Illusions of Grandeur

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

Tonnesen says he has "never, ever" represented himself as an architect. He mistakenly gave Sosin testimonials from friends and clients that referred to himself as such, he admits. "But I would never represent myself as an architect," he says. "I'm not one."

The house never did get built.

"You get sucked in by [Tonnesen's] enthusiasm and excitement," Joplin says. "This is a guy who can do things. But the cost is people getting tossed off of a project, and a house not being built, and wreaking havoc on people's lives because they're in the way!"

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."

Many of the Holocaust survivors adore Tonnesen, even if they do chuckle over the intensity of his obsession. He comes to their monthly dinners, and, as Handler notes, "he talks to every one of them. He makes them feel very important." He's even memorizing the Hebrew prayers.

And the survivors love the memorial design.

"If Bill has anything to do with it, it's going to be spectacular," says Dolly Redner, who survived several work camps and Auschwitz-Birkenau as a teenager. "He is spectacular."

Redner understands that some people may question the cost when there are so many other worthy causes. Even her own husband, Aaron, says he doesn't see the point of memorials. But she wants to see that something still stands when she is no longer around to tell her story. "So many people died," she says, "and they must be remembered."

And she believes Tonnesen when he says the money will come. "The criticism comes because he thinks in millions," she says. "But if you have pegs, and each one costs 25 cents, what child will not give 25 cents to see this happen?"

So far, Tonnesen hasn't been paid a penny for his work on the designs. "We've paid him for some out-of-pocket costs, but I even had to pull teeth to get him to accept that," Kader says.

If the project gets built, Kader says, Tonnesen will get his professional fee -- but he bridles when asked how much that is: "That is simply none of the New Times' business." (On other projects, Tonnesen has used "cost-plus" contracts, which give him 16 percent of the total. Under such a formula, if the memorial cost $3 million to build, he'd get a $480,000 payday.)

Tonnesen clearly has Kader's full support. But Kader seems to understand that the cost, and the difficulty of construction, may badly slow the project or even doom it. "The first question most survivors ask is, 'Will it be done while I'm still alive?' And all I can tell them is, we'll try to do it as quickly as we can," he says.

"That's the nastiest part, in a way," he adds. "There's a side of me that says, 'Let's scale back, let's do an iconic visual that people can walk to and walk away.' But we want people to have an experience as opposed to see something. Whether that's realized or not, we'll find out."

For Tonnesen, there is no doubt. He shrugs away questions of cost; the survivors say he's promised that his friends will donate various materials. Even his family Christmas card thanks a local business for donating trees for the project. He's already sent at least one letter asking his professional and art contacts to donate money to the group.

He isn't making art anymore. "How can you compare visual art with genocide?" he asks.

Tonnesen does say he will "art-direct" another show of Burning Man photos, and Chiaroscuro director Lykins acknowledges it's a possibility. Other than that, Tonnesen says, his only other art project is Holocaust-related. He's been directing Romero in a series of stark black-and-white photographs of a dozen members of the survivors' association.

The photos show them, simply, as survivors. Tonnesen insisted: No makeup, no jewelry. He proudly proclaims the photographs "Avedon-esque."

Bill Tonnesen is a man who once vowed not to make great art but to become famous through art. So it's natural to wonder, is this Holocaust obsession no more than Tonnesen's latest stab at immortality?

Tonnesen is famously combative. But during the sole in-person interview he consented to, a two-hour conversation in his studio in February, he let the question drop without a sharp retort. "I would say my focus is on the memorial right now," he said simply.

Pilar Tonnesen says that her husband's Holocaust obsession is filling a void. "He needs something like that, where he pours all the energy he has into it," she says. "If not this, he'd be looking for something else."

Tonnesen doesn't see it quite that way. To him, today, the memorial is not one in a series of obsessions, from contemporary art to a 21st-century Falling Water. As he sees it now, it's the ultimate obsession.

He explains that he's at a "mature point" in his professional life, that all his experiences -- contemporary art, construction, landscape architecture -- have built to this moment.

"This is important," he says, jabbing one long finger. "Relatively speaking, these other things were not important at all.

"I feel like this is my chance to do something important before I die. What we're doing here has never been done before in the world, and I will not stop until I'm done."

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
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!

Phoenix Concert Tickets