The Magic of Tree Houses

The world is full of nice, ordinary little people who live in nice, ordinary little houses on the ground. But didn’t you ever dream of a house up on a tree top?”
—From the movie, “Swiss Family Robinson,” 1960

“There is no greater feeling than to be perched way high up in a tree.”
— David Stiles

Tree houses began as a safe refuge for early man. Historically, they served as a practical way to rise above the dangers of predators on the ground. Even today in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, the natives build their houses as high as 150 feet in the forest canopy for protection and to commune with nature. In Roman times, tree houses began to take on a new shape, becoming a source of amusement and delight, rather than practicality and function. Emperor Caligula held banquets up in a tree top room for his guests. Captain Cook observed tree dwellers in Tasmania in the 1700s who lowered themselves in baskets to the ground. As more explorers traveled to the far regions of the world, they discovered more tree houses, and soon, everyone from France to England wanted one.

Fast forward to modern times and the tree house still enchants us. Custom designs for everyone from kids to adults redefine the tree house of the past. John Lennon had one. So did Winnie the Pooh, Tarzan and Jane, and even Winston Churchill. HRH The Prince of Wales commissioned a tree house to be built for his young princes’ amusement.

Few children can deny the sheer joy of a tree house. In that lofty perch high above the ground, imaginations soar and the wooden box nested amid the leaves transforms into something magical — a pirate ship sailing the open seas, an army fort surviving the blows of countless attackers or an enchanted castle floating in the clouds. These whimsical tree top worlds are created by a society of the young — or the young at heart — with one strict rule: Parents — Keep Out!

The tree house fantasies of my youth came from the classic novel, “Swiss Family Robinson,” the story of a shipwrecked family whose survival tale included building a house in the trees. Today’s children are enchanted by literature from the writer Mary Pope Osborne. In her series “The Magic Tree House,” the children, Jack and Annie, discover a rope ladder in the woods behind their house. It leads them to a tree house that spirits them away on fantastic adventures to other times.

Why is a tree house magical? David Stiles, the co-author of “Treehouses & Playhouses You Can Build,” explains it this way: “For kids it is a way to separate themselves from the home base, from family and parents. It gives them a feeling of liberty — cautious liberty. A tree house is a place of their own domain, and when they get up there, they are the boss.” Jeanie Stiles, his wife and co-author, adds, “It becomes their sanctuary. Being up in the trees, one level up and surrounded by trees is a whole different vista, and when you look out it is a lofty feeling. Kids love it.”

David Stiles grew up in New Jersey with an undeveloped property behind his house. In this enormous back yard he was free to build tree houses, forts and huts, earning himself the nickname “Hut Nut” that he has to this day. After he grew up, he worked as an architectural renderer for New York’s leading architectural firms, where he met his wife, Jeanie. Together, they have written and illustrated more than 21 “how to” books on backyard structures.

“The most fun type is the tree house book,” Jeanie says, “because you’re dealing with imagination, whimsy and kids.” The duo have created more than 100, including a treeless tree house built in Rockefeller Plaza for “The Today Show.”

With five kids in their blended family, David and Jeanie naturally have a tree house in their own back yard, “Our back yard always had all the kids in the neighborhood,” says Jeanie. And even their grown boys still enjoy it. “Every time they come home, they rush out to the tree house. Of course they have to stoop to get in it.”

Tree-top dwellings come in many shapes and sizes, offering children refuge from the daily routine of homework, responsibility and chores. Whether built by the trained hands of a carpenter or pieced together by Mom and Dad with little more than scraps of wood and nails, a tree house is a delight and a magnet for children of all ages.