100-Foot-Tall Tree House Shut Down Until Up to Code

Melissa Knowles
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A Tennessee minister is finding out the hard way that as unique and fun as tree houses can be, they have to meet some of the same requirements as ordinary homes. Horace Burgess, a 61-year-old landscape architect and part-time Christian minister in Crossville, began building his tree house 19 years ago to house his ministry. The 100-foot-tall tree house remains unfinished but is extremely popular with thousands of visitors every week. Now, though, when they come to see it, they can't get in. After its August 7 inspection, the tree house was closed by the state fire marshall for not meeting building codes.

The tree house features a winding staircase, a bell tower and a maze of rooms. There's even a light-filled sanctuary that serves as both a chapel and a basketball court. Burgess said that there has never been an injury or incident in the tree house but acknowledges that it could use some improvements. "There are probably a lot of things that could make it a lot safer and I could do a lot of things to it...at the same time, not enough worry in it to close it down." The state disagrees, and its inspection cited several needed repairs including fixing uneven decking or steps, adding guardrails and exit signs, and installing a fire alarm or sprinkler system -- which would require adding electricity and plumbing systems.

Burgess said building codes for tree houses do not exist, and none of the state's code issues are serious enough to justify closing down his tree house. "It's my idea of a tree house, and God got involved and it got a lot bigger than me."

After the state made its decision, the gate at the entrance to the tree house was padlocked, but that has not stopped visitors from showing up in hopes of seeing the famous landmark. Knoxville NBC affiliate WBIR reported that hundreds of people have been turned away since the tree house was ordered closed. Burgess says he is not discouraged and swears he will do all he can to bring things up to speed with the state and get back to serving the public with his tree house. When in operation, the tree house, which accepts donations, sells souvenirs and is open to the public.

If Burgess wants to reopen the tree house, according to a letter from the state fire marshall, he will have to hire a state-certified architect or engineer to help ensure that the tree house meets building code requirements.