Illusions of Grandeur

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

Three years ago, Bill Tonnesen self-published a book announcing his plans to become one of the top modern artists in the world. The undisputed giants of the field were Richard Serra and James Turrell, he wrote. "Then I thought, there would be me."

At the time, Tonnesen wasn't just little-known. He was unknown. A landscape architect based in Tempe, he wouldn't have made the cut even if you were listing the three most famous landscape architects in the Valley. More to the point, he wasn't an artist.

He was, he admitted, just a guy who'd fallen into a cliché. He looked at abstract squiggles selling for millions of bucks and thought, "I can do that." But rather than stop there, Tonnesen resolved to do it -- and write about his efforts. "From a dead start," he wrote in Tonnesen: Twelve Months to Fame and Fortune in the Art World, "I gave myself one year to become a somewhat famous artist," and eventually, he added, "the third most famous artist."

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."
A piece from Tonnesen's initial show at Chiaroscuro.
courtesy of Bill Tonnesen
A piece from Tonnesen's initial show at Chiaroscuro.
A work from Tonnesen's Chiaroscuro show.
courtesy of Bill Tonnesen
A work from Tonnesen's Chiaroscuro show.
The monument at Beth El cost just $8,000 – Tonnesen's plans will cost an estimated 562 times that.
Peter Scanlon
The monument at Beth El cost just $8,000 – Tonnesen's plans will cost an estimated 562 times that.
Ella Adler survived four and a half years in concentration camps.
Peter Scanlon
Ella Adler survived four and a half years in concentration camps.
Adler's arm still bears her tattoo from Auschwitz.
Peter Scanlon
Adler's arm still bears her tattoo from Auschwitz.
Risa Mallin, director of the Jewish Historical Society, 
wants to make sure there is enough money for both the memorial and restoration of the old temple.
Peter Scanlon
Risa Mallin, director of the Jewish Historical Society, wants to make sure there is enough money for both the memorial and restoration of the old temple.
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.
Another Tonnesen original
courtesy of Bill Tonnesen
Another Tonnesen original

Three years later, there's no doubt that Tonnesen failed to accomplish that. When they list modern artists of renown, they still list Serra and Turrell. They do not list Tonnesen.

But Bill Tonnesen did manage to create some pieces that, if not entirely original, were eminently hangable. He made some money -- which, according to his book, was a major motivation for wanting to make it big. He got more ink in the local press than most Valley artists who've been laboring for decades, suggesting that his hubris may have been more a clever marketing gimmick than a disconnect from reality.

And, in the midst of making art and selling it, he discovered what he now considers his true life's purpose.

It isn't art. It isn't landscape architecture.

It's a Phoenix memorial for the Jewish Holocaust. And not just any memorial. Tonnesen's plan, he says, is "something that has never been done before in the world, because it's so difficult." Suggest that this city may not be ready for something that's never been attempted elsewhere in the country, and Tonnesen only reacts with annoyance that his ambition has been understated: "Not the country! The world!"

He's not Jewish, he's not an architect, and he's never designed a memorial. Bill Tonnesen has about as much business attempting such a wildly ambitious project as he did aspiring to become the next James Turrell.

The difference is this: The only things vested in Tonnesen's previous quest were his ego and his bank account. Now that Holocaust survivors are counting on him, the stakes are much higher.

Now in their final years, many survivors very much want to see the memorial built before they die. But they've chosen a designer who wants the biggest and the best -- and hasn't always been able to pull it off.

Critics say that Tonnesen's greatest ability is self-promotion. They don't think his achievement can possibly match his chutzpah, and as evidence they point to a history of contentious projects.

"If this is his mission, his destiny, and he puts his ego aside to do a public service, then that's one thing," explains Brad Konick, a Phoenix sculptor. "But if this is all about his ego -- it's just asking for trouble."

Says artist Mary Shindell, "Bill Tonnesen is all about Bill Tonnesen. And whatever he's going to do, he's doing for himself."


There's no mistaking Bill Tonnesen. He is 6'6", after all, and he always wears the same thing: 38-inch-inseam blue jeans and a white button-down shirt with TONNESEN stitched in red block letters above the pocket. It's less a uniform than a signature, as if he were the late Carrie Donovan, preening for Old Navy in her pearls and oversize black glasses. He carries a tape measure at his hip so frequently that workers at one Scottsdale art gallery have taken to calling the tool by his name, as in, "Hey, pal, could you pass me the Tonnesen?"

Tonnesen doesn't say things so much as pronounce them:

This is wonderful.

She's brilliant.

You must see this.

He maintains a list of contacts who receive periodic e-mails with suggestions on what to watch, what to do. He used to plug the First Friday art walk in downtown Phoenix or his own shows in Scottsdale. Lately, the recommendations are all Holocaust-related.

"Channel 8, PBS, Auschwitz documentary tonight at 9:00 p.m. Saw the first part last Wednesday. Riveting, disturbing, well done," Tonnesen wrote in a typical message, in January. No further explanation needed; he assumes that the people on his list care. (Not all of them do. At least a few have no idea how they got on the list in the first place.)

He's always been a bit of an eccentric. "Even at six years old my social skills were screwed up," he writes in Tonnesen.

Now 51, Tonnesen was born in Hawaii. His father was a native, but Bill took his last name from the stepfather who raised him and who moved the family to Arizona when he was in grade school.

Tonnesen later landed at Arizona State University, where he studied philosophy but dropped out without a degree. After starting as a tree trimmer, he eventually obtained a landscape architect's license. His firm, Tonnesen Inc., does both design and construction.

He favors clean, modern lines and striking textures. It's easy to see why architects and developers use him: He has a good eye and a distinctive style.

He's also earned a reputation over the years as a contrarian. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects once invited Tonnesen and two other landscape architects to show slides of their work at a monthly meeting. Tonnesen put up one slide. "You said you wanted my slide show," he said. "Here's my slide."

"I don't know if he was trying to show a sense of humor or if it was just a big F-you to everyone," says one architect, who asked not to be identified. "It was performance art for stupid people."

"He's so direct, and he cuts to the chase so much, that people may be offended," concedes Phoenix photographer John Romero, who's worked with Tonnesen. But his admirers are firmly committed. "Once you understand him and know what to expect, he'll always be Bill," Romero says.

"He really jazzed up the ranks of landscape architecture," says Steve Martino, a well-known Valley landscape architect. "Most guys in this field are pretty dull. He's not."

Tonnesen made that clear in 2002, with the publication of his self-titled book, Tonnesen. He was clearly imagining huge success, both in the literary and artistic worlds. Instead, he got no small amount of invective.

"Is the name Tonnesen Teutonic for Narcissism?" one artist wrote at artforum.com.

In October 2002, when Tonnesen's work first premièred at Scottsdale's Chiaroscuro Gallery, the local arts magazine Shade put him on the cover, with an image that dripped with derision: a postage-stamp-size photo of Tonnesen's face next to a bar code. Though the accompanying story was largely positive, publisher Wayne Rainey let loose in his opening letter, calling Tonnesen's arrogance "painful to endure."

"It was one of the most popular issues we've ever done," Rainey admits. "He truly offended a lot of people."

In suggesting that success in modern art was mostly clever marketing, Tonnesen wasn't saying anything particularly new. But local artists were galled that he'd say it even while elbowing for a piece of their turf.

"The whole thing was a slap in the face to artists who are on an authentic journey," says Konick, the sculptor. "It's a mockery of other people's lives."

Mostly panels four feet long by four feet wide, Tonnesen's pieces included rows of pencils, a jumbly collage of ballpoint pens, and a circle of paintbrushes. Critics sniped that the assemblages were more a triumph of technical skill than an original artistic sensibility.

"It's derivative," says Shindell, a member of the 515 artist collective in Phoenix, known for her intricate drawings. "People will tell you all artwork is derivative -- but his art is shamelessly derivative." Several local artists point out his work's resemblance to that of Arman, a New Yorker whom Tonnesen talks about meeting in his book.

The show was successful, says Chiaroscuro director William Lykins. But after the initial publicity blitz, Tonnesen began casting about for a new direction. He told Martino that sculpture was too hard to ship. He thought he might try painting.

Instead, he found photography -- sort of. Tonnesen's third show, a series of photographs taken at Nevada's Burning Man festival, got a great reaction. But critics couldn't help but note that John Romero actually took the photos. Tonnesen describes his role as "art director," a title more commonly seen in advertising.

For all of Tonnesen's initial fervor, art just didn't matter anymore. By the time the Burning Man photos premièred in May 2004, Tonnesen was knee-deep in a new obsession: the Jewish Holocaust. And in local Holocaust survivors, he'd found a receptive audience.


As former president of the Greater Phoenix Holocaust Survivors' Association, Helen Handler is used to talking about Auschwitz. But she still flinches when she recalls the details.

Now 77, Handler was 15 years old when she arrived at the death camp. The Nazi guards immediately selected her mother for the gas chambers, along with her brother. By the time the war ended a year later, Auschwitz had also claimed another brother and three aunts.

Handler has no idea why the guards selected her to live. She still feels deep guilt.

But she survived. Survived a year in the camps, two death marches, and a refugee journey that took her from Poland back to her native Hungary, then to three more European countries before arriving in Canada. In 1954, she finally arrived in the United States.

