Living On A Limb
By Alex Starace
Visions of Tinkerbell, Peter Pan or Swiss Family Robinson may come to mind at the mention of the term “treehouse” – certainly a fantasy for every child whose imagination comes alive in a backyard tree-based clubhouse. Interestingly, the world has romanticized treehouses long before Walt Disney brought them to the silver screen. In fact, the oldest of record, 1692, is the famous Tree House of Pitchford in England – still in existence today in the very same lime tree – which attracted British elite, including at least two prime ministers. In 1760, architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard restored the notable tree house with glazed doors leading to a stunning interior, complete with an intricate cornice ceiling, oak-planked floors and gilded gothic windows.
Keeping the couture treehouse genre alive in modern-day America is none other than Pete Nelson. The treehouse guru showcases his luxe masterpieces on the television show Treehouse Masters.
“Anytime you say ‘treehouse,’ people just light up,” said Nelson with a childlike grin.
Nelson sat down with South Florida Opulence and explained that convincing people to let him build a luxury treehouse wasn’t
always easy, particularly in the early 1990s. “Back in the day, everybody felt like a treehouse was something you’d cobble together with things you’d find on the curb. That’s very much the spirit of
a good old American treehouse. So for someone to ask to make a living wage doing this kind of thing was breaking the mold.”
Turning a Hobby into a Career
And, in the early years, Nelson was often so excited about a given project that he’d build it without considering the financials: “I call it the school of hard knocks, where you do it and [then] you realize, ‘I made about $5 an hour there; that’s not going to support my family.’ ”
However, Nelson didn’t give up. In 1994, he wrote Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb, a book which features some of the world’s finest treehouses, and which allowed Nelson to position his projects as something far more substantial than just a few boards nailed into the crook of a tree. With this new cache and a growing portfolio, his client list grew, as did his business. Today, Nelson works on treehouses full time, and his company, Nelson Treehouse and Supply, builds upscale constructions for clients around the world.
One of Nelson’s more eye-catching projects is an Irish cottage built in Southern California. The treehouse has circular walls, a homey, open interior and a grass roof, for which Nelson installed an irrigation system, complete with timed sprinklers. It sits in an ancient olive tree and includes man-made support posts, a technique that Nelson calls a hybrid construction. While some purists insist that true treehouses must use only trees as support, Nelson begs to differ. His creations are occasionally in excess of 70,000 pounds, and he says putting undue stress on a tree can prove dangerous. Besides, his goal is simply to provide an experience where the visitor feels the serenity that comes from being amidst the trees.
Sky is the Limit
Nelson’s creations are limited only by his clients’ imaginations. For one commission, Nelson developed a (private) treehouse bar called The Brew House. “I think it’s a brilliant idea, frankly,” said Nelson, “even though it’s a little bit counterintuitive. Drunk people in trees doesn’t really seem like a great idea, but, you know … there are rooftop bars for crying out loud.” In this project, with a cathedral-like structure and a peacock window, The Brew House makes for
a perfect sylvan hideaway of conviviality and good cheer.
For another commission, called Jack’s Treehouse, Nelson built a functioning year-round residence. Jack, who is his clients’ 12-year-old son, lives in the treehouse, essentially in his parents’ backyard. It’s a model of recreation and relaxation, and possibly the best clubhouse a pre-teen has ever had. The full bar (which Jack doesn’t use) is put into action on football Sundays, when Jack’s parents and friends come over to watch the Seahawks on the massive flat-screen television. Jack’s Treehouse is equipped with electricity, heat and plumbing, including a full shower. “Clients are often fascinated with treehouse plumbing, but the simple answer is that it’s very much like plumbing in a land-based house. The trees, if they move and blow in the wind, don’t necessarily snap your pipes. They just simply sway and move as they need to.”
A true treehouse evangelist, Nelson has elevated his construction to an art form, whether it’s building a treehouse spa, a farmhouse treehouse, or a bed-and-breakfast treehouse retreat. As for his next project, Nelson says he’s always open to new challenges – and he travels frequently for commissions. He’s even built in the Sunshine State: “The live oaks in Florida can be pretty spectacular. I would
be thrilled to venture down there [again],” he said. In short, Nelson is lucky enough to do what he loves, and to do it well. Not bad for a former carpenter who didn’t quite let go of his childhood dream.