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."

Dan Huff
Jurassic ark: A triceratops and a bear are just two of the beasties in Gus Brethauer's wild kingdom.
Dan Huff
Jurassic ark: A triceratops and a bear are just two of the beasties in Gus Brethauer's wild kingdom.
Santa cruise: Brethauer in his forest of fake Christmas trees. At left, ornamental detail salvaged from downtown’s Fox Theatre in 1975.
Dan Huff
Santa cruise: Brethauer in his forest of fake Christmas trees. At left, ornamental detail salvaged from downtown’s Fox Theatre in 1975.
Scrawl of the wild: Rock graffiti, folk art style.
Dan Huff
Scrawl of the wild: Rock graffiti, folk art style.
Avid gardener: "It's amazing what you can do in 50 years," says Brethauer of his lifelong 
work-in-progress.
Dan Huff
Avid gardener: "It's amazing what you can do in 50 years," says Brethauer of his lifelong work-in-progress.

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't find 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.

A lifelong pack rat, the scrappy scavenger has been dragging stuff back to the property for the better part of 60 years. During his early years of collecting, Brethauer was more interested in accumulating than displaying; most of his finds sat around in piles for years until he finally began arranging them in thematic environments after his retirement. Today, those artifacts (everything from clusters of oversize acrylic grapes to a valet parking keyboard from a local resort) adorn several dozen themed sites that dot a manmade nature trail that snakes through the grounds.

Local color collides with natural history at every bend in the path. At one juncture in the tour, a chunk of orange plastic awning that once graced West Plaza shopping center is oddly juxtaposed with an ossified tree trunk; elsewhere, the exterior wall of an A.J. Bayless grocery store vies for attention with a majestic organ pipe cactus. Whenever there's a visual lull in the action (admittedly, not often), Brethauer can be counted on to liven things up by pointing out a rubber snake lurking in the undergrowth, just waiting to strike.

"Bowser, our rabid Mexican wolf, has chewed through his rope," he warns at one point. "If you see him, yell for help!"

After viewing Brethauer's wild wonderland of waste, some visitors will realize that his "building materials museum" tour really isn't about tons of trash that somehow cheated the wrecking ball, at all. Instead, it's a walking tour through one man's life, as played out against a backdrop of society's scrap heap.

Wandering through the garden, he reminisces about how Prohibition-parched Phoenicians would drive out to the spread to sample the moonshine his father served in a roadhouse that once stood on the grounds. He'll show you the gap on his right hand where he lost two fingers during a gun battle in Italy during WWII (one of the few times he returned home with fewer things than he had when he left). And he'll tell you about the time one of the boulders in the garden tipped over, crushing his knee.

In between the almost mind-numbing litany of historical and geological factoids (at the conclusion of a recent tour, one visitor announced, "I feel like I've just circumnavigated the globe!"), Brethauer can be counted on to dole out gardening tips or the secret to attracting birds to your property. ("Be sure to have lots of water," he says, filling one of the many small ponds scattered around the lot. "The baby quail love it.")

Then, shifting gears, he's apt to tell you about the night he winged a vandal with a rifle.

"I combed my hair, and I got my toothbrush," he remembers. "I thought the cops were coming for sure, but they never did. I was kind of disappointed. It never even made the newspapers."

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a one-man show in more ways than one. While Brethauer's wife, Lena, actively supported her husband's magnificent obsession (a collector herself, she's responsible for the garden's porcelain lion's den), poor health has forced her to move in with one of the couple's three children.

None of those offspring share their father's zeal for eclectic landscaping. So what will happen to the garden when Brethauer is no longer able to maintain the property? "I have no idea," says son Robert Brethauer, a golf course superintendent in Rio Verde. But no matter what happens, it will "probably not" involve the younger Brethauer, who explains "I kind of do my own thing."

Brethauer doesn't see his other children getting involved in the marketing of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, either. "My daughter, she's real shy. And my other son, well, he's something of an eight ball. If I'm going to do these tours, I'm going to have to find someone who thinks like I do."

Now that may be the one thing that even intrepid scavenger Gus Brethauer can't scare up.

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