Lord, what a treehouse!
Scripps Howard News Service
With photo/graphic: SH12G15210STORYTREEHOUSE, SH12G15310STORYTREEHOUSE, SH12G15410STORYTREEHOUSE
By AMY MCRARY
Scripps Howard News Service
CROSSVILLE, Tenn. -- Horace Burgess didn't need blueprints to build a 10-story, 14,000-plus-square-foot treehouse that towers over surrounding oaks and that thousands of people flock to each year. God was his architect.
The Lord supplied the design to the builder and the wood from old barns, weathered buildings or scrap construction bits. Burgess supplied the nails, the sweat and the faith.
The collaboration is a massive structure rising up to 100 feet into the Tennessee sky. Formally called "The Treehouse The Way," the 19-year, still-unfinished project includes winding stairs, a bell tower and a rambling maze of rooms and corners. Its center is a light-filled sanctuary that's both chapel and basketball court.
Thousands from as far as Australia have visited the structure at the end of graveled Beehive Lane on the edge of Crossville. They come at their own risk; this isn't an amusement and offers no safety precautions. They see what could be, as Burgess says, "the world's largest treehouse." That designation could become official: blueprints are being drawn of the treehouse to submit to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Visitors often arrive after hearing about the curiosity from friends or seeing a mention on the Internet. "People can come to a place where there's no alcohol, no drugs and no violence," says Marijo Templeton. A lifelong friend of Burgess, she's The Treehouse's business manager.
The property is open year-round from daylight to dusk. "I never did have to ask people to come to it. I guess that's just God blessing it," says Burgess, a 61-year-old landscape architect.
What visitors first see is the treehouse's 97-foot-tall tower, which resembles something from a rustic amusement park. What tourists can mistake for a crow's nest atop the turret is a giant wooden crown of thorns.
The tower's a people magnet; young and old climb its 98 steps. At its top the bastion sways with wind gusts. From this perch visitors overlook a garden where flowers and grass spell "JESUS."
Where else, says Burgess, can a person climb to the sky and see Jesus in the garden? "One night, it was real dark and there was no moon ... I tilled that out with just one light on my tractor."
From the tower, more agile, fearless visitors scale a short ladder into its belfry. Their reward is to ring bells Burgess made by cutting the bottom from heavy oxygen acetylene bottles.
All visitors tour for free. Those who wish can drop money in a covered donation bin. This year Burgess began selling souvenir T-shirts and baseball caps. He estimates he spent $14,000 building the structure, but says he quit counting after a while.
Through the years tourists have used pocket knives or felt-tipped pens to carve or write names, doodle drawings or pen tributes to loved ones in the treehouse planks. In some spots the graffiti is so thick it nearly forms a layer of black paint over the raw planks. Burgess decided not to mind if people mark his work; he's even contemplating selling felt-tipped pens. "I have to pinch myself and say, 'It's a treehouse. That's what you did when you were a kid -- carved your name on the wall.'" He polices the messages, cleaning off offensive words.
More serious are past thefts and vandalism. Thieves stole electrical wiring; vandals smashed windows and broke doors. Now the property gate is locked after hours; volunteers stay the night to secure the treehouse.
Though he and wife Julia live "in a normal house in town," Burgess spends many hours each week at his creation. The couple has been married 22 years. For their 11th anniversary, he built her a penthouse in the treehouse. Sometimes, he says, Julia "feels like Noah's wife" with the time he devotes the treehouse. "But I feel like with everyone I talk to, I'm doing God's work."
Burgess has shared how he came to build a treehouse for God to visitors from Germany and Florida, to news crews from Paris to Australia. This wasn't his first treehouse, and it didn't begin belonging to God.
Years earlier he was a partying Vietnam vet who built a treehouse on a different spot of land. He lived in that 2,200-square-foot "party house" but later burned it down. "I was trying to change my life over to what God wanted me to do. He'd called me to be a preacher. But I didn't like preachers so I wasn't going to be one. I thought I could outrun God. But he runs fast."
God's voice, he says, told him to burn that structure. "He wanted it gone." Burgess says he withdrew from society, living as a "hermit" for 18 months. Then he met Julia. "If I hadn't met her, I'd never have made it."
He built a second treehouse in the subdivision where the couple then lived. When some neighbors complained, he demolished the structure and hauled the lumber to 139 acres he'd bought near Crossville. "I was mad and decided I was going to build the world's last treehouse."
Then 43, he had salvaged enough wood to wind stairs three stories up an 80-foot-tall, 12-foot-diameter white oak. That was all he built for a year and half. In that time, he says, "I quit running completely from God."
One day he climbed his "staircase to nowhere," sat on a long tree limb and prayed. "I was praying for everything but a treehouse. But the spirit of God said, 'If you build me a treehouse, I'll never let you run out of material.' I agreed. It's been a work in progress for almost 20 years."
Two weeks later, after more prayer, he said, Burgess got a vision of what God's treehouse should be. The revelation included a water cistern and filtering system, electricity, a heating system and an elevator. None of that's yet built. "It's still all in my head. So my head's still cluttered."
He began building for God. His materials consisted of reclaimed wood, doors and windows. "People would say, 'You come over here and clean this mess up, you can have it.' " It took 11 years before he recycled metal onto the roof. That's why some floors tilt slightly like a carnival fun house. "I had to angle them a little so the water could run off and it wouldn't rot before I could dry it in."
Many people helped but Burgess built the design out of his head. "I was the only one that knew how I wanted it to look. So I had to put it all in place and nail it myself." He shot 258,000 nails with a nail gun and hand-hammered another 530 pounds of nails.
From its start around the large, still-growing oak, the structure spread over six more oaks that help support it. Burgess sunk a few telephone poles into the ground to support some floors. "It actually doesn't have a foundation. It just comes down and touches the ground everywhere," he says.
Nearly every winding wooden path leads to the building's up-in-the-air chapel. With a skylight of reclaimed Plexiglas, this large room amid smaller ones was part of the vision years ago. Pews circle the walls and march up another level. A basketball hoop is secured high on a central, tall wall. A nearly flat basketball nestles in a pew.
"It's a prayer-and-praise chapel and a basketball court all the same time. I feel like you have to be a well-rounded person to be a good Christian, physically fit and mentally stable and spiritually equipped," Burgess says.
Burgess, now a minister, holds 1 p.m. Sunday services in the chapel. "We deal with the now and nasty. There's a lot of Jesus and the Holy Ghost. I hardly open my Bible because I got it all written on my heart,' he says, striking his chest.
While some floors are uneven, some steps narrow and some parts sway in the wind, Burgess says no one's been injured here.
Burgess dreams of completing his vision. He lists the needs -- running water, electricity, heat. He's built a shaft for a wooden elevator to be worked by pulleys. So he tells visitors, "You'll just have to come back. I tell everyone to pray for me that God will finish the work he started."
(Amy McRary writes for the News Sentinel in Knoxville, Tenn. Email mcrarya(at)knoxville.com.)