Last October, I was shocked to learn that the largest treehouse in the world burned down to the ground. I say the word “shocked” but perhaps that is a poor choice of words considering the place was violating every fire marshal building code in existence. It would only take a single spark to set that place ablaze and I suppose that is what finally happened. On the night of October 22, 2019, a fire reduced the ten-story treehouse to ashes in only 15 minutes.
Despite its tragic end, the Minister’s Treehouse deserves an article to commemorate the joy and intrigue that it brought to the residents and visitors to Crossville, Tennessee. I was among those curious adventure seekers who were lured to the town in search of the world’s largest treehouse. In 2015, I had the opportunity to hop the fence and explore what lied within its walls.
Every Good Road Trip Starts With an Adventure
We were on a 13-hour road trip between Nashville and Washington DC and were on the look-out for quirky roadside attractions which would make for a good adventure. Atlas Obscura has never failed us when it comes to finding amusing roadside oddities such as the Dinosaur Kingdom in Natural Bridge, or off-the-grid communities like Greenbank. This time, we found the Winchester House of treehouses…the Minister’s Treehouse in Crossville, Tennessee.
The World’s Largest Treehouse
In 1993 Minister Horace Burgess received a vision from God prompting him to begin construction on what would become the world’s largest treehouse. At one point Burgess ran out of both resources and motivation to continue with the project, but it was then that he heard the voice of God.
“If you build me a treehouse, I’ll never let you run out of material.”
With his enthusiasm renewed and a replenished supply of reclaimed wood, he labored for 11 years until his dream became a reality. In 2012, The Guinness World Records officials confirmed Burgess’s title for the largest treehouse in the world. At the time, it stood 97 feet tall with 80 rooms, secret staircases, a chapel, an indoor basketball court, and even a tower leading to an operating belfry.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after that the Fire Marshall forced the closure of this architectural wonder for violating local fire codes. (Burgess always stood by the argument that there are no fire codes for treehouses.) Nonetheless, we did our research and came to the conclusion that despite the one posted sign warning against trespassers, the site still had its share of visitors. If you know Scott and me, you know that we are not ones to be left out of an adventure.
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A Childhood Dream Falling into Gentle Ruin
We were already in a state of awe before entering the treehouse. I mean this is like our childhood dream times 10,000 just standing there in front of us. With 5 floors and 80 rooms, countless balconies, and stairwells, where do you even start? We took off in different directions.
I headed straight up the winding staircase and followed one of the corridors until it led into what must have been the chapel. A large cross draped with a purple cloth stood in the middle of the atrium. Looking straight up I had my first glimpse at all the floors above which peered into the chapel. Crisp fall leaves blew across the wooden floor and over my feet as I continued to explore the room with my eyes. Rows of church pews filled the chapel, a carved wooden bible was placed on top of an altar, and a random basketball hoop was mounted in the corner of the room above a chalkboard tablet of the ten commandments.
I continued my exploration, making sure to carefully investigate each and every room I could find. Some rooms were filled with overturned furniture and others with old school desks similar to the ones I grew up with in the 90’s. Long hallways were dotted with the painted handprints of children, reminiscent of the haunted corridors of the Sanatorio Durán. The next cooridor led me to a room filled with carved statues. The faces were carved with such precision capturing every wrinkle and emotion, however the bottom of each statue was almost left unfinished. It was truly eerie, looking into the eyes of these life-size statues while imagining the hand who had created them and then abandoned them.
Ascending the bell tower I could detect the slight swaying of the structure. I made my way past the belfry and surfaced the platform, the highest point of the treehouse. I stood there for about 10 minutes taking in everything I had read about the Minister’s treehouse and comparing it with what I had observed. Starting to feel a little uneasy from all the swaying, I made my way down the creaking staircases and out the same way which I had entered.
Meandering through the maze of rooms and hallways, I couldn’t help but admire the sheer magnitude of the place and the level of workmanship that went into building it. A 10,000 square foot treehouse supported by 6 giant oaks and more than 250,000 nails.
It is just a shame that people had left their unwanted mark on this place: graffiti and tagging were found in every room of the treehouse; windows were left smashed; beer bottles rolled across the floor and under the pews.
Many had hoped that Burgess would one day return to the treehouse to restart construction. Unfortunately, we now know the outcome of this story. The Minister’s Treehouse is no more, but those who were able to experience it will always be left with the memories of a nostalgic tribute to our childhoods.
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