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."

See a slideshow of Bill Tonnesen's work.

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.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela