Bill Tonnesen, Contentious Tempe Developer, Aims for Immortality
Bill Tonnesen is distracted by dog shit.
A wet, orange-brown turd on a concrete paver at one of the several rental properties he's recently renovated has stopped him dead in his tracks.
"Oh, noooooo!" Tonnesen moans, pointing at the mess. "How did that get here? We'd better . . . what can . . . oh, this isn't good!"
"It's okay," his young female assistant mutters quietly, sounding like an extra-patient mom whose child has just dropped his ice cream cone. "Just leave it. You can't control everything."
Bill Tonnesen would like to control everything. And it's that fact — perhaps more than the work he does and certainly more than his peculiar, often off-putting personality — that has stood in the way of the immortality that Tonnesen's friends and colleagues say he's really after.
Toward that end, Tonnesen — who previously has attempted fame as a contemporary artist and courted infamy as a Holocaust activist — apparently has decided to completely revamp Tempe in his image. He's recently produced some stunning renovations of several dreary Tempe apartment buildings and single-family tract homes. There's Casa Carmel, on Rural Road, with its installation of rusted water heaters. There's the 28-unit Rothko House, just up the street from Casa Carmel, with its rusted steel wall and its now-notorious statue of an obese naked woman. And there's the South Granada, a red brick stunner on Granada Drive, with a row of oxidized ovens out front. Not to mention the eye-catching tract homes, with their paint blasted away to reveal raw brick, many of them obscured by entire groves of trees jammed onto a tiny front lawn. And always, always Tonnesen's sculptures — many of them life-size statues of Tonnesen himself, in various guises: holding an umbrella, pointing at a giant thermometer, perched atop an air-conditioning unit. But his accolades — many of them well-deserved, for Tonnesen's work is truly distinctive and well-wrought — often are drowned out by the moaning of people who've had dealings with Tonnesen.
Like the employees worried that he talks too much about working without proper permitting. And the city officials who felt he was forcing his public art onto the Tempe Flour Mill site, after he sneaked two of his sculptures onto the site on the evening of its grand opening.
Tonnesen, who's 58, moved to the Valley when he was still a boy. He studied philosophy at Arizona State University but dropped out and got a job trimming trees. That led to a landscape architect's license and, eventually, a design-and-construction firm, Tonnesen, Inc. Lately, the firm has moved into development and, as usual, is attracting attention both positive and contrary.
"The problem with Bill isn't a lack of talent," says a colleague of Tonnesen's who refused to be named because, he says, any public commentary on Tonnesen leads to days and days of e-mails and phone calls and recriminations.
"It's that he doesn't listen, and he wants everything his way. So you ask him for a glass of water, and he brings you a swimming pool. And you say, 'Put the swimming pool in my backyard, then,' and he mounts it on your roof and plants 70 trees around it and then encases it in a big metal box made out of recycled refrigerator shelving, because it's what he wants."
This having-things-his-way routine continues to infuriate his clients, and to dog the landscape architect during what critics and fans are calling "The Third Act of Bill Tonnesen." And so he has, since 2008, been buying his own properties, so that he can do whatever he wants with them.
And Tempe is starting to look like Tonnesen Town.
"Most people budget so little for the fix-up," gripes Tonnesen, who brings in a designer to renovate his interiors. "I despise people who do that. If you go back to that house two years later, it will look nothing different than anything in the neighborhood. Paint is the most superficial thing you can do. Paint is nothing! It's not planting trees!"
Tree-planting is a Tonnesen thing. So is making every house he renovates into something that looks nothing at all like "anything in the neighborhood." Every project — especially his own Tempe home in the University Park neighborhood, a Tonnesen original — combines his backgrounds in landscaping and contemporary fine art and, whether you love him or hate him, is distinctive and eye-catching.
A devotee of architectural integrity, Tonnesen favors solid-block masonry buildings with sleek, clean lines and neatly graphed gardens out of which one or two of his patinaed metal sculptures erupts. At one home, Tonnesen welded together a stack of old radiators to form a soaring statue; at another, he's caged rows of tiny trees into a grouping of rusted metal boxes.
He's transformed several dull-as-dirt multi-family properties into public art installations at which one might live, like the eight-unit apartment court on South Granada Drive he bought earlier this year, a standard-issue complex he quickly turned on its head with a grove of eucalyptus trees, a grid-shaped central garden, and a giant steel cube crawling with watermelon vines as its courtyard's focal point. Out front, a row of rusted vintage ovens that Tonnesen removed from the apartments are displayed — transformed from junkyard debris into metal sculptures, each of them labeled with the name of a different famous and long-dead artist.
