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A Giant Treehouse 'Like A Castle' Is Destroyed By Fire In Tennessee

A Tennessee man named Horace Burgess began constructing the treehouse in the early 1990s, saying God had called on him to do it.

To get to what many people in East Tennessee called the world's biggest treehouse, you'd drive down a country road. You'd pull onto a long driveway, and there it was, rising from the woods: a mansion of scrap lumber, entwined with trees.

It was the divine project of a man named Horace Burgess, who said he had been called to build a house in the woods in Crossville, Tenn.

"The spirit of God said, 'If you'll build me a treehouse, I will never let you run out of material,' " he said in an interview some years ago. "When Noah was building his ark, people were skeptic in every way. ... It couldn't have been any different, the way he got his instruction than the way I got mine."

So in the early '90s, Burgess started building a treehouse for God.

Bobby DeRossett is assistant fire chief in Cumberland County, where he's lived his whole life. He remembers when Burgess began erecting the treehouse.

The treehouse held classrooms, bedrooms, and a chapel that doubled as a basketball court.
/ Pablo Maurer
The treehouse held classrooms, bedrooms, and a chapel that doubled as a basketball court.

"It was built out of all lumber, just rough lumber," he says. "Cut-off pieces, pallets, stuff like that. Anytime anybody that had any lumber leftover from a construction job, they'd bring it to him and that's what he used to build that thing with."

The treehouse rose five stories, with a steeple soaring higher still. It had classrooms, bedrooms, a kitchen. Stairs that snaked around the whole thing, like the world's longest wraparound porch. You could look down from it onto a grassy field shaped into a single word: "JESUS."

People came from far and wide to visit the arboreal wonder. Burgess offered free tours, and his creation became popular with church youth groups. Twentysomethings from Nashville would drive over to picnic. Visitors carved their names into the wood, and took turns playing on a swing that hung from the lofty rafters.

DeRossett remembers seeing the treehouse early on, then coming back years later. "I couldn't believe how big that thing had got. They just kept building on it and building on it."

It was "something you'd never seen before and probably won't again," he says. But he adds, "it would unnerve you to be in that thing if you knew anything about construction at all."

Despite the building's popularity — or perhaps because of it — the state fire marshal eventually told Burgess he had to shut it down. Burgess did, in 2012, locking the gate and posting a sign: "Closed by the state fire marshall. File your complaints with them."

People came from near and far to visit the treehouse, which some said was the world's largest.
/ Pablo Maurer
People came from near and far to visit the treehouse, which some said was the world's largest.

But the people kept coming.

Pablo Maurer was one of them. He's a journalist, originally from Nashville. In 2015, he was working on a series of photo essays about abandoned places, and the treehouse was on his list.

"It looked like a castle or a cathedral," Maurer says. He and his friend hopped the fence and explored it all. Inside were sculptures made from tree trunks, a pulpit with a hand-carved bible, and half of a basketball court.

At the top, Burgess had fashioned a church bell out of disused oxygen and acetylene tanks. "I remember climbing all the way up into the steeple, and knocking those with my hand," Maurer says, recalling the sound they made.

He says it's hard to convey the sense of peace and quiet he felt there.

"I'm pretty much an atheist, but there is something beautiful about being in a place like that," Maurer says. "That somebody constructed just to try and get in touch with some sort of higher being."

But as so often happens with wonderful things built in nature, it didn't last.

On Tuesday night, it was clear and cold in Crossville.

A hand-carved bible in the pulpit.
/ Pablo Maurer
A hand-carved bible in the pulpit.

Two city police officers were on patrol when they saw the flames above the treetops. From miles away, they knew at once what was burning.

The structure was already fully engulfed when the officers called it in, DeRossett says. By the time the firetrucks arrived, the roof had caved. The treehouse was doomed.

The property had recently been sold to a new owner, who'd said he planned to keep the treehouse. Burgess, who'd spent more than a decade building for God, had decided to start a new chapter.

It's not known how the fire started. The fire department says an investigation isn't likely — no one was injured, and the treehouse wasn't insured.

Maurer says he was deeply saddened when he learned the treehouse had burned, but he wasn't necessarily surprised. He says that back in 2015, he met Burgess' son, who said he was constantly chasing kids off the property.

In the steeple hung a church bell made of disused oxygen and acetylene tanks.
/ Pablo Maurer
In the steeple hung a church bell made of disused oxygen and acetylene tanks.

"I wouldn't call it a fire hazard, because there was no electricity to it," Maurer says. "Abandoned places become a fire hazard because people go and set fires there."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.