CROSSVILLE, Tenn. — Horace Burgess's treehouse may be as close to heaven as a body can get in Cumberland County.
(Photos by Mrs. Phred. Text by USA.Today.COM)
It rises 97 feet into the sky, the support provided by a live, 80-foot-tall white oak 12 feet in diameter at its base. Six other trees brace the tower-like fortress, but Burgess says its foundation is in God.
"I built it for everybody. It's God's treehouse. He keeps watch over it," said Burgess, who received his inspiration in a vision that came to him in 1993. "I was praying one day, and the Lord said, 'If you build me a treehouse, I'll see you never run out of material."'
And thus far, as Burgess sees it, the Lord has provided. Most of his materials are recycled pieces of lumber from garages, storage sheds and barns. Now into his 14th year of construction, he is not finished.
The treehouse has 10 floors, averaging nine to 11 feet in height by Burgess's reckoning. He has never measured its size but estimates it to be about 8,000 to 10,000 square feet. He did count the nails that he has hammered into the wood — 258,000, give or take a few hundred. And he guesses he has sunk about $12,000 into the project.
"God used my hands to put every piece in place, but I had a lot of help," said the 56-year-old landscape architect. He's a country boy but lives in town and compares himself to Job of the Old Testament. His pale blue Paul Newman-like eyes beam and he wears an easy smile on his tanned face.
"I've always proclaimed it to be the world's largest treehouse, and no one has ever challenged it," Burgess said.
The treehouse is topped by a chime tower weighing 5,700 pounds; the chimes were fashioned from 10 oxygen acetylene bottles. But today, it is the sound of a hammer echoing from above where 12-year-old Donathan Conley of Crossville nails license plates to a wall. "It's a real peaceful place. You can go out there and have a good time," said Conley, who maintains his own room in the treehouse where he has spent the night on several occasions. "I helped Horace build it. I cut up lumber and hauled it up the steps."
In the summer time, this house always basks in the shade. A homemade sign at the bottom reads: "Welcome friends."
While driving to Nashville on a warm summer day, Dana Arwood and three friends from Knoxville stop to explore the treehouse. Approximately 400 to 500 folks visit weekly, most of them from out of state and most of them by word of mouth. Arwood heard about the place from a cousin. "It's pretty incredible. He used everyday stuff and made something wonderful," she says.
Up the enclosed spiral staircase to the first fork in the oak, Burgess says, "This is a praise tree" because the two limbs spread out like a preacher raising arms toward heaven. Scattered about various floors, about a dozen tiny brass plates hold the names of people important in the builder's life. A sanctuary with pews pushed to the side takes up the third floor and also doubles as a basketball court at 22 feet above terra firma. Sunlight floods through a Plexiglas skylight about 29 feet above the sanctuary into this open room that contains a homemade cross, altar and podium.
Burgess calls the altar, a cedar stump, "the old rugged altar. You can sit yourself down and get over it under the cross." Sure enough, the altar rests against a 16-foot-high cross. The treehouse church with all of its elements came to Burgess in a vision from God when he was "wide awake" and lasted for only four seconds. But the instructions were clear.
"It had the basketball court in the sanctuary. I saw it like a slide show, and it showed me the podium, which rises like four crosses, two for the thieves, one for Christ, and the other cross is the one we all must bear individually," he said. The fourth floor overlooks the sanctuary and boasts a VIP section, an antique curved church pew overlooking the sanctuary that Burgess claims is "the best seat in the house." This floor also holds a choir loft and a stained-glass picture window of Jesus.
Though an ordained minister, Burgess is more of a self-proclaimed pastor in the woods.
"There's people that God sends me that church houses wouldn't even let in," he said.
One of those souls resided in the treehouse for three years and earned the nickname "the keeper of the treehouse."
After the man's death, Burgess threw some of his friend's ashes from the top and buried the rest at the foot of the tree. For his 11th wedding anniversary, Burgess built his wife "the only penthouse in Cumberland County." The couple celebrated by spending the night there on the seventh floor. "I kinda feel like Noah's wife when Noah built the ark," said Janet Burgess, Horace's wife of 17 years. "It's definitely the spirit of the Lord working in him." As his project rose to the sky, Burgess said it took 4½ years before he could see anything but trees.
But today, if you make it to the top deck, the trees are 20 feet below and can't obscure the view of Cumberland County all around. From this vantage point and others, visitors can see a garden where Burgess has used daffodils, irises, narcissus, gladiolas and wild daisies to spell out the letters J-E-S-U-S.
"The whole message of the thing is if you come to see the site and climb to the top, you'll see Jesus in the garden, and the preacher didn't have to say a word," Burgess says, smiling broadly.