Illusions of Grandeur

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

"Knowing as much about him as I do, I really think it's going to be a temple to him rather than a memorial to the Holocaust survivors," he says. "Helen isn't naive, but when I see her get excited about this, I see the child inside of her, and I see her being taken advantage of. I think of what she's been through, and that's hard for me."

Dale Dacquisto is not the only person who has changed his mind about Bill Tonnesen. According to a lawsuit filed with the Maricopa County Superior Court, Tonnesen persuaded a Phoenix woman named Marcia Sebold to give him $25,000 to promote his art career.

Bill Tonnesen
Peter Scanlon
Bill Tonnesen
Artist Mary Shindell calls Tonnesen's work "shamelessly derivative."
Peter Scanlon
Artist Mary Shindell calls Tonnesen's work "shamelessly derivative."

She thought it was a loan, according to court records, but he refused to repay it. Her cash was an investment in his career, he argued in court filings. Since artwork sales "were not forthcoming," as Tonnesen said in a deposition for an unrelated case, he shouldn't have to pay her back.

An arbitrator awarded Sebold $23,584. But even then, Tonnesen wouldn't pay. He didn't agree to settle the case until last month, nearly a year later, according to court records. (Sebold declined comment. Court records do not state the settlement amount, which Tonnesen also declined to discuss.)

But Tucson landscape architect Margaret Joplin might feel the strongest of all. In spite of herself, she says, she was seduced by Tonnesen's enthusiasm and talent. In the end, it destroyed a project that she truly cared about and sent a colleague spiraling into bankruptcy.

The project was a $7 million mansion, dreamed up for a Tucson hillside by Connecticut-based pharmaceuticals CEO Howard Sosin. Sosin had hired architect Steve Robinson to draw plans and supervise construction. Joplin was to design the landscape.

In March of 2002, the designers were almost ready, finally, to build. They wanted help with stonework and the swimming pool, and a series of phone calls led them to Tonnesen. They liked his work, and he professed to like theirs. All that was needed was Sosin's blessing.

So Sosin, Joplin and Robinson drove to Phoenix one Friday. They oohed and aahed over Tonnesen's studio and lunched with his family. The visit went well, and Sosin invited Tonnesen to dinner that Monday. They could work out a contract then.

Tonnesen immediately went to work.

He did not draw up plans for swimming pools. He did not draw sketches of rock formations.

Instead, he worked all weekend on suggestions and alterations for the entire house. He literally redlined parts of the design and made a list of seven problem areas, titled "What's Bad." He suggested Robinson's plan would go as much as $7 million over budget.

On Tuesday, Joplin says, she got a call. Robinson was out. Tonnesen was in.

Never mind that he didn't even have an architect's license.

Tonnesen says that Sosin wanted to hire him as a consultant and work his suggestions into Robinson's design. His deposition takes on an "aw, shucks" quality as he explains: He was "shocked and flattered" that Sosin, out of the blue, wanted his comments on everything. He was "getting torn up inside" that it might hurt the architects who brought him in.

Others remember it differently.

In Robinson's sworn testimony, he recalls that Tonnesen called to tell him his design was out. "He kept saying over and over that he knew how I felt and he felt sorry, but . . . when this door came open for him he knew he had to seize this project. It was his destiny, not in those words necessarily, but it was his to take, but he was sorry that I got hurt in the process."

A memo from Tonnesen to Sosin seems to confirm the architect's contention. In it, Tonnesen suggests that Sosin shut down the project for a month. During that time, Tonnesen wrote, he could "put together an alternative, comprehensive, schematic design package."

Tonnesen added that the project "has really fired" his imagination. "A truly great project can only happen when the site, owner, and design all come together," he gushed. "Someone should do the Falling Water of the 21st century."

That someone, presumably, was Tonnesen.

Robinson tried to fight for his job, and Tonnesen officially resigned. But after a week of contentious meetings, Sosin threw up his hands. He decided to scrap the whole project.

The dream house ended in a lawsuit. Robinson sued Sosin and Tonnesen. (The judge ruled for Sosin, but the suit with Tonnesen is still ongoing, according to court records.) Robinson had to file for bankruptcy. Joplin had to fight to get her final payment, she says, which strained her small firm considerably.

Sosin didn't even learn until his deposition for Robinson's lawsuit that Tonnesen wasn't a real architect, according to court files. Tonnesen had told him that he was licensed to build bridges -- "The implication was that if you're able to build bridges, this sort of project is easy," Sosin explained.

"We all hoped that the project would go forward, I most of all," Sosin added. "The person with the biggest dream here gets squashed. . . . Okay, I'm out the money, I'm out the project, okay?"

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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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