Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

September 7, 2012

State Fire Marshal orders Treehouse closed

By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer

CROSSVILLE — Birds chirp and carry on in the sun as a light breeze blows, rustling leaves in the trees, and traffic roars on Interstate 40, muffled slightly by the distance. In spite of the noises that are usually dulled by the laughter of children, shrieks of teenagers and sounds of cars traveling down the gravel road, it's quiet on Beehive Lane in Crossville.

The street, home to what many locals tout as the largest treehouse in the world, is empty and vacant, as is The Treehouse, after an order to cease operations was made last week by the Tennessee State Fire Marshal's Office.

Over Labor Day weekend, thousands of visitors were forced to turn away from seeing the 10-story towering treehouse that now stands behind locked gates.

A certified letter was sent from the state office to Horace Burgess, the man who has spent the past 19 years building The Treehouse, ordering the site closed due to safety concerns from the state.

"The State Fire Marshal's office has determined that the building presents an imminent safety hazard to the public. You must close the building to the public IMMEDIATELY," the letter states.

Although there has been a tidal wave of reaction to the closure on the Internet websites, it's unfortunate that what makes The Treehouse so unique also plays a big part in why the state determined it needed to be closed.

According to the letter, "The State Fire Marshal's office found that 'The Treehouse' is open to the public, receives donations for maintenance, provides advertisement brochures, and sells souvenirs to visitors of the site. It has become an area attraction, and therefore, is required to comply with adopted buildIng codes pursuant to T.C.A. 68-120-101 and 68-120-102 and Tennessee Rules & Regulations. 0780-02-02 [Codes and Standards]."

The letter was prompted after a citizen complained to the state with safety concerns and the State Fire Marshal's office paid The Treehouse a visit.

Ironically, just a couple of month's ago, The Tennessee Department of Tourism visited The Treehouse during a tour of state tourist attractions.

According to the fire marshal's letter, violations that need to be addressed are as follows:

• The building is over the code allowable height by 60 feet and is eight stories over the allowable number of stories.

• There has been no registered design professional involved in its construction.

• There does not appear to be a systematic load distribution system. The structural stability of the building is questionable. Floors are severely sloped; joist spans and spacing have created floors that deflect when stepping on them. Joists and studs are scabbed together with nails.

• Floor decking is uneven in places and presents a tripping hazard.

• In many places, the step rise is too high and the step run is too short. At least two ladders have missing rungs.

• There are many fall hazards resulting from areas with no guard rails and no hand rails.

• Exits are not obvious or marked and navigating the building is difficult. The building is maze-like in design, and we overheard several people asking how to get down to the next floor level.

• There is no fire alarm, fire sprinkler system, or fire extinguisher apparatus present.

The letter was sent by Christopher Bainbridge, director of codes enforcement Tennessee State Fire Marshal's office.

Bainbridge wrote in the letter that he would be willing to work with Burgess to discuss options for reopening The Treehouse.

Bainbridge visited The Treehouse Aug. 7 with several others from the office to look at the structure.

"If you wish to work toward a resolution to open the building to the public, you must first hire a state registered design professional (an architect or engineer) to assess the building's structural stability and building and fire code compliance. Then, a plan to remedy the findings should be submitted to our office for review and approval. Our office is willing to meet with your designated professional designers and assist with suggested remedies," Bainbridge states in the letter.

The letter continues, "Nevertheless, until such a plan has been submitted, assessed, and approved by the State Fire Marshal's office, you will be required to close the building to the public and make it unavailable for public visitation, church services, or other events..."

The State Fire Marshal has this authority under Tennessee Code Annotated TCA 68-120-107.

A Crossville resident took her concerns online and started a petition, urging the state to allow Burgess to reopen The Treehouse to the public.

Natosha Carson of Crossville started a petition on to reopen the facility.

"Horace is a humble man that has touched our lives. The Treehouse should be reopened," Carson states in the petition.

In a telephone interview Carson said, "I agree with the individuals that argue that there are improvements to be made for the safety of the public. I, however, disagree with the way the Fire Marshall's office imposed building codes of other structures onto this one. The Fire Marshall's Office has a unique opportunity, and in my opinion, a responsibility here to work with Horace and this community to design specific codes for an entirely new type of structure that's been deemed an area attraction. Instead of simply closing it down, work with him and the community to not only create but implement those changes ..."

Carson said she stated the petition to avoid negativity and make a change in her community.

"This was a vision a man dedicated years of his life to. It's unfair to simply take that away. There are so many negative reactions in the world today especially in social media, I felt like this was one way to use those usually negative venues to bring about a positive change in my community. Horace's personal vision was a positive one. It's a distraction from that message to resort to negativity," Carson said.

Burgess said he started building the Treehouse in 1993 after he received a vision from God.

"It's God's treehouse," Burgess has said.

In less than 24 hours of posting the petition, Carson said there were more than 200 signatures from people all over the United States asking that the tree house not only be reopened, but stories as to why it matters so much.

As of Thursday morning there were more than 800 signatures and an outpouring of stories of love and support for Burgess and The Treehouse.

Carson said, "(The closing) impacts our local commerce and economy in a negative way to close down an area attraction. The money is lost that visitors bring to all of Crossville when coming to visit the Treehouse. People have written on Internet sites that they have traveled to Crossville this Labor Day weekend from different states, just to visit the Treehouse, only to find the gates locked. This petition along with the Facebook group Minister's Tree House Petition, are raising awareness of this issue, calling volunteers to do necessary work, gather donations all in the hopes of bringing about a positive resolution while reopening the popular local attraction."

However, in spite of the petition, the State Fire Marshal's office says the choice of upgrading The Treehouse is up to Burgess.

"The state has adopted the 2006 International Building Code and 2006 International Fire Code. These codes do not specifically address tree houses; however, the building in question is by no means a traditional tree house used for personal recreation. It has a sanctuary that could accommodate at least 50 people, has thousands of square feet and is 10 stories tall. Also, it is an area attraction drawing 100 visitors per day, making safety a very important issue," Christopher Garrett, director of communications of the Tennessee State Fire Marshal's office said in a written statement.

"We have seen comments on news sites and have received phone calls from concerned residents who feared the closure had to do with something other than public safety. Again, that’s not the case, and we stand ready to work with Mr. Burgess and any registered design professional he could hire to bring the structure into compliance with building codes," Garrett wrote.

Burgess, who was out of town on Wednesday for a few vacation days, said he needed to get away and relax and think about everything.

"It's been a long time since I've been able to take a few days," Burgess said over the telephone.

"I really don't want to talk about it much right now, but I will talk with you when I get back into town. I would like to thank everybody for their support and thank them for all for enjoying (The Treehouse) while it was available," Burgess said.

When asked what he was going to do concerning The Treehouse, Burgess said, "I'm still thinking about it, but I won't upgrade it into a business. I'd like to just try and keep it as a treehouse. Right now, I don't know," Burgess said.

Burgess said he would follow up with the Chronicle after any decisions were made about the future of The Treehouse.