At another nearby duplex, Tonnesen ripped off cheesy red-brick veneer to reveal a more period-correct gray slump façade, then repurposed the veneer to create a new walkway. The former sidewalk slabs got turned onto their sides, and asphalt shingles were overlaid with one of the artist's signature corrugated metal roofs.
"Bill definitely has a creative nature, and backs it up with hard work," says former Phoenix-based architect John Chonka, who now lives in Norway. "His ability to merge design and art into his work is really impressive."
There is no complete agreement on this point. "His houses are ridiculous, and they don't fit in on our street," says one of Tonnesen's Tempe neighbors, who won't go on-record because she's heard other neighbors complaining about Tonnesen screaming at them. "I got yelled at by people on the block, because I had seven wind chimes on my front porch. But this guy can have a giant metal box and a hundred trees in the front yard, and everyone's thrilled!"
Not everyone. Some people don't like his work, and others just plain don't like Bill Tonnesen. It doesn't help that he's shifted professional gears so often, putting on hold a successful career in landscape architecture a decade ago to become what he called — no kidding — "the third most famous contemporary artist in America." When Tonnesen failed to quickly join the ranks of Richard Prince and Urs Fischer, he reinvented himself again, first as the force behind the world's largest Holocaust memorial before settling in as a preservation-minded developer of residential properties in downtown Tempe.
Each of Tonnesen's vocations has been marked with measurable success. Numerous architects laud his landscaping skills, and he continues to receive commissions for his artwork, which can be found in some of the more important collections in the Valley as well as in public places like Scottsdale's AZ88, which recently added a new Tonnesen sculpture. But these successes have sometimes been trumped by Tonnesen's lousy reputation. One hears more — from colleagues, vice mayors, city council members — about his colossal ego, disdain for rules, and perceived schadenfreude aimed at everyone he works with than about his various accomplishments.
"I'm hard to work with," Tonnesen admits. "When I hire someone, the chances of it working out are tiny. I only care about two people's opinions — my wife's and my assistant's. Everyone else is just workers, and I'm hoping they won't screw everything up."
"Bill does things first and asks permission later," that ever-vigilant assistant, Samantha Staiger, says. "That bothers people."
"You gotta make your own opportunity!" Tonnesen yells excitedly. He's an imposing presence: 6 1/2 feet tall, wearing his signature uniform of pressed blue jeans and a white Oxford shirt with his last name stitched above the pocket. His smooth hairstyle recalls the blunt bob worn by Gloria Vanderbilt in the '60s and '70s. "I'm not sitting around waiting for permission. I try to be proactive and to make things happen."
Before he could start making things happen with local real estate, Tonnesen had to overhaul his public image, which was at an all-time low after the Holocaust Memorial debacle, detailed in a 2005 New Times cover story ("Illusions of Grandeur," Sarah Fenske, March 22).
"People thought I was taking advantage of old people," Tonnesen recalls of his work with the Phoenix Holocaust Survivors' Association, "which is quite far from the truth. I worked for free, for years, on that project. I cared deeply about the Jewish situation."
Tonnesen approached Alison King, a web designer and co-founder of Modern Phoenix, which started as a fansite for mavens of Midcentury Modern architecture and has grown into a movement of politically savvy preservationists. "Bill kept hearing that he really needed to get in touch with the Modern Phoenix girl," King recalls, "that maybe I could help him out. He wanted some of the Modern Phoenix mojo."
King helped Tonnesen harness new technology, and taught him how — with a new website and in-house newsletter — to help people forget what they thought they knew about Bill Tonnesen.
"Some of the things I had said about becoming a famous artist were so embarrassing," Tonnesen groans, from behind his desk in the super-sleek studio on the vast back lot of his Tempe residence. He's surrounded by statuary and assemblage pieces and sculpture — the unsold detritus of the still-healthy visual art career he's put on hold.
"I'm a registered landscape architect and a licensed general contractor," he reminds visitors to this arty space. "I have been for years, and that's the story I want my work to tell."
Shining up Tonnesen's public image was no easy task, King admits. "It was among the hardest jobs I've taken on," she says. "Bill wants to be a bad boy. He can't help it. It's who he is. He would rather ask for forgiveness later than ask permission first."
Once King had helped Tonnesen pump up his profile as a designer, he hooked up with a pair of investors and began buying up residential fix-and-flip properties near Arizona State University. The team quickly sold them all — but not before they had been thoroughly Tonnesonized.
Tonnesen likes excess. Why have one eucalyptus tree in front of a slump block house, his designs seem to say, when you can plant a whole orchard? Why have a single statue when four are just as nice?
