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Tree House.

The Minister's Tree House (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Crossville, Tennessee

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 spread across not one, but seven big trees that grew through its floors and out of its windows. It soared 100 feet into the sky. Built without blueprints, its dimensions were a mystery even to Horace, who guessed that it covered around 10,000 square feet.

The Minister.

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, but Horace never had the heart to turn anyone away. Thousands of uninvited people visited the tree house over the years, with God as their only lifeguard; Horace was rarely around (He still worked 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 had His hands full.

We visited the tree house several times in its heyday. Kids, teenagers -- even some older people -- would careen 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 visits 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 did far more damage to the tree house than to themselves. After Horace stopped new construction in 2004, nearly every square foot of the structure was vandalized with graffiti, some of it praising God and Jesus ("I don't know how to take that," Horace said). Flooring was ripped out, windows smashed, furniture hurled from balconies. "I have to remind myself that it is a tree house," said Horace, who felt that it somehow triggered people to act like horrid eight-year-olds. "That's why I've never prosecuted anyone for bustin' the stuff up."

Bible and basketball hoop.

Although musty and occasionally littered with leaves, the tree house was built solid -- like a real house -- so visitors often didn't realize that they were several stories in the air.

Stairs wound up and down, leading to dozens of mostly empty rooms. There was a chapel with a basketball hoop (Horace encouraged 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 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."

Upper level barbecue.

Horace was remarkably forgiving, but even he had his limits. An on-site guard eventually was hired to watch the tree house 24/7 to prevent any further destruction. Horace planned to build a Welcome Booth where all visitors would sign waivers so that they would no longer have to trespass. The long-delayed Phase 2 of the tree house would include an elevator, power, plumbing, heat in the winter, and a fitness-testing "Stairway to Heaven" that would 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."

Unfortunately for Horace and his plans, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal closed the tree house in 2012, saying that it was a tourist attraction and had to conform to state building codes. Horace said it was a tree house, and there are no codes for a tree houses. Although it proved to be well-built despite the footfalls of thousands of visitors over 20 years, the gate to its driveway was locked.

Seven years later, on the night of October 22, 2019, the Minster's Tree House went up in flames.

Also see: Face of the Creator | Earthly Codes

The Minister's Tree House

Oct. 22, 2019: Went up in flames.

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