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Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015

Tree house gets a second lease on life

Thursday, September 15, 2011

(Photo)
The tree house in T.J. and Flo Hall's back yard gets a second lease on life after its recent reconstruction. From left are Cliff Hirst and Chris Morris, who did the remodeling, Hall, and Prince.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves) [Order this photo]
When T.J. Hall saw some of his 26 grandchildren hauling scrap lumber into the black walnut in his backyard 16 years ago, he thought they had a pretty good idea -- but their engineering skills needed a little bit of help. So he built them a tree house.

Not just any tree house. The wide deck, complete with a fence for safety's sake, was big enough for the grandkids and over the years, it hosted picnics, sleepovers, dinner parties, and even a wine party with a Pulitzer Prize winner.

"Over the years, people from all over the world have been in it," said Hall, who operates a bed & breakfast out of his Bell Buckle home with his wife Florence. "New Zealand, Korea ..."

New look

But after 16 years, the tree house had seen better days. With the grandchildren growing and going, most folks might be content to let that arboreal playground come down, but the Halls' friends weren't having it.

"We'd had a lot of great memories there, a lot of great times," said Cliff Hirst, a friend of the family. "The deck was getting unsafe, so for that last year, it wasn't functional. We started getting on to T.J. and Flo about making it operational again."

It might have been easier said than done if it hadn't been for Hirst and another friend, Chris Morris. When the tree house first went up, T.J. did most of the work himself, with his son Dan helping with the platform deck and the grandchildren hauling supplies. This time, Morris, a jack-of-all-trades who includes nursing, music writing and contractor on his resumé, headed the building crew.

"It was just Cliff and T.J. and me," said Morris. "We did the deconstruction in one day, put the joists in the next day and finished it the third day."

Guests arrive

The new tree house was up and ready in time for the Celebration guests to enjoy -- and they did.

"We had Celebrators," joked Morris.

The tree house may have been built with children and grandchildren in mind, but the grown-ups have had their share of fun up in the branches.

"We've had dinner parties up here with as many as 12 people -- and two dogs," said Hall. "The dogs love it up here. There's a part that's the 'dog porch' and they just lie down and stay there."

For the first four years of the tree house's existence, the dogs must have found it hard to get up in the trees. The only way to climb up was a regular wooden ladder.

"We had a hoist to pull up a tray with food and drinks on it," said Hirst. "The pulley is still there."

Easier climb

The ladder was replaced with a set of stairs, still very steep, but bracketed with handrails.

"It's basically a slanted ladder with rails," said Hirst. "It keeps the integrity of the tree house look."

Keeping -- and even enhancing -- the integrity of the tree house look was foremost in his and Morris' mind when they designed the reconstruction.

"It has almost a Frank Lloyd Wright feel to it now," said Hall. "The first tree house was not this nice, quite frankly."

In fact, the platform and its fenced surrounding do have the clean, minimalist lines of the Arts & Crafts architectural style, blending well in the tree and the backyard of Hall's 112-year-old house.

Historic look

The idea behind Wright's concept of "organic architecture" was that structures should be built in harmony with its surroundings -- something that Morris and Hirst definitely achieved.

They didn't have to replace all of the old tree house, however. The original support beams are even older than the Halls' house.

"I got those from an old Victorian house in Shelbyville," said Hall, who estimated them to be at least 116 years old. "They're still holding tight."

Twinkle lights are wrapped around the branches of the tree and at night, the deck takes on a decidedly festive flair. It has hosted parties and receptions, or just solitary visitors wanting to rise above the hustle and bustle of the world for a few quiet moments of peace in the leaves.

Canine company

Not all of those visitors have been human, either.

"We had one dog that got injured," said Hall. "She'd stay up here all the time until her leg healed."

Sitting in a chair far above the ground, surrounded by leaves and breezes, it's easy to see why the dog preferred this roost. You can hear children laughing down the street and see the Methodist Church next door. A neighbor's pools sparkles fiercely blue just beyond the fence and Flo's garden, complete with a beckoning hammock, is spread out all around.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Hirst. "It's good to have it back."