"When I flip a house, or redesign a multi-family property, everything is on a grand scale!" Tonnesen shouts, causing Staiger to roll her eyes in agreement. "It's hard, because I'm always struggling with a budget, and Sam hates that. She's very opinionated about everything."
"It's a constant battle," Staiger says wearily. "His wife and I are always on him to stop spending money, to stop working so much. I want him to make some money, and he's willing to work for free."
To prove this point, Tonnesen brandishes a sketch he's done of a garden sculpture that resembles a giant paper bag. "I took this to one of my collectors today and said, 'Let's make this and put it at your place!' He said no, but I'm going to make it anyway. I'm gonna give him one for free."
Staiger shakes her head, almost imperceptibly, and stares at Tonnesen until he looks her way.
"I know," he says. "You're thinking about me and the flour mill."
It's not hard to fathom why Bill Tonnesen and former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman are such good friends. Ask Tonnesen what time it is, and he begins his answer by discussing, at great length, the invention of the sundial. Ask Hallman how he ended up hiring Tonnesen to work on the notorious Tempe Flour Mill, and he launches into a 15-minute-long dissertation on the history of how local Native Americans learned to grind wheat.
The shorter version of the story is that Hallman, president of the Tempe-based preservation group the Rio Salado Foundation and recently the mayor of Tempe, was looking for someone to overhaul the lifeless, Tempe Butte-adjacent intersection of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway.
"The flour mill and its silos looked like heck," Hallman explains. "I wanted someone who could weave together ancient and modern history with a contemporary connection." He remembered Tonnesen from various architectural projects, and very soon, Hallman says, "the Foundation board had met and fallen in love with Bill Tonnesen."
Hallman got the go-ahead from Tempe City Council for a $600,000 overhaul of the intersection, to be bankrolled by the Foundation, which would connect landmarks like Monti's La Casa Vieja restaurant and the Carl Hayden House with the flour mill parcel on the south side. And that's when things started getting all Tonnesen.
"I had some grandiose ideas," Tonnesen admits of his Flour Mill plans. "I want to do the unexpected. I want people to be curious and confused by the art things we put in. So I drew up an elevated walkway with a hole in it, and we would have someone sitting by the hole, and maybe spraying water on people or videotaping them as they walked by."
Hallman was pretty sure the Tempe City Council wouldn't go for a walkway with a built-in hooligan, so Tonnesen came up with a second plan: a giant Advent calendar-like cabinet filled with his own custom statuary.
"I had it dripping with my sculptures!" he bellows gleefully. "And of course no one had any money to do this. I would have done it for free! When it's an iconic structure in my own town, I'm on board!"
But the city council was not on board, which troubled Tonnesen, who already had begun building the statuary for the cabinet. Today, they fill his impressive state-of-the-art studio.
"That one is called Thermometer Man," he says, pointing to a life-size seated figure the artist has cast in his own likeness. The statue is pointing an index finger straight out to the left in a he-went-that-a-way pose. "He was going to be sitting on a chair that would rise and fall with the heat, and he'd be pointing to the temperature printed on the wall next to him. You'd come over the bridge in Tempe, and he'd be pointing to what the temperature is."
Tonnesen was so confident he had the job, he went ahead and built Thermometer Man and several other gypsum, resin, and steel sculptures besides. Among them is a dramatic bronze figure that would, with the help of paid employees, scale a 20-foot cyclorama over the course of several days.
"I want statues that do more than just sit there!" Tonnesen says. "So, you drive by and the statue is coming up out of the earth. Then the next day, it's scaling the wall. The day after that, it's higher up the wall. Finally, the statue is on top of the wall and it looks like it's either going to take a swan dive and kill itself, or it's greeting the sunset."
Tonnesen created a detailed proposal that included budgeting for staff to move the statue every couple of days, and he and Hallman held a press conference at Tempe Center for the Arts to reveal the piece. "But their new PR person hated it," Tonnesen recalls. "And then the politics started happening, and the whole thing went to hell."
Not entirely. Because somehow, even though the Tempe City Council had nixed Tonnesen's crawling and finger-pointing statuary, the sculptures wound up at the flour mill the morning after the site's opening ceremony. How that happened differs depending on whom you talk to.
"The only thing I know for sure," says Tempe City Manager Charlie Meyer, "is that a couple pieces of sculpture showed up the day after the Friday night dedication of the flour mill. City Council noticed, and they weren't happy. I contacted the Rio Salado Foundation board and said, 'I believe those are not authorized on the approved site plan. Please take them down.' On Monday, they were gone."
