Happiness Among the Trees
by Rebecca Guenard
photographs by Juli Leonard
Perched out of reach, a treehouse evokes mystery, seclusion, a place apart where a child can dream up an adventure. It’s a castle on the hill, the Shire, an Ewok village. It’s Swiss Family Robinson.
Before the ink was dry on the mortgage papers of our North Raleigh home, my family was discussing which tree on our two-acre property would support a treehouse. After six months of planning, drawing, and calculating, my husband looked up from the kitchen table, surrounded by graph paper covered in schematics, and said: “This is going to be a big project.” Everyone went quiet and my son gently pointed out the reality of his undertaking. “You are building a house,” he said. “Up in a tree.”
Feeling apprehensive, I set out to find camaraderie with Raleigh’s treehouse people. It, too, was a bigger challenge than I expected. Despite its Oak City label, Raleigh’s building ordinances hinder the construction of treehouses. “Accessory structures” are limited to a certain height and distance from property lines, making treehouses unlikely to qualify, given the standard lot size. Even if you head out to where lots are more spacious, homeowners associations can crush your treehouse dreams.
Eventually, I was able to find several examples of what is possible when grown-ups with power tools remember what it was like to be a kid. Occupying only a couple-hundred square feet of space, these houses in the trees are cozy enough to let you roll out just a few sleeping bags, and big enough to let your childhood imagination run wild.
The Proud Pavilion
Though the Vassallo-Soto family built their treehouse for their four kids, they admit adults love it too. Tara and her husband Vinney wanted to give their kids a place for sleepovers, where they could chill device-free. “We wanted to give the kids a house outside of the house,” says Tara Vassallo-Soto.
Tara Vassallo-Soto hashed out a design with RB Landscaping in under an hour. The treehouse sits proud and inviting at the top of a rise in the backyard, tucked up into the lower limbs of a tall oak tree. The design is reminiscent of a pavilion, with only one full back wall and two knee-height side walls. The absence of a fourth wall provides a spacious feeling and unobstructed views across the neighborhood.
Kids can lounge lazily in the colorful beanbag chairs dolloped throughout the space, or in the neon hammocks draped underneath. The colors pop off the natural wood structure, like stained-glass windows in a childhood sanctuary.
The Tree Hugger
“We bought this house because of that tree,” says Matt Robinson. He is referring to a mammoth pin oak at the back of his property. Its trunk punctures the foundation and then exits through the roof of a treehouse-in-the-works that sits 14 feet off the ground.
For as long as he can remember, Robinson wanted to build a treehouse. His apprenticeship came when he helped a friend clear the trees on a 40-acre property. They cut the logs into lumber and built a timber-framed home on the land. Robinson applied the skills he learned building that house to construct the treehouse for his family, a massive undertaking that required him to borrow scaffolding to build so high. “I never want to get up on that roof again,” Robinson says. “It was terrifying.” He calls the treehouse his “labor of love.”
Robinson has worked on it for two years. He is happy to take his time; being among the trees, he says, relaxes him. Preferring a rustic look, he has used reclaimed wood and incorporated creative touches like a window across the back wall that is actually a French door on its side. A prominent feature inside the house is the oak tree itself, which greets a visitor immediately upon entering. Robinson is still working to finish details like a backlit rusted tin ceiling and a rolling ladder to access the house’s loft. He also plans to put in a writing desk, ostensibly so his girls can do their homework, but his wife imagines Robinson himself will claim it most of the time. “He is looking forward to having a spot where he can look out through the trees and write some poetry,” she says.
The Woodlands Home
With a heavy heart, Sherry Corkum accepted that twin 100-year old oak trees on her property, formerly the Lassiter Mill Farm, had to be cut down. One tree still had weather-greyed wooden slats nailed to the trunk that the Lassiter children had used decades earlier as a ladder to a long-gone treehouse. But the trees were rotted and posed a safety hazard. Corkum was expecting a baby, and the Corkums couldn’t risk an accident, so the trees were removed.
Corkum didn’t have to mourn their absence for long. Two weeks later, her husband called from Charlotte where he was developing a property. A treehouse on the land where he was working had to be removed or destroyed before building could begin. The Corkums decided to make it their own. Months later, a flatbed trailer arrived at the Corkums’ home in Raleigh with their treehouse and what remained of the cypress tree it once lived in.
The house is a special one. A Charlotte artist designed and built the hexagonal shaped house with a wraparound deck. The Corkums used the cypress tree it once hung in as pilings to support its substantial load-bearing beams, which also accommodate an exit slide on one side and a couple of hammocks on the other. Tree bark shingles on the roof and siding camouflage the whole house, while tiny birds’ nests hang in several corners. A lack of doors or windows encourage the scent of magnolias from a neighboring grove to fill a cozy interior decorated with furniture from a craftsman in Boone, North Carolina who fashions child-sized tables and chairs out of old twigs. There is a chalkboard on one wall and drums hang throughout. The Corkums hide small treasures here and there for young guests to discover.
Sherry Corkum says her family has gotten hours of enjoyment out of the treehouse. It has been the centerpiece for her son’s birthday parties and the hangout spot for her teenaged niece. “We lost two oaks,” says Corkum. “But we gained so much more.”
The Doll House
Brian Lowery intended to build a swing set. Instead he built a live-in dollhouse among his backyard trees. “We figured they would quickly outgrow a swing set,” says Lowery, since his daughters were eight and eleven when he embarked on the project. He wanted to give them a place that they could use well into their teen years.
Lowery constructed the house himself, on a modest budget, with materials he purchased at the local home improvement store. He supplied the house with electricity so nightfall would not discourage the girls from playing outside. The tiny two-story structure has green siding, white trim, and an inviting front porch. The interior features tranquil purple walls, reading nooks, and a sleeping loft. It’s the ideal spot to foster some girl power.
A year has passed and Lowery’s house is fairytale-perfect, but he isn’t shy about expressing his disappointment. He imagined his girls would be anxious to spend their private time in the house sharing giggles and secrets, but they haven’t shown much interest in it. He recently hung a television on one wall. “If no one is going to use it, I’ll turn it into a man-cave,” Lowery says, with a laugh.
The Fantasy-bound Boat
In a cluster of trees beside a European-style North Raleigh home sits a treehouse shaped like a boat. Its bow, supported by three loblolly pines, points through a sea of trees to be navigated on the way to adventure. Make-believe grandeur is easy to conjure in this simple setting. Perhaps Peter Pan is faring the Darling children home from Neverland, a peg-legged Ahab is manning a whaling ship, or SpongeBob is practicing his driving lessons.
The homeowners, Roger and Terri McCall, considered taking down the treehouse when they bought their home. Their kids are grown and they didn’t imagine anyone using it. But they love the ocean, and decided to leave the treehouse in place as a seaside-style decoration.
They underestimated the boat’s magnetism. It turns out the treehouse is beloved by all their pint-sized visitors – grandnieces and nephews and friends with kids. The original owner’s brother, a carpenter, built the precious port-dweller. Children enter from a trap door in the floor of the boat, leaving the boat’s structure uninterrupted when the door is closed. As you look out from the small, enclosed bridge, it’s easy to imagine you are sailing through the sky.
“Sometimes it’s a pirate ship. Sometimes it’s a fishing boat,” says Roger McCall. “Mostly, it’s a pirate ship.”
The McCalls now have a box of accessories to accompany the treehouse. They keep plenty of flags, swords, hooks, and dolls on hand to foster the popular pirate theme and delight in the hours of laughter and “Ahoy, matey!” that emanate from their trees.