serious offers.
The Wrigley Mansion advertised a brunch for Mother's Day with the proceeds going to an organization that helps battered women. And although the use permit explicitly permits charity events at the mansion, ABEVA complained to the zoning department. The zoning department ruled in favor of the mansion.
That was the ultimate deal breaker. The next day, on May 7, Jamie Hormel sent a terse note to ABEVA that said, "You will be pleased to know that we have already initiated our marketing efforts to continue as a private club so further negotiations are unnecessary."
The decision had been made to sidestep official approval of the restaurant by setting the membership for the private club at 10 dollars.
ABEVA claims that the low membership is a sham and would not constitute a "bona fide" private club. The Hormels maintain that there are no statutes that dictate what club dues should be.
So it would seem that the Hormels have the drop on ABEVA, and only pure clout with the city could reverse the situation.
Brian Zemp, the ABEVA attorney, asked the city to yank the mansion's special use permit.
"The argument now is: What makes it a private club?" says Zemp. "The argument that the homeowners are trying to keep out riffraff, that's baloney. In an R-5 district, you're not allowed to have a restaurant unless it's a private club or unless it is internal to a hotel."
When asked what would constitute a reasonable membership fee for a "bona fide" private club, he hedges.
"It's really the city that ultimately has to decide what qualifies as a private club under the zoning ordinance," he says.
The city waffles.
"We're trying to sort this thing out," says William Allison, zoning administrator for the City of Phoenix. "This is frankly not a question that we've had in the past."
He restates the facts: In R-5 zones, you can have a restaurant that caters to a private club. You can't have a public restaurant except inside a hotel. The Wrigley Mansion club has figured out how to straddle the hairline. Can they do it or not?
"And that's where we're not sure we're going to be able to come down," he says in a relieved flash of diplomacy.
Which makes some residents long for the good old days of the real estate crash.
"It was dark for a few years while it was in bankruptcy," says Michael Martindale, president of the Taliverde association. "It was a great neighbor."