had big dreams and a bizarre style that may doom his
...Two of them were built by Tom Hignite, owner of Miracle Homes.
First, there is Hignite's personal residence, all 7,500 square feet of it, a countrified manor with a basketball court, movie theater and a bookcase with a trap door that opens to a secret hallway and antechamber where Hignite stores part of his
massive collection of Disney paraphernalia.For the last two years, the home has also run a 2-D animation studio, where 13 professional artists worked to create cartoons featuring "Miracle Mouse," the Miracle Homes'
Mickey Mouse-like mascot.
In building this house, Hignite
placed a gravel path over a designated wetland without the requisite permits and was fined $125,000.But that was okay, for glory is not without its costs, and Hignite
truly felt he
had created something, well, heavenly.
A mile or so down the road sits the illustriously named Grand Bay, Hignite's
$1.9 million showpiece model home that, while less than half the size of his
own residence, is even more impressive.The entranceway is accented with a stained-glass mosaic leading into a living room that domes 30 feet high and is covered with $30,000 worth of carefully tiled wood flakes and rhinestones.Want more?
seemed to understand the deepest yearnings in this dream.Which perhaps explains why, within the last several years, as people have trickled into Richfield (population: 11,000ish), many called upon him to build their dream homes, with white siding and red brick, with French doors leading to the den and ceramic tile walls in the master shower.
Since it was founded 13 years ago "on a wing and a prayer," as the company proclaims, Miracle Homes
has grown exponentially, manufacturing well over 1,000 homes across the state on lots from the Fox Valley to Kenosha.The company sold $42 million worth of homes in 2004, as the real estate market was peaking.Miracle Homes'
commercials, in which Tom
, wife Jacquie and their two sons frequently appear, have become well-known on local television and radio stations.
A born-again evangelical, Hignite
operation as a Christian-based company.
And where Hignite
has arrived is in many ways miraculous.Beyond his
homebuilding company and animation studio was yet another outlandish project, conceived a few miles from his
Richfield manor in the neighboring village of Holy Hill.After a "blessing ceremony" in September 2005, construction workers began moving dirt and blasting rock on an 80-acre parcel of land Hignite had purchased on the cheap to create his
most ambitious project yet.It was to be called Miracle Village
.A veritable Miracle Homes theme park, the project was to include a splendid new home for the Hignites, a 15,000-square-foot headquarters for the company and studio and a ring of 10 or so model homes displaying the industry's latest and greatest.
"When you see my homes," says Hignite
, "my desire is to create an experience for people.I want to go beyond homes into creating experiences."
But by the summer, Hignite's ever-growing empire began to implode: Animators and other employees were getting laid off, the banks were balking, and Miracle Village's
construction stalled.But Hignite
seemed remarkably unruffled through it all, imparting an almost child-like certainty that God
or some kind of Disneyish happy ending would inevitably rescue him.
"Nothing really matters that much," Hignite
said the first time we met last May, as he
sat beside his
wife on their living room couch."I live in a nice house now, but I'm going to be selling this house really shortly.I intend to put it on the market next month."His
soothing contralto made everything sound as if he
were reciting a bedtime story, as though the real world was barely connected to the dreams he
was weaving."I have no attachment to the physical things, even though I have a lot of them.I can build a beautiful house and live in it and sell it tomorrow without feeling I'm missing out on anything."
But why build so much if none of it really matters?What exactly was driving Tom Hignite?It was a question many of his
employees would ask with wonderment and frustration but never with much resolution.
Growing up in Milwaukee, the second-oldest in a family of four boys, Tom
was closest with his
eldest brother, Don.The two spent their childhood summers together, shoulder to shoulder, polishing the brass and varnishing the wood on the family's 41-foot sailboat.Their father used to tell them stories about the two embarking on fantastical adventures.How they would go to a junkyard and build a spaceship.How one time, the rain wouldn't come and they would fly that spaceship up into the sky and investigate.Their father, Walter, hired an artist friend to illustrate these stories, producing three cartoons that Hignite displays in a playroom in his
house: the adventures of Tom
and Don.One summer day when Tom
was 16, he
was painting a mural of a cartoon circus on the nursery wall of his
mother phoned.There had been a construction accident at the Bayshore shopping center, she
brother had been killed.
The family sought solace in the same place Tom
was the day Don died, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
.They became born-again Christians. Tom
bounced around various art programs in town after high school, drifting for several years.He
never earned a college degree but started a business selling inflatable rafts out of a vacated convenience store in Menomonee Falls.Within a few years, he
hit a couple hundred thousand dollars in sales, but bookkeeping troubles and misplaced checks caused a collapse.
"It was a cash business," says Hignite
, "and since I knew zero about accounting, I would simply have different people do accounting.
Having been blistered in his
maiden voyage and then seeing his
father's business suffer to the point where the bank repossessed the family home, Tom
was content for a time to pull in a steady paycheck doing advertising at a marine supply store.
On the weekends, however, he
began attending open houses and home-buying seminars sponsored by builders and banks."And I'd go up afterward," he
recalls, "and I would just lay it on the line, and they would say thank you very much, get a free cookie on the way out, but we can't do anything for you.And I would just go to the next one."After scads of snubs, Hignite
finally found, as he
"angel of mercy," a banker at Wauwatosa Building and Loan named Lyle Larcheid.Larcheid gave him a home loan, and Hignite
, by now married, built his first house in Richfield, hiring many of the subcontractors himself.
Walter gave the lots to Tom
, and Larcheid gave Tom
a second mortgage on his home.
Walter gave the lots to Tom
, and Larcheid gave Tom
a second mortgage on his home.
designed a 2,500-square-foot house on a lake, had an open house in the dead of winter and sold it for $125,000.Thus it came to pass that Miracle Homes
was born and in such an improbable manner that Hignite
would consider it "God's
wants us to succeed, great," says Hignite
As the company grew, Hignite
had all 80 or so employees working out of his
Richfield home.It was claustrophobic, but Hignite preferred it, professing horror at the thought of his
people laboring beneath the indignity of a drop-tile ceiling.But the insistence of town administrators that this area was zoned residential and the opposition of neighbors forced Hignite
to move the company to the nearby Town of Polk.
The entire miracle homes marketing approach is appropriated from Tom's hero, Walt Disney
.A former employee recalls a period of months when boxes of Disney bric-a-brac would arrive daily, the harvests of late-night eBay binges.The stuff was consigned to every room of office and home, like religious mementos.The most prominent display in the Richfield foyer, for example, was a set of plastic figurines, not unlike those you'd find in the window of a Disney Store, of Three Little Pigs taunting an incarcerated Big Bad Wolf.There was another Disney
stage set in the reception area of the Polk office, and Hignite
had even consecrated the kid's bedroom in the Grand Bay model the "Disney room."
Two years ago during a family vacation to Disney World in Orlando, Hignite
toured the back lot of an animation studio, where he
was struck by the sight of empty desks.Hignite
learned that the studio workers had recently been laid off."It felt like death was over the building," he
recalls.With box office returns dwindling and 3-D computer animation on the rise, the old-fashioned hand-drawn style had been all but displaced.
"I thought, boy oh boy," says Hignite
.Two years ago, he
gushes, if he
had knocked on the door at Disney
and asked to hire these animators, he
would have gotten nowhere."They would have