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Old World getaway

Craftsman creates resort in his Dacula backyard

Staff Contributor

Visitors to John Bighta's spacious backyard sometimes forget they are in rural Dacula. Wandering from the state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen, to the sparkling pool surrounded by lush tropical trees and plants, to the spacious patio that overlooks a trickling pond filled with fish, they wonder if they have somehow stumbled into a five-star European resort.

And, in a way, they have.

As part of a 10-year project, Bighta employed the craftsman skills he learned in his native Poland and as a custom home builder in Long Island to create a vacation getaway in his own backyard.

Following his dreams

Growing up in Communist Poland, Bighta knew two things: He longed to escape to the United States and he could make just about anything with his hands. By age 15, he was employed full-time as a tool and dye maker, earning better wages than most teachers and tradesmen twice his age. Still, he yearned for a better life.

In 1971, Bighta got his chance. His aunt married an American G.I., moved to Long Island, N.Y., and invited him for an extended visit. Bighta came and stayed for good.

Just 18, Bighta landed a job as a machinist in a munitions manufacturing company in Riverhead, Long Island. The job paid minimum wage, just $1.60 per hour back then, but the teenager drummed up extra work by helping wealthy Hamptons residents maintain their oceanfront homes. It didn't matter what needed built, repaired, fixed or remodeled - he could do it.

His initiative opened doors. Bighta's uncle introduced him to Larry Peskin, a Long Island investor. Noting Bighta's unusual capabilities, Peskin hired him to renovate a beach house he owned. When Bighta finished the job, Peskin sold the house for a profit, bought another one and again hired Bighta to fix it up.

And so began a successful, 30-year partnership - one that would eventually allow Bighta to start his own custom-home building company, and make both men financially independent.

"In 1980, the cheapest house on Long Island cost $350,000," Bighta recalled. "The last home Larry sold there went for just under a million dollars."

Starting in 1979, Bighta and Peskin began to reap the rewards of a booming New York real-estate market. Having earned a reputation as a skilled craftsman with an eye for detail, Bighta found his business flooded with work orders. Eight full-time people helped him build new luxury homes, renovate existing ones, and maintain local resorts - all to his exacting specifications.

Then, in 1993, the bottom fell out of the market. One year later, an estimated 60,000 construction workers were out of work on Long Island alone. The building boom had crashed - for good.

"It was amazing. One year we couldn't work fast enough. The next year I couldn't get enough work even for myself," Bighta said.

He laid off his employees and began to scout other areas of the country. Soon, he and his family pulled up stakes and moved to Gwinnett County, one of the fastest growing areas in

the country.

Starting over in Georgia

Once in Gwinnett, Bighta quickly started a new business, John Bighta's Artisan Group. Calls came in from high-end clientele in Buckhead and Dunwoody, including recording artist Toni Braxton, songwriter Daryl Simmons and record producer L.A. Reid, for whom he designed very intricate his-and-her wardrobes. People wanted his craftsmanship, and they were willing to pay for it.

At the same time, he and his wife, Liz, bought a home on sixacres in Dacula. "When we moved in, it was just a house," Bighta said. "I looked at the backyard and thought, 'How could I make this place look nice, if I could afford to do what I wanted?'"

Without the normal constraints of other people's budgets and ideas, Bighta set about designing the backyard of his dreams.

"My basic idea was to create something my family could enjoy, but also to showcase my work. I can easily show someone what I can do for their home, by showing them mine," he explained.

Bighta's first step was to have a 20-by-45 gahnite pool installed, with an overhanging spa. Doing much of the work himself, he then added a four-tier fountain and filled in the spaces between the pool and the house with a custom-designed pattern of hand-poured concrete and brick. Then he built four massive brick planters for palm trees, one for each corner of the pool. A rock wall went up, creating a whole new level of landscaping.

Tropical banana trees, yukkas and hibiscus fill in some areas; fruit trees, shrubs and annuals grow in others. A hand-built outdoor kitchen with a slate roof, velvet ceiling, granite counters and state-of-the-art appliances went up over the pool area. Hand-poured banister railings, white columns and brick walls began to curve in and out of the landscape, creating that luxury resort feel. A separate pavilion offered additional outdoor entertainment options. A koi pond, built mostly with rocks from the property, added more interest.

"On Long Island, if someone had a 1,000-square-foot deck, that was a huge. Our patio area is 10,000 square feet. We can do so much more here," Bighta said.

He designed the entire project, a 10-year venture, to be as maintenance-free as possible. He poured all the columns and balusters, as well as the patio floor, with white Portland cement, a compound that requires no painting. Other design elements, like brick, slate and granite, are also low-maintenance.

"Lots of people come here and say, 'If I had a place like this, I wouldn't go on vacation,'" Bighta said, smiling. "That's why I designed it this way - to be an outdoor retreat. My greatest reward is seeing people enjoy it."