The Minister's Tree House - Temporarily Closed
In the early 1990s, landscaper Horace Burgess bought some wooded land on the outskirts of Crossville, Tennessee. One of the bigger trees, next to a dirt road, caught his eye. He decided to build the world's largest tree house in its branches.
But Horace had a job and a family. After spending a couple of years on the project, he ran out of lumber and enthusiasm.
"Then I turned my life over to God," Horace recalled. "And the spirit of God said, 'If you build Me a tree house, I'll never let you run out of material.'"
God doesn't make housing offers every day. Horace got himself ordained as a minister and went back to work. God showed Horace what the tree house would look like ("It was like a vision") but didn't tell Horace how big it would be. "If He had," Horace said, "I would've tried to talk Him out of it."
Eleven years of labor later, Horace had what he'd originally wanted: the largest tree house in the world. It spreads across not one, but seven big trees that grow through its floors and out of its windows. It soars 100 feet into the sky. Built without blueprints, its dimensions are a mystery even to Horace, who guesses that it covers around 10,000 square feet.
News of Horace's project spread quickly among local churches. Even before he was finished, people began showing up to climb it. They were trespassing then, and they're trespassing now, but Horace has never had the heart to turn them away. Thousands of uninvited people have visited the tree house over the years, with God as their only lifeguard; Horace is rarely around (he still works full-time as a landscaper).
"I built it for God, and God watches over it," Horace said. "He's protected everyone for all these years."
God has His hands full.
When we visited, kids, teenagers -- even some older people -- were careening through the tree house, climbing its walls, walking on its roofs. The constant clomp clomp clomp of running feet on distant floors, and the disembodied cries of Where are you? I'm over here! Follow my voice! made it seem more like a fun house than a tree house. Horace was distracted during our visit by unseen crashes ("Is everybody all right?" he'd yell) or when he saw a visitor in a precarious spot ("You realize that if you do fall, you will die").
Visitors have done far worse to the tree house than they have to themselves. Since Horace stopped new construction in 2004, nearly every square foot of the structure has been vandalized with graffiti, some of it praising God and Jesus ("I don't know how to take that," Horace said). Flooring has been ripped out, windows smashed, furniture hurled from balconies. "I have to remind myself that it is a tree house," said Horace, who feels that it somehow triggers people to act like horrid eight-year-olds. "That's why I've never prosecuted anyone for bustin' the stuff up."
Although musty and occasionally littered with leaves, the tree house is built solid -- like a real house -- so visitors often don't realize that they're several stories in the air.
Stairs wind up and down, leading to dozens of now-empty rooms. There's a chapel with a basketball hoop (Horace encourages physical fitness) and a belfry only accessible by an outdoor ladder. Horace showed us secret passages that hadn't yet been discovered (and destroyed) and the tower view of his flower garden, which he's trimmed into a Christian cross, an American flag, and a big name: "Jesus." "When you see Jesus in the garden," said Horace with a smile, "the preacher don't have to preach."
Horace is remarkably forgiving, but even he has his limits. The tree house, although still open, is now watched 24/7 to prevent any further destruction. Horace plans to build a Welcome Booth where all visitors will sign waivers so that they no longer have to trespass. The long-delayed Phase 2 of the tree house will include an elevator, power, plumbing, heat in the winter, and a fitness-testing "Stairway to Heaven" that will twist all the way up to the belfry.
"It's only started, really," Horace said of the tree house. "I want to go back and finish what it looks like in my head."
Update: The treehouse has been closed by the Tennessee Fire Marshall, who says that it's a tourist attraction and therefore must conform to state building codes. Horace says that it's a treehouse, and there are no codes for a treehouse. And it's proven to be well-built despite the footfalls of thousands of visitors over 20 years. For now, however, the gate to its driveway is locked.