Illusions of Grandeur

He's done with art. Now Bill Tonnesen wants to build a Holocaust memorial in Phoenix

The monument is a big black cube on a pedestal, with a hand at the top reaching heavenward. The names of the camps are listed on one side of the cube. The inscription: "Thou Shalt Not Forget."

Ella Adler points out the names of the camps she was in. "We were very proud of this," she says. "But very few people, except those in the neighborhood, pay it much attention."

The new memorial, she hopes, will be different. She and Harry have eagerly followed Tonnesen's design process.

Margaret Joplin wishes she'd never recommended 
Tonnesen's hire.
Tim Fuller
Margaret Joplin wishes she'd never recommended Tonnesen's hire.
Picture this, for five stories.
Peter Scanlon
Picture this, for five stories.

"Some people do not feel as deeply as Bill does," Ella says. "They say, 'We already have a memorial. We don't need another one.'"

She does not agree. And she's clearly touched by Tonnesen's devotion. "He even traveled to Washington, D.C., to see the Holocaust museum there," she says, amazed. "He says this is his life's work."

"These are grandiose plans," Harry admits. "We have to keep Bill a little bit in check."

New memorials and monuments typically follow one process, whether commissioned by the government or private groups: The organizers set a budget, invite proposals, and then select a committee to review them and either make a choice or ask for alterations.

The survivors' association did none of that. Kader thought it was important not to subject the plans to the sort of group-think that has watered down many a grand idea. Instead, he told Tonnesen, "I am your design committee."

"It's given Bill tremendous freedom," Kader says.

As Kader and Tonnesen describe them, the plans are anything but watered down. Tonnesen has sketched an open-air atrium with eight-foot-tall steel doors. During daytime hours, visitors could enter and follow a series of ramps four stories below ground, ending in a room just 16 feet long by 16 feet wide, the sky above open to the elements. Tonnesen compares it to the Pantheon.

There may be photographs of local survivors, or some sort of hand-held listening device to hear their stories, Tonnesen says. But he clearly sees the walls as key to the project.

He envisions them covered with one-inch steel pins, each pin representing one of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. The walls of pins would rise 40 feet to the land above and continue 10 feet below, visible through the grated floor. Air, blown up through the grates, would create cool gusts of wind.

Building memorials underground isn't anything new. James Young, the University of Massachusetts professor of English and Judaic Studies, has written two books about Holocaust memorials.

"Especially in Europe, there's the idea that you have an absence that can't be redeemed and can't be filled in," he says. The memorials take their cue from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which appears to descend into the ground. "That memorial had an ambivalence: that we're not celebrating this war, that it was a sad thing. It's become its own convention -- but it's a good one."

In some ways, Tonnesen's design resembles one of the rejected proposals for Germany's National Holocaust Memorial, a plan by German artist Gerhard Merz. It, too, showed an open-air mausoleum with a deep pit below.

But Tonnesen's memorial ups the ante by seeking to take visitors below. As any architect can tell you, that means an elevator for wheelchair accessibility. It means, probably, public restrooms on site, volunteer "docents" to staff the site, a director to organize them, and an endowment to maintain it.

It almost certainly means major cost.

Construction experts say that costs below ground rise an estimated 25 to 30 percent. Excavation and shoring get much more expensive once you're a few stories below ground, and there's a good possibility of striking water. Steve Chanen, CEO of Chanen Construction, notes that Phoenix's tough soil is particularly expensive to excavate -- and moving utilities is often costly as well.

Tonnesen's vision of six million pins may be even more ambitious. He says he found himself stuck on the magnitude of six million deaths. "What does six million look like?" he asks. "You don't know. Nobody knows. Nobody can get their head around it because it's too big."

Tonnesen claims, repeatedly, that Phoenix's memorial will be the only one in the world to show six million objects. It's a contentious claim: After all, schoolchildren in rural Tennessee recently collected more than six million paper clips to display in an old German cattle car. It was an improvised effort, without a master plan or a visionary architect, but the exhibit now draws thousands of kids from all over the Southeast. As shown in the recent documentary Paper Clips, the kids who started the collection now lead the tours.

But that doesn't count, Tonnesen says, not under his criteria. Sitting in a big pile, the paper clips aren't visually distinct.

Similarly, he doesn't count the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, which shows six million numbers etched on six glass towers. "That's different," he says.

He can't seem to acknowledge that any previous effort has hit the nail on the head. This, after all, is a guy who dismisses the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: "Beautiful idea, but immaturely executed."

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Lawrence Lawless Yanez
Lawrence Lawless Yanez

This is the email I recieved from the owner Mr. Bill Tonnesen.

"u are a dishonest person. You are not a part of what we are trying to create and you are not welcome as a tenant or a visitor. When you see me on the property please do not speak to me. Do not speak to my employees. Also do not come to our house or office or other rental properties. Most importantly do not approach or speak to my wife, Sam S., Sam R., Arianne or our partner Thomas."

Now, if I were dishonest I wouldn't be so adamant about sticking to my lease now would I? Honesty? 2 bedroom advertized at $550-not true, 45 inch flat panel tv with every refurbished apt?-not true, haven't locked my door when I leave anywhere because the key to the door doesn't work, recieved mail key a month and a half later, major construction AT the doors and windows at all hours of the day, sand blasting sand inside the apt, kitchen and restroom flooded, front door doesn't stay closed, wall mounted heater doesn't work, electric outlet in bathroom not to code. A far as his "crime free" environment, this is questionable. In fact I was here for a tennent who was involved with drunk and disorderly domestic dispute and let her use my phone to call 911. He has lied to all of us, he has treated us with disrespect and trys to force us to HIS view of how "life" should be, cheated us out of the necessary needs. he is diversionary and non-attentive to his tennents as proven when I went TO him to talk face to face as a responsible adult. The lease is written as is and is LEGALLY BINDING. Now that this issue has risen he wants to fight back. Dispite everyone in the arts community has said negatively about him I have admired his work. I can't say that I am charmed any longer by this individual. And he says I'M dishonest?


Just out of curiosity, which property are you a tenant at? I'm currently living in a Bill Tonnesen rental property and I'm having a wonderful experience. It kind of bums me out that somebody isn't!

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