Landscape Architect Bill Tonnesen Gets the Republic Treatment

When a friend informed us that the Arizona Republic had written a puff piece about landscape architect/art scene provocateur Bill Tonnesen, we couldn't help but shudder a bit.

The Republic, after all, has never written a profile without doing some serious ass-kissing -- and Tonnesen has a track record that's a bit more complicated than would be ideal for that sort of treatment.

As we detailed in this 2005 cover story, the eccentric landscape architect self-published a book detailing his plans to become one of the most famous modern artists in the world. When that failed -- leading to a lawsuit from his one-time investor and a whole lot of local artists whispering that his skills were a poor match for his ego -- he moved on to the Holocaust, persuading a bunch of elderly local survivors to buy into his grand vision of an underground memorial that would be the only one of its kind in the world.

There wasn't a word about any of that history, or even the lawsuits we unearthed, in the Republic's profile.

And that absence is the (unsurprising) bad news.

The good news it that, even without a bigger context, the Republic piece still gets at the Tonnesen we got to know while reporting our profile: passionate, obsessive, talented, and a complete pain in the neck.

Reporter Kara G. Morrison describes how Tonnesen is investing in foreclosed homes, and apartments, in his Tempe neighborhood. She writes how he met a more experienced investor at an auction and ended up becoming his business partner. The partner, Rick Vullo, is quoted: "Bill's the kind of guy who, if he thinks you have information he wants, he will hound you." Sounds about right to us.

One of Tonnesen's other partners jokes that it takes more than one person to rein him in. "It takes two of us," he tells reporter Morrison. "We also have his wife, Pilar, on our side, so it's three against one."

Finally, Morrison describes how Tonnesen's partners are charged with keeping "his spending -- and his sometimes grandiose plans -- in check." We couldn't help but think that a similar brake might have come in handy on the Holocaust Memorial ...

You can read our piece here and the Republic's piece here. And if you pick up a copy of the Republic's print edition from Saturday, we highly recommend homing in on the photo of page H-02. From that image, two things are clear.

One, Tonnesen is still sporting his signature oxford shirts, which have his name embroidered above the pocket.

Two, Tonnesen has emblazoned the same motif on the shovels hanging in front of an apartment he's renovated. He's expanding his brand, apparently -- and we can only wonder what his future tenants will make of that. 

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