Hearthbeat: Way Up in the Trees
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
One of my favorite childhood movies was “Swiss Family Robinson.” I was fascinated by the house they built as separate rooms with wood walls and bamboo/reed roofing high up in the trees on branches at different heights. In one magical scene, Mrs. Robinson pulls a cord that opens a roof panel to reveal the sky. For months, I begged my parents to construct a tree house in our tall walnut tree but to no avail.
In Talbot County, one family built a dual-level tree house with a zipline. The parents respected the tree as a living thing, so the self-supported tree house was built around (not on) the tree, and the supports, decks and railings were stained to blend in with the tree.
An open-riser stair takes you to the first level, where you have several choices for exploring: relax on the deck, shimmy down a pole to the ground, fly through the air on the zipline, climb the sloped ladder to the second deck high in the tree, or make use of another ingenious design feature. A roped screen stretches between two large branches like a huge hammock between the two decks. During the day, the twins could climb the hammock between the tree branches without harming the tree. At night, the rope hammock becomes a space to recline and study the stars.
Homes can also be built for those who wish to spend time among the treetops. Architect Peter Newlin designed such a home for an ornithologist who had purchased a site and built a small one-room cabin as her weekend getaway. The cabin is nestled in a wooded area surrounded by conifers, mature deciduous trees, native plants, a creek, and a marsh that attracts birds and other wildlife.
The ornithologist then asked Newlin to design a three-story addition so she could better observe the different species of birds who seek various heights for feeding or nesting areas. The conifers on the property provide shelter, nest sites, and food for birds who prefer high spaces.
The wild grasses and weeds provide cover for ground-nesting birds, and their seeds provided abundant food for many other types of birds. Trees that bear fruit in autumn, such as dogwoods and berry plants, provide food for migratory birds and allow nonmigratory birds to fatten up to face the food challenges in winter. The oaks and other trees provide food for jays, titmice, woodpeckers as well as nesting habitats for many other species.
Newlin designed a tower that was inserted into the site as carefully as possible for minimum invasion of wildlife habitat. The hipped roof of the original cabin inspired the shed roof of the wraparound porch that connects the cabin to the tower. Multiple windows allowed for views of the serene landscape and, when opened, a way to listen to the birds. The ornithologist especially liked the second-floor deck off her bedroom so she could view her avian companions.
I recently visited the house with Newlin to meet the current and third owner, who is a renowned photographer. The original design has adapted beautifully to changes in the floor plan and massing. The owner said the second owner added the inglenook with a fireplace on the main floor, the ground floor deck along the creek ,and a screened walkway to a free-standing screened porch.
The original one-story cabin is now the photographer’s office. The sitting room with its original posts around the center that delineated the comfortable upholstered seating area now seamlessly expands into the inglenook addition. The ceiling of the third-floor sitting room was pitched on all four sides to better reflect the sunlight throughout the day.
This house won a Citation of Merit from the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Both an ornithologist and a photographer have found peace and serenity here high in the trees.
Tree House Construction:
Greg Kessinger, Ksquare
Zip Line Installation:
Mark Eppard, Bartlett Tree Experts
Tower House Design:
Architecture by Peter Newlin of Chesapeake Architects,