Junkyard God

Professional pack rat Gus Brethauer turns trash into treasure at the state's strangest museum

A slab of tiling from a long-gone Valley supermarket. A 1958 Edsel station wagon with a bum transmission and four flat tires. A forest of fake Christmas trees, inhabited by a plastic deer. If the Smithsonian is the Nation's Attic, the grounds surrounding Gus Brethauer's north Phoenix home are the State's Junk Drawer.

Or something.

"I call it 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'" Brethauer says as he surveys his desert Shangri-la. Reading from one of the bright yellow and green business cards he hopes will soon draw throngs to his secondhand Xanadu, the weathered 77-year-old visionary adds, "'It's a study in stone, in color and theme without parallel on the face of the earth.'" Pause. "A building material museum, that's what it is."

As it turns out, that's probably as good a description as any for the detritus-strewn three-acre property that has occupied Brethauer's every waking hour since 1976. That was the year that he retired from a 30-year stint at Reynolds Aluminum, freeing him to work full time on the folk art garden he began as a teenager.

That was many, many scavenger hunts ago. Hundreds (if not thousands) of trips later, Brethauer had hauled back truckloads of treasures from construction sites, demolished buildings and even Mother Nature's garbage can -- like the massive gnarled dead tree trunks he salvaged from dry river bottoms. Sort of a cross between a movie studio back lot, an amusement park, a kids' fort and a botanical garden (Brethauer claims he's got 1,000 varieties of plants on his land, as well as seven types of rodents), the garden also offers a crash course in Phoenix history, liberally illustrated with remnants from such defunct landmarks as the Fox Theatre and Phoenix Union High School's Montgomery Stadium, as well as grating from an underground sidewalk built downtown to protect early-day shoppers from dusty, unpaved streets.

The first lesson -- an eye-opener about urban sprawl -- begins the minute you pull onto Brethauer's property, a bucolic time warp near Cave Creek and Sweetwater roads.

Once considered out in the country (during the early part of the century, the area was a haven for TB patients, or "lungers"; several dilapidated rental cabins from that era still dot the property), the rustic spread has since been engulfed on all sides by a flotilla of two-story pink McMansions, many of them featuring scenic second-story views of Brethauer's sprawling trove.

Asked whether aesthetically challenged neighbors have ever complained about his unusual landscaping, Brethauer offers a terse "Nah."

"And why would they?" he adds with a wink. "I was here first."

Although Brethauer has been conducting tours of the grounds since 1980 (mostly neighbors and students from nearby Hidden Hills Elementary School), the garden has received little publicity and today remains one of the city's best-kept secrets.

"It's just stupendous," says folk art enthusiast Marion Blake, proprietress of the Grover Cleveland Thompson rock garden in Sunnyslope (see related story). "He's hauled in these boulders that are as big as a house so you feel miniaturized as you walk through it. What he's done is remarkable; it makes my place look like a doily."

And if others contend that Brethauer's weird wonderland is less a traditional folk art piece than it is a collection gone awry, it's nonetheless interesting for it. "He's a very interesting character, absolutely," says Gretchen Freeman, an art consultant who has written extensively about "outsider art" -- art created by individuals with no formal training, using found objects. "He's got big plans and big ideas. This is a man who is following his vision."

Strapped for cash, Brethauer's next vision focuses on turning his garden into a money-making tourist attraction. But unlike the garden, this is one dream that may never become a reality; current zoning laws prohibit Brethauer from operating a business on the site.

Still, a ticket stand and a pot of gold may be a few of the very things visitors won'tfind at Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Instead, you're far more likely to see a barrel filled with tarnished bowling trophies, a giant concrete triceratops with (non-operative) flashing eyes or a chunk of a "cursed" meteorite that supposedly brought death to all who've touched it, save Brethauer.

Other points of interest include a "haunted" cabin dating back to the Depression, an alfresco dining nook created entirely out of the remains of razed Chinese restaurants, and a House of Mirrors maze assembled from discarded reflective materials. There's even a UFO landing field that plays host to a variety of not readily identifiable saucer-shaped objects, including "The Good Ship Lollipop" -- a rusty alien "craft" that was actually a ride-on pool toy at a bygone swimming facility near Central Avenue and the Salt River bed.

More-grounded attractions include 25-ton monoliths (some bearing Indian petroglyphs), fossilized rocks, Indian grinding stones (or metates), a variety of geological curiosities and a huge collection of petrified wood from almost every state in the union.

"I haven't found any from Rhode Island, yet," says Brethauer, almost apologetically. "But I'm still looking, and I'm sure I'll find a piece one of these days."

Only a fool would bet against him.

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