Her journey was too typical. Many Jews survived the concentration camps only to find that they'd lost their entire family and their homes, and no one in war-ravaged Europe particularly cared.

And just as the United States turned a blind eye to their persecution before the war, it hardly extended an open invitation after it. But an estimated 150,000 Jewish survivors still managed to get here. Like Handler, they got married, had children, and held jobs. "We closed our pain deep inside of us, and we rebuilt our lives," Handler says.

Every day, Auschwitz is with her. Someone once asked Handler if she ever returned to the camp. "Yes," she replied, "hundreds of times, in my dreams and my nightmares."

But she kept it to herself. "No one wanted to listen," she says simply. "No one asked."

Handler eventually moved from Detroit to Phoenix, where she raised her son and ran a drapery shop. And then, in 1982, she got a call from a woman named Risa Mallin.

Mallin, who grew up in Arizona, had taken a course about teaching the Holocaust in Israel. She'd seen the power of the survivors' stories, and wanted to get together a survivors' group to speak in schools and churches.

Handler agreed to join. She became one of the first members of the survivors' association.

Speaking of her experience is still hard, but Handler relishes every opportunity. "I don't know where my family died," she says. "There are no graves. There are no anniversary dates to think of them. But they didn't just disappear. This is a chance to say they lived."

The group today includes 130 Holocaust survivors, says its president, David Kader. (Kader, an ASU law professor who specializes in constitutional law, is the son of survivors.) It's a number that drops every year.

"The people in their 70s are the young ones," Kader says. "We've had a lot of deaths. We fully expect that we will not be an organization in 10 years. We may not be one in five."

With that in mind, Kader asked the group in 2002 to think about its plans for posterity, including, perhaps, building a memorial.

Holocaust memorials are so numerous that when James E. Young, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, decided to write a book about them, he ended up choosing "a few hundred" to focus on. "Just about every town has something," Young says, including Tucson and El Paso. Los Angeles has three.

But Phoenix has only a small monument, tucked behind Beth El, a synagogue in central Phoenix. "This community is way behind the curve," Kader says. He thought it might be time to change that. "We are what we remember," he says. When the survivors agreed that they'd like to do something, Kader started scouting locations.

It was Handler who found them their architect.

Handler's good friend, a real estate agent named Dale Dacquisto, had hired a landscape architect named Bill Tonnesen for a major project at his home in May 2001. Dacquisto had listened excitedly as Tonnesen detailed his plans to become a famous artist.

And so when it came time for Tonnesen's first show, Dacquisto was there. Along with him was Handler.

Handler was enjoying the artwork when she suddenly glimpsed a piece that stopped her dead in her tracks: what looked like an image of hands, ashy white and lifeless.

She had to sit down.

"I know these hands," she told Dacquisto. "These were the hands that came out of the crematorium."

Tonnesen and Handler talked a bit that night, and he called later that month to ask if she'd like to have dinner. He was curious why the image had struck her so. He certainly hadn't thought of the Holocaust when he created it.

"We started to talk," she says, "and then we started to talk about the memorial."


When prospective clients or art collectors want to meet Tonnesen, he often suggests they come to his studio. Hidden behind his middle-class Tempe ranch home on a quiet street just south of the university, it's not easy to find.

Despite a modern façade, his house is cluttered and ordinary; Tonnesen's son is doing his homework at the kitchen table in his rollerblades.

By contrast, the studio is stark, modern, and gorgeous, a Hollywood set designer's idea of an architect's workspace.

Everywhere, there is his artwork: mostly huge squares with minimalist design and wonderful textures. Phoenix writer Deborah Sussman Susser described the pieces for ArtNews as "interior-design concepts on steroids," and it's easy to see why. Like Tonnesen, they seem bigger than life.

At the time of his book's release and his first show at Chiaroscuro, Tonnesen couldn't have seemed a more unlikely choice to design a Holocaust memorial. He was controversial. He didn't, he admits, have any particular interest in the Holocaust. He isn't Jewish.

But in almost every chapter of his book, Tonnesen unselfconsciously describes talking his way into jobs that might seem beyond his qualifications.

He persuaded a Mesa tractor company, Empire Southwest, to let him redesign its headquarters, even though he doesn't have an architect's license. (A registered architect had to partner on the project and sign off on the drawings.) He talked a pair of wealthy art collectors, Maxine and Ron Linde, into commissioning a piece of his work even before he launched his artistic career. He wanted to burn construction trash into something artsy for the roof. He returned their check after realizing that his concept didn't work, but he also managed to sell them his first actual piece when he took up art in earnest.