Hallman admits that he and Tonnesen put the statues up themselves, after the opening ceremonies ended. His rationalization for installing art that wasn't approved by the Council comes straight from the Bill Tonnesen playbook.
"The City approved only putting up student art on the flour mill site," Hallman says. "And so we got Tempe high school kids involved with creating the sculptures. They had already created a series of canvases depicting local and national musicians, and they worked with Bill on the sculptures. And so this sculptural art totally fit the protocol. It was student art. But I got a call on Sunday saying that if I didn't take Bill's sculptures down, the City would."
"We approved student art to go up, that's all," agrees Vice Mayor Onnie Shekerjian, who currently chairs the City Council's Technology, Economic and Community Development Committee. "There were pieces of professional art placed on the site that were removed because they were never approved by City Council. We have a municipal arts council, and all public art is supposed to go through them."
Not long after, Hallman was taken to task in a City Council meeting for having violated policy by installing Tonnesen's statues. "They didn't pick which canvases went up," Hallman points out, "But they did with the Tonnesen stuff. It was personal. Someone didn't like Bill. He has said a lot of things over the years that displease people. The guy's an artistic genius, but he's also his own worst enemy."
Bill Tonnesen's reputation is so lousy, in fact, that most local architects — even those who admire his work — are hesitant to say so, publicly. One notable architect and developer lauds Tonnesen's work, calling it "revolutionary, especially in the East Valley," and says Tonnesen "works with an artist's understanding of form and line and space, and celebrates traditional contemporary design without being derivative."
But this same celebrated architect says he'd receive grief from colleagues for openly praising Tonnesen. "Many of us admire Bill's work," he continues, "but it's clouded by his disrespect for the rules we're all expected to follow. He doesn't always get a permit when a permit is required. He ignores regulations and guidelines and says 'Yes' to a building code when he means 'Fuck off, I'll do what I want.'"
Tonnesen seems oddly proud of his disregard for city-mandated building codes. "I'm going to plant a whole grove of olive trees here," he tells a visitor to one of his apartment complexes. "The city wants me to plant non-olive-bearing trees, because olives make a mess on the sidewalks. But I found some olive-bearing ones that I can get for free, so I'm just going to put those in."
He's horrified by the red tape of permitting. "You wouldn't believe the kind of permissions the city wants you to get, just to rehab a building," he moans. "Sometimes we just go in and do the work, anyway. We've shown up on a weekend and done a project without anyone's permission, especially if it's a property we own."
Staiger cuts off her boss. "You used to do that," she says firmly. "Now we always get the necessary permits before we do any work."
Tonnesen shrugs. "I'm in trouble with the city, all the time," he says, with a grin. ("I wouldn't say that's so," vice mayor Meyer counters. "I think Mr. Tonnesen might be exaggerating.")
Tonnesen's contrariness has become his calling card. He made a media field day out of complaints over the statue of a large naked woman, based on a 23,000-year-old Paleolithic sculpture, perched in front of his Rothko Apartments on Rural Road, just south of Broadway in Tempe. When neighbors and congregates from the preschool and church across the street grumbled about the city-approved statue, Tonnesen shifted into performance mode, hot-gluing dollar bills to the statue's nether regions while television news cameras rolled. Later, the statue was vandalized with spray paint.
"It was a lot of trouble, trying to do what I wanted to do," Tonnesen says of the Rothko statue. "But it shouldn't have been. I'm getting ready to do another naked lady sculpture over at the other complex over on College. The question is, why do I have to get anyone's permission?"
Staiger leaps in. "We've just listed Rothko for sale," she says, perhaps hoping to deflect her employer's latest bad-boy monologue by changing the subject. "We're looking at a 56-unit complex in Phoenix, and we have plans to branch out into office and retail design."
There is no stopping Bill Tonnesen, Hallman says. "Selling his vision can cost you political capital, sometimes, but it gets you great ideas — like a statue climbing up a wall. The guy's a genius, but he has some desire to stick his thumb in the eye of The Man, and a personality that makes life harder for him. It'll be worth it for the city, because without someone like Bill, we'll end up with more of the cookie-cutter crud that is going to destroy Tempe. What we need is interesting architecture that will live on and on."
It's the thought of that kind of immortality, Staiger believes, that drives her employer. "That's why he does it," she says, with a little laugh. "He wants his work to stand for him after he's gone."
She glances nervously at her boss, waiting for him to join the conversation; perhaps to discuss the big, new design plans he has in store for Tempe and beyond. But Bill Tonnesen is staring at the floor, lost in thought. It's very likely he's thinking about how to rid the world of dog shit.
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