Nature’s Castles are perched in trees, 20 feet from the earth—and as close as you can get to heaven. The trio of treehouses is a recent addition to Longwood Gardens, the horticultural treasure near Kennett Square, attracting guests to groves of tulip poplars in expanses of the 1,050-acre former du Pont estate that were seldom visited.
Kids of all ages are drawn by the lure of a treehouse, a place where they can pretend they are king and queen of all they survey. “It’s delightful,” says Longwood spokeswoman Patricia Evans. “That’s the response we hear over and over.”
The first and largest creation, the 900-square-foot Lookout Loft on shady Forest Walk, is a rustic Adirondack-style structure with two separate viewing platforms connected by a walkway. What makes the design more special is its accessibility. Forever Young Treehouses of Burlington, Vermont, built the structure in compliance with standards established by the Americans with Disabilities Act, installing 75 feet of ramps. “A treehouse that is wheelchair accessible is a rare thing,” Evans says. “It’s a joy to see kids in wheelchairs, who have never been in a treehouse, wheeling around up there.”
The other two treehouses, reached by wooden stairs, are the work of Peter Nelson and Jake Jacobs of TreeHouse Workshop in Seattle. Centered on towering tulip poplars, the Canopy Cathedral is an ornate two-story house inspired by a Norwegian Stave Church. It has a 589-square-foot interior and diamond-shaped windows. The floors are crafted of Douglas fir salvaged from an old toothpaste factory in Toronto. Its 118-square-foot balcony, accessed by two staircases, provides an aerial view of Longwood’s celebrated Italian Water Garden.
The first stage in designing the treehouse was getting the lay of the land. “We walked through the gardens on a snowy February day and we could see the tall tulip trees without their leaves,” Jacobs recalls. “These trees sort of jumped out at us and Pete immediately began sketching.”
A month later, Longwood asked for a design for a third, smaller treehouse. The result is the 255-square-foot Birdhouse, a cedar nest with a hawk’s-eye view of Peirce’s Woods. The handle on the sliding barn door is fashioned from a tree limb.
As a boy, Jacobs nailed peach baskets and lengths of lumber in trees in his native New York state. He never had a proper treehouse, though he did persuade friends to help him build a raft like Huckleberry Finn’s. Trained as a timberframer, he recently finished the three-year job of building his own home on 20 verdant acres in Washington state. “I’ve picked out sites for three treehouses we will probably use as guesthouses for our three grown children,” he says. “That’s my next project.”
Longwood director Paul Redman says treehouses awaken a child’s fascination with the outdoors. “Nature’s Castles is designed to celebrate trees and engage our guests in an exciting and unique way about the beauty and importance of trees,” Redman says. “You will never think of treehouses in the same way after seeing these creations.”
Real-life celebrities and other well-heeled individuals also are raising the bar. Val Kilmer, the actor, commissioned a 300-square-foot treehouse in a stand of five live oaks on his ranch in New Mexico. (He’s also a distant relative of Joyce Kilmer, the poet who wrote “Trees.”) Rock ’n’ roll icon Sting has a veritable villa in the sky in Italy, and fashion designer Donna Karan enjoys lofty views from her getaway above Long Island. “I like to use the term ‘escape pod’ to describe a treehouse,” Jacobs says. “It’s a place to meditate, to free your mind. We’re finding that entrepreneurs are asking for treehouses to use as offices.”
Jacobs and Nelson built a $175,000 two-story treehouse on the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 35-mile hiking and bike path that bisects the town of Abington. Ensconced in a single massive pin oak in a grove of beeches, the structure was built as an airy guesthouse, with such amenities as a fireplace, shower and flush toilet. It’s also heated and boasts a mini fridge and microwave. Most of the wood was reclaimed—Douglas fir for the walls, cedar for floors, locust for support posts and cherry for a touch of class.
Other public gardens also are branching out into treehouses. At Tyler Arboretum in Media, an exhibition of 16 treehouses designed and built by local artisans opened in May. Those leafy abodes range from Thoreau’s Cabin, a full-scale replica of writer Henry David Thoreau’s rustic home on Walden Pond in Massachusetts, to a pared-back collection of hammocks suspended in the trees, dubbed Kyle’s Tree House.
The Longwood treehouses took about as long to build—four months—and cost as much as traditional homes, $1 million. A destination for aficionados of things both green and grand, Longwood is revered for such seasonal extravagances as exotic chrysanthemums in fall, lavish Christmas topiaries and spectacular stands of spring tulips and Easter lilies. In summer, guests are treated to jaw-dropping fireworks displays, accompanied by colorful cascading fountains and classical music. But Longwood’s roots go back to trees. Industrial mogul Pierre S. du Pont bought the original 202 acres in 1906 to preserve a historic arboretum slated for the lumber mill. George Peirce, a Quaker, bought the land from William Penn in 1700 and farmed it. His descendants established the arboretum in 1798, and many of the trees they planted stand today. All three Nature’s Castles have trees growing through their decks—on purpose, of course. The same goes for the hole in the roof over the viewing platform at Lookout Loft, where a tree pokes through, reaching for the sun.
The structures are anchored not in trunks or branches but in technology. Each house is supported by a pin foundation in which a series of long pipes are driven through pre-cast concrete units on the surface of the ground. The result is a base that won’t heave after the ground freezes and also won’t damage the roots of the trees. “It was important to us that no trees were harmed,” Evans says. “After all, the focus of treehouses is the trees.”
Nature’s Castles: The Treehouse Reimagined runs through Nov. 23 at Longwood Gardens, Route 1, Kennett Square. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. $16/adults, $14/seniors, $6/students 5-22; kids 4 and under free. Call (610) 388-1000 or visit longwoodgardens.org.
Totally Terrific Treehouses runs through Oct. 26 at Tyler Arboretum, 515 Painter Road, Media. $7/adults, $6/seniors, $4/kids 3-15. Call (610) 566-9134 or visit tylerarboretum.org.