He has a knack for engagement. For all his social awkwardness, Tonnesen can be charming. He hones in on people and works them over with a laserlike attention. He gives them tours of his studio and takes care to make a stop through his house on the way out: His photogenic wife and three kids (two tall, dark-haired boys, a beautiful blond daughter) are all part of the package.

More than anything, Tonnesen's appeal lies in his exuberance. When he talks about his projects, his eyes gleam, and he luxuriates in the details.

"Anything he thinks is worth doing, he throws his heart and soul into," says his wife, Pilar. "He doesn't do anything halfway."

It's hard not to be swept along.

After he discussed the memorial with Helen Handler and showed her his studio, she put him in touch with David Kader, the survivor group's president. Kader and Tonnesen became fast friends, to the point that Tonnesen now calls Kader his "second best friend" in the world.

"My favorite thing in the whole world is getting together with David, having dinner, and talking about the memorial," he says.

As for Kader, he explains that Tonnesen prefers to communicate via fax. One day Kader's fax machine broke, and the professor was balking over the annoyance of fixing it. "I cannot have you without a fax!" Tonnesen cried. That day, Tonnesen's assistant showed up at Kader's door with a new fax machine.

Even that wasn't enough. Tonnesen wanted to buy Kader a cell phone. Kader explained that he was either at home or in his office or in class. And if the phone rang in class, he said, he couldn't answer it anyway. "Don't give the number to anyone else," Tonnesen instructed. "And if it's me, you answer it."

"He's an exceptional talent," Kader says. "With creative people, you either take to them or you don't. In some ways I really do love the guy. . . . Do you know the expression verbissen?" he asks. "It means 'bitten up by.' And that's Bill. He really is a little obsessed by this."

Sitting behind the shiny minimalist rectangle of his desk, Tonnesen does not deny this, or even try to downplay it. The Holocaust, he pronounces, "has taken over my life."

He's fascinated, he says, with the workings of the Nazi machine, particularly "all the complexities that go along with getting people to go into a place, and take off their clothes, and be killed, and have their children be killed," he says, without violent resistance or chaos. "It's amazing."

Behind him is a stack of books nearly two feet high: A History of the Jews, The Secret Diaries of Hitler's Doctor, and three copies of The Enduring Spirit. In addition to the memorial, he says, he plans to start a lending library for books about the Holocaust, based out of his studio.

"I am now in a mode where every day, I watch film footage of Holocaust documentaries, or read about World War II, or read survivor testimonials," he says.

With Tonnesen at the helm, memorial plans expanded. The group was originally looking at a spot at the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale. But the space there just wasn't big enough, Tonnesen says, or important enough.

"It was such an insular environment," he pronounces. "It would have been preaching to the choir. And there were some design constraints."

So he and Kader zeroed in on a site in downtown Phoenix. The Arizona Jewish Historical Society had just purchased the first temple in Phoenix, the original Temple Beth Israel, which sits behind the Burton Barr Central Library at Culver Street off Central Avenue. Along with a major project to restore the temple, the society was planning to knock down some of the other buildings at the site, creating an ideal location for a memorial.

Tonnesen loved it.


Sitting in her sunny central Phoenix living room, Ella Adler explains that she owes her life to Oskar Schindler.

As a teenaged prisoner, she explains, she was emaciated and sick at Auschwitz. She surely would have died had she not been chosen for transport to a work camp in the present-day Czech Republic. Later, reading Schindler's List, she learned Schindler had bribed the Germans to make the transports possible.

She weighed 55 pounds when the Russians liberated the camp.

"I was an empty shell," she says. "I didn't think I had any soul. I didn't think anything good could happen."

In 1946, Adler was on the first refugee ship arriving in New York City. But the city was hardly the paradise she'd anticipated. Her new husband died of a heart condition, and a collection officer threatened deportation if she couldn't pay the hospital bills. When she called the city to find out bus schedules, the bureaucrat on the other end of the phone snarled at her to learn English.

Somehow, she flourished. In New York, she met Harry Adler, a German-born Jew who fled Europe during the war, only to return via Omaha Beach as an American soldier. The couple married and eventually moved to Phoenix, and Ella enrolled in college, earning her master's in social work. She started speaking at schools.

"The feelings are so painful, tearing you apart," she says. "But I have developed the strength to realize I need to leave something. I am not a painter or a writer, but I am a human being who was able to turn it around. That rather than a victim, I became a survivor."

In 1983, the Adlers were among a small group that commissioned a Holocaust monument for the Beth El Congregation at 13th Avenue and Glendale in Phoenix. It cost around $8,000, Harry Adler says. They all chipped in.

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.

"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."

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.

"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.

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?"

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!"


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."

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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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