Horace Burgess has been many things in life: cowboy, soldier, male dancer, and preacher. But the thing he will probably be best known for is a treehouse in the woods of rural Tennessee.
During the summer you can just make out the top of it from a dirt road in Crossville, poking out of a stand of treets like the crows nest of a pirate ship. The treehouse is a tangle of stairways, rooms, porches, and lookouts that grows up from the base of a giant white oak tree that measures 80 feet in height and 12 feet in diameter. Only when you're standing at the base of the treehouse does the sheer mass of the construction become clear: 10 floors with at least 80 rooms, totalling around 10,000 square feet extend up nearly 100 feet to the top of the bell tower. The wood came from all sorts of locations, including construction sites and barns. It's held together by around 258,000 nails.
The winding staircase opens up into a three-story sanctuary, complete with a choir loft and a basketball court. Other stairways ascend to bedrooms, playrooms, and proches that look out over the grounds. Sometimes you can see daylight between the floorboards; the wood is thin in some places. A large rope swing hangs from the upper branches. The occupant of the chair at the end of the ropes disappears into the superstructure at the base of the tree, then reappears moments later, following an arc up into the tree canopy around it.
Horace told USA Today that he received the idea for a treehouse in a 1993 vision. "I was praying one day, and the Lord said, 'If you build me a treehouse, I'll see you never run out of material.'" It was the culmination of a strange journey that had taken him from serving in the Vietnam War to working on skyscrapers in Houston to stripping at a club. After some years of hard partying, he settled down in Crossville, building a cabin and becoming a landscaper.
Construction on the treehouse began in 1993 and continued for 11 years. There were no blueprints or construction permits. Horace followed his own path, and gradually the treehouse came together.
Almost from the start the treehouse gained attention from locals. Word spread about what was being built down Beehive Lane, and people were drawn to it. Some helped in building it, and at least one person lived there for several years. Horace did not install a gate or charge an entrance fee, believing that it should be open to the public. By the time the roof was finished in 2002, the treehouse was attracting people from across the globe. Most of the attention was welcome, fulfilling Horace's vision of a place to worship - or at least contemplate god. Some of the attention was less welcome, in the form of graffiti and petty vandalism.
At its peak the Minister's Treehouse, as it became known, drew hundreds of people a week to visit, party, camp, or pray. Church services were regularly held in the sanctuary by Horace, who had become an ordained minister. But the free-wheeling nature of the treehouse couldn't last forever. In August of 2012, the state fire marshall's office sent a letter ordering that the treehouse to be shut down. Among the issues:
"(The treehouse) is constructed of used lumber that is scabbed together in a haphazard manner and held together only with nails. There are no lag bolts, support structures, or other acceptable devices to maintain the building's structural integrity. There is also no apparent building plan. "The Treehouse" appears to be a random piecing together of rooms and floor levels around several tree. There has been no pre-emergency planning with the local fire department. If the building happened to catch fire, it is questionable if the fire department's apparatus would be able to reach the upper levels for rescue and firefighting."
Initially it was hoped that closure would be only temporary. Horace told some media outlets that he was looking into how to bring the building up to code, but it became clear that doing so would require a significant amount of money and almost completely rebuilding the treehouse.
Though it has been officially closed for years, people are still drawn to the treehouse. Most stop at the gate that was installed a few years ago with "NO TRESPASSING" written in giant orange letters, and admire the building from afar. Others scale the fence and walk around the desserted grounds. Some get caught. While a few years ago they might have been met with a gentle lecture from Horace, today it's the local sheriff. Vandals have done serious damage to interior and exterior of the treehouse since it closed. Someone stole the bible carved out of wood out of the sanctuary. A neighbor told us that Horace is probably going to demolish the treehouse due to the vandalism and the liability. He's in his mid 60's right now, with a wife and kids to look after.
It would be a sad end to one of the most unique structures in the country, as well as the dream of Horace Burgess.