Illusions of Grandeur

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

It's clear from the Phoenix memorial design that his focus is not the journey of local survivors or wonder that they were saved. Instead, Tonnesen clearly hopes to encapsulate the magnitude of the loss suffered by the European Jewry.

It's a lofty goal -- and it's why, perhaps, he's cagey about the cost. Neither Tonnesen nor Kader would give an estimate to New Times. It's too early, they say. Tonnesen says he'd have to do a sample wall with pins to see how hard it is to install them in concrete. He's told the Arizona Jewish Historical Society that the memorial will cost $3 million, plus pins. He won't even guess on pin prices.

Kader admits that Tonnesen has told him a good pin can cost as much as $1. "So just pins, we could be talking $6 million," Kader says. "Even if we can get them for a quarter of that, we're talking $1.5 million for pins."

And beyond that, of course, is the high cost of going underground. The bedrock that must be excavated. The walls that must be shored. The elevator. The staff.

It's a monumental undertaking, considering that the group has no funds. It has yet even to officially organize as a nonprofit for donation purposes.

But the survivors' group has approved the design, and so has the board of the historical society. The historical society has hired a fund raiser to study the feasibility of raising money to both restore the temple on site -- a project that alone is estimated at more than $5 million -- and build the memorial. Risa Mallin, who first organized the survivors in the 1980s and is now the historical society's executive director, admits that her board is concerned about cost and looking for ways to scale down the project.

Tonnesen will have none of it. In that, he has the full support of his one-man design committee.

"My feeling from the beginning," Kader says, "is that I'd rather not succeed at something really exceptional than have a plaque on a rock."


Dale Dacquisto once introduced his dear friend Helen Handler to Tonnesen. But he doesn't take any satisfaction from knowing that he made the memorial plans possible. Instead, Dacquisto feels only regret.

"I feel terrible about it," he says.

Dacquisto and his partner had hired Tonnesen to do a project at their central Phoenix home. They'd planned a three-month project and agreed to a six-figure budget.

At first, the pair enjoyed getting to know the charismatic designer and his workers. They even bought a few pieces of his artwork, including one with orderly rows of coffee cups featured in Tonnesen. He assured them it would only grow in value as his art career took off.

But the piece hasn't aged well; one of the coffee cups has fallen off its backing, and in its place, Dacquisto has stuck a movie stub from Kill Bill Vol. 1. Like the artwork, his relationship with Tonnesen also deteriorated precipitously, after the project dragged on for nearly a year.

It got even worse when Tonnesen announced he was done. Because the pool had sat drained for nearly two months, its plaster cracked. The driveway is a soggy mess; Dacquisto is convinced Tonnesen substituted a cheaper-grade material after costs began to mount. The concrete patios also began to crack. A huge vertical crack runs up one kitchen wall and across the ceiling.

Worst of all, when the partners went to talk to a lawyer, the lawyer gave them a piece of information that caught them totally off guard: Tonnesen Inc. didn't have a license to do electrical work, which it had done.

Or a mechanical license.

Or a plumbing license.

Or a residential contractor's license.

Tonnesen never should have been allowed to redo their kitchen in the first place, their lawyer explained.

By that point, Dacquisto had paid Tonnesen more than the budgeted amount, according to records Dacquisto provided to New Times. But when he refused to pay the final bill and demanded the mistakes be fixed, Tonnesen went ballistic and threatened to sue. He only backed down, according to a note he wrote Dacquisto, when Dacquisto's lawyer pointed out his lack of licensure.

Even then, Tonnesen seemed to view the problems as his clients' fault. "I'll never forget you betrayed a friendship. You deceived. You stole," he wrote on one monthly invoice.

"Hypocrites!" he wrote on another, soon after Dacquisto and his partner accompanied Handler to a "Day of Remembrance" Holocaust commemoration. "Imagine if Helen knew. She won't find out from me. But . . . You must live with your own treachery." He actually sent Dacquisto two memos listing his social engagements since "no doubt, we share the preference not to run into one another socially."

(Tonnesen, who calls Dacquisto "a wolf in sheep's clothing," acknowledges the matter has been painful. "It's a terrible, sad situation," he says. "They never paid a substantial portion of their bill. It's not so unusual to have disagreements about stuff on a project like this. What really makes it sad is when it's among friends." He denies that the work was shoddy.)

Dacquisto has discussed the problems with Handler. He supports the memorial, and doesn't want to see her get hurt. But he is racked with guilt over introducing her to Tonnesen.

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2 comments
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?

Guest
Guest

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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