- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Fans of Thomas Kinkade’s sentimental paintings soon will be able to do more than hang them on the wall. They could hang them on the wall of a house designed to look like one of his popular paintings.

The California artist, beloved by middlebrow America but reviled by the art establishment, has signed a deal with developers in this resort city to help design five lake-view houses that are copies of homes in paintings such as “Beyond Autumn Gate.”

The houses will cost $4 million to $6 million, part of an explosion of luxury homes being constructed around Lake Coeur d’Alene as this once-fading timber and mining town gets remade by tourists and retirees.

“I had clients for years tell me, ‘I’d like to have a house like this’ and show me a Kinkade painting,” said Rann Haight, the architect who is designing the estates. “I said, why not?”

While it is easy to snicker at the work of the self-proclaimed “painter of light,” millions collect Kinkade paintings.

Still, Mark Nash, a real estate expert from the Chicago area, said it’s a bold move to market extremely expensive homes to Kinkade fans.

“The Kinkade art style has never been positioned as a luxury one,” Mr. Nash said. “It might be a stretch to make a Rolls-Royce out of a Buick brand. But money has not always been able to buy you taste.”

Robert Niles, who created the satirical Web site “Reuben Kinkade, Painter of Stuff,” complete with a photograph of the fictional manager of “The Partridge Family,” said fans of Thomas Kinkade’s art can be single-minded in their devotion.

“Kinkade’s stuff is as cloying as a box of Lucky Charms,” Mr. Niles said in an e-mail to Associated Press. “I just was amused by the misguided fans who thought his stuff was high art and a great investment.”

If Mr. Kinkade is crying, it is all the way to the bank, because his paintings and spin-off products are said to fetch some $100 million a year in sales, and to be in 10 million homes in the United States. Works by Mr. Kinkade, who labels himself the nation’s most collected living artist, generally depict tranquil scenes, such as country homes and churches, lighthouses, lush landscaping and cottages with streams running nearby.

Mr. Kinkade was too busy to speak with AP, said Jim Bryant, a spokesman for Thomas Kinkade Co. in Morgan Hill, Calif.

The artist gets many requests from builders and others who want to capitalize on his work, but this project in Idaho was one of the best, Mr. Bryant said.

Details of Mr. Kinkade’s financial involvement were not disclosed, but Mr. Kinkade is not contributing any money to the project.

The artist does appear in a video promoting the development. “People tell me they often wish they could enter into one of my paintings,” Mr. Kinkade says in the video. “Now you can.”

Mr. Haight and his partners, financier Roger Stewart and builder Steve Torres, will not be the first to convert a Kinkade canvas into bricks and mortar. In 2002, a housing development of 140 homes near Vallejo, Calif., “inspired” by Mr. Kinkade’s work, sold out, but at much more modest prices of around $400,000.

The artist will participate in the design of the five Idaho homes, Mr. Haight said.

“Kinkade is a frustrated architect and I am a frustrated artist, so we can work together,” Mr. Haight said.

“We would want him to be as involved as possible, and we will present all designs to him. We would welcome any comments and revisions. As a buyer, you are expecting his influence throughout the whole project.”

The homes will be built on a 20-acre site with spectacular views near Bennett Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene, some 40 miles east of Spokane, Wash. The project is called The Gates of Coeur d’Alene and features homes from Mr. Kinkade’s Gate series of paintings.

Coeur d’Alene has become a magnet for well-to-do urban refugees, and million-dollar houses are no longer rare, especially near the 30-mile-long lake. Home prices climbed nearly 30 percent last year, among the top 10 rates of increase in the nation.

One of the newcomers was Mr. Haight, who moved from the Sacramento, Calif., area a decade ago. He used to design sports facilities, such as Arco Arena in Sacramento, but decided he wanted a lifestyle change.

Mr. Haight said that when they met with Mr. Kinkade, the artist gave them permission to be flexible with the designs. But Mr. Haight said the goal is to make them as close to the painted images as possible. “If you are a fan of Kinkade, you’re going to be real excited about going in these things,” Mr. Haight said. “We are relying on his loyal customers.”

Mr. Haight said they picked houses in five paintings that they considered most appropriate for the construction site.

“If we do this right, you could photograph the house and it would have the same proportions and same perspective as the painting,” he said. However, he acknowledged that it would be difficult to replicate the leafy English countryside in the evergreen forests of the Northwest.

There will only be five homes on the site to maintain privacy, Mr. Haight said.

“What you are paying for is the distance between you and your neighbor, but you are still close enough to walk over for a cup of sugar.”

He expects buyers to come from all over the nation.

“It’s going to be in Coeur d’Alene first, but ultimately the plan is to go national with it,” Mr. Haight said.

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