Take a treehouse tour of Central Kentucky

Adults relive childhood pleasures by building leafy hideaways

Contributing Garden WriterOctober 12, 2012 

  • RESOURCES

    Some reference books for building treehouses:

    Black & Decker: The Complete Guide to Treehouses, Second Edition: Design and Build Your Kids a Treehouse. By Philip Schmidt. (Creative Publishing International, 224 pp., $24.99.)

    Treehouses and Playhouses You Can Build. By David and Jeanie Stiles. (Gibbs Smith. 144 pp. $19.99.)

There is a charm about treehouses: discovering a bird's-eye view, climbing into a leafy hideaway, listening to soft rain pattering on a tin roof. For children, they're destinations for active outside exercise, environmental stewardship and opportunities for imaginative flights of fancy. For adults, treehouses are all that plus a nostalgic trip back to childhood pleasures. We talked to four Central Kentuckians who have built particularly imaginative or impressive treehouses.

'Going with the flow' overlooking a river

NEAR MILLVILLE — On the Kentucky River, Jamey Wiglesworth built a retreat he calls Wu Wei, reflecting the Taoist principle of simplicity, patience and "going with the flow."

Wiglesworth says the balcony that looms 40 feet over the river is a tranquil place for drinking early morning coffee and watching blue herons through drizzly river mists.. He also says it is a romantic spot to take a date.

In 2006, Wiglesworth met the challenge of building a treehouse that hangs above the water by donning climbing gear to fasten the first couple of support boards to maple trees rooted halfway down a steep embankment. Following the flow of tree limbs, he added more boards, and consulted with carpenter friends. Soon, the house had the character, he says " of a nice little getaway."

"I love to hear a light rain as it patters on the roof," he says.

He used salvaged tin and plexiglass in his design, which is about 10 by 12 feet. It has a suspended walkway from the nearby riverbank.

His sturdy construction must have had some mettle: It survived total immersion in a 2010 flood.

The design suits Wiglesworth. A University of Kentucky graduate who majored in English, Wiglesworth returned home to the river after years traveling the nation following the jam band Phish. Now he is a trivia game emcee at Mellow Mushroom Pizza in Lexington and Dragon Pub in Frankfort.

A piece he has written about river life will be published by University Press of Kentucky in an upcoming book encompassing Kentucky water issues.

Adults and children enjoy peace, quiet

Allen Jr. and Ann Whitney Garner love trees.

On their 20-acre farm, David's Ford Crossing, near land once part of Bryan's Station fort, Ann Whitney raises chickens for eggs and keeps beehives for honey. But her most ambitious project will be reforesting the property by planting 4,600 native saplings— poplar, oak, ash and redbud — in early 2013.

With the family's love of nature, it's no wonder that Allen Garner has created an impressive bilevel treehouse between their house — which they share with their three children, Cooper, 11, Andrew, 10, and Patrick, 7 — and nearby woods.

Garner designed special steel bracket saddles, fabricated by Ben Norris at Harry Gordon Steel Co. in Lexington, to connect support beams to the hackberry trees holding up the structure; the brackets stabilize and accommodate trees swaying in the wind.

The deck levels are 9 and 14 feet up, and the total area is about 320 square feet. Lights suspended in high branches bathe the structure in a warm glow at night.

Discussions with advisers at Congleton Lumber helped Garner decide on sufficient load-bearing lumber and how to stabilize with metal hurricane clips deck joints that might sway.

In realizing his treehouse, Garner has collected some pointers, he says: Be prepared to go over budget, take time to find the perfect long-term setting, and draw out plans carefully.

The result is one that satisfies both parents and children, who invite friends for sleepovers.

"In the peace and quiet here, we have the ability to ... actually see the stars shining," Garner adds.

A perfect spot to look around garden

BEREA — Mary Startzman's back-yard garden, in the works since 1972, is divided into rooms overflowing with flowers, birdhouses, fish ponds and pathways. Since 2010, at the garden's center, a large silver maple is wrapped with a deck 14 steps up. It's Startzman's version of a treehouse.

"The location of my treehouse is perfect, with an overview of the garden from up high." Startzman says.

From there, she can look down at her butterfly koi swimming in a pond or simply enjoy quiet solitude where the garden and natural world meet.

"Sitting up there at night in candlelight is magical, especially when you get to see the moon coming up," she says.

Startzman's husband, Gene, finds the garden inspiration for poetry, and son Michael likes it for painting. Daughter Johanna and her husband, Bobby Wray, celebrated their wedding reception in the treehouse this year.

Shady maple leaves serve as a roof for the uncovered, 225-square-foot treehouse in summer, and various branches are the walls. The wood deck is irregularly shaped but about 15 feet wide on each side.

The deck was built by Fred Asplen, whose earlier projects included restoration a 16-sided barn at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, and replicas of ships such as the Elizabeth II in Manteo, N.C.

Builder stresses safety, then fun

In 2009, Gatewood Arnold installed a 100-foot zip line in the woods of his 7-acre Fayette County home to surprise his son, also named Gatewood, on his 11th birthday. The next year, they collaborated to add a treehouse and rope bridge. It was such a success that his company, Gatewood Arnold Construction, has begun designing and installing these features for others.

The treehouse's lumber and tin roof were recycled from the property's tobacco barn, and cedar posts were cut from the nearby woods; windows and doors were reused from another project.

"In true treehouse fashion," says Arnold, "we only had to purchase nails, bolts, the zip line kit, a slide and rope for bridges."

For Arnold, it was a welcome opportunity to create a whimsical, not-always-square building while bonding with his son and daughter, Stapleton.

"It was a fun project, and a labor of love," Arnold says.

Making a living in the construction industry has given Arnold a helpful perspective in building treehouses.

Planning an outdoor play structure for safety is important, Arnold advises.

"When structures fail, most of the time the connectors are at fault," he says.

Knowing the proper bolts to use, tightening cables properly and properly constructed diagonal braces are essential. Seeking out experienced, professional help and advice can back up decision-making for folks who are just starting out.

Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: durisek@aol.com. Blog: Gardening.bloginky.com.

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