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Rediscover Childhood With Some Totally Terrific Tree Houses

A "tree housewarming" on Saturday launches Tyler Arboretum's new exhibit. And more large-scale tree houses are on display at Longwood Gardens.

by Denise Cowie - 5/27/2008

The birds at Tyler Arboretum in Delaware County must be wondering just what kind of neighbors will be moving into the strange and wonderful new abodes that have been taking shape in their arboreal world this spring.

Some of these houses among the trees feature whimsical animals. … Dangling ropes that ring bells. … A pink elephant tiptoeing along a branch.

A pink elephant?


But these tree houses aren’t for the birds.

As the avian neighbors will discover at the grand opening event on Saturday, these tree houses are for humans celebrating trees.

The fantastic structures are all part of Tyler’s Totally Terrific Treehouses: Where Imagination Goes Out on a Limb, an ambitious exhibition of one-of-a-kind tree houses designed and built by local architects, landscape architects, builders, potters, metalworkers, students, and artists.

A Tree Housewarming for ‘Totally Terrific Treehouses’

The exhibition opens this Saturday, May 31, with a “Tree Housewarming” and numerous tree-oriented events. The tree houses will remain on display through September 28.

The designs of the 17 tree houses that are scattered throughout the arboretum were selected in a juried competition. Some were designed and built by one person; others were created by teams of professionals or groups of neighbors and friends.

And their approaches vary widely. Some are playful – “Scared Silly” was dreamed up by a group of young fathers and features a pink elephant – while others are inspirational – “Thoreau’s Cabin” offers a full-size replica of the famed writer’s home at Walden Pond.

As Tyler describes it, “From the elegantly simple to the fantastically elaborate, each house is designed to inspire wonder and appreciation for trees.”

Some of the tree houses are at or near ground level, though others are up in the trees. But no trees were harmed in the creation of these tree houses – the winning proposals were required to safeguard the health of the trees and respect the natural environment.

More tree houses at Longwood Gardens

Tyler’s aren’t the only tree houses wowing visitors to the region’s public gardens this summer.

Last month, Longwood Gardens in Chester County launched Nature’s Castles, an exhibit of three extraordinary tree houses that will be open to the public until November 23.

These large-scale tree houses are the work of specialist builders, and again, preserving the trees’ health and environment was of paramount importance.

One of Longwood’s tree houses, “Lookout Loft,” is an Adirondack-style structure with two separate viewing platforms, one covered by a roof, the other by a trellis, and connected by a walkway. It was designed by Forever Young Treehouses of Burlington, Vermont, and occupies a total of 720 square feet. A large ramp leading up into the treehouse allows for universal access.

The other two tree houses in Longwood’s exhibit were designed by Peter Nelson of TreeHouse Workshop Inc. in Seattle, Washington. The “Canopy Cathedral” (pictured at bottom right) is an ornate two-story house inspired by a Norwegian Stave Church, and features beautiful hand-carved wood throughout and a large deck overlooking the Italian Water Garden.

The third of Longwood’s Castles is “The Birdhouse,” a cedar structure that rises nearly 20 feet above the ground and offers a true bird’s-eye view of the surrounding Peirce’s Woods.

Students depict aid for Katrina victims

Back at Tyler Arboretum, a group of students from the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades has constructed a tree house that exemplifies their message of “building a better world.”

Their exhibit, titled “Williamson Serves,” illustrates the students’ experiences rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. (Representation of exhibit is pictured second from bottom at right.)

Months before the students began working on the construction of the tree house, Jim Bradley, a senior at Williamson in the carpentry program, talked about what it meant to the group.

“We wanted to incorporate something that meant a lot to us, the carpentry shop, and the school,” Bradley wrote. “One of the first things that came to mind was the aiding in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. So that’s what the theme of our tree houses became.

“There are three houses in the plans; they are all built six feet off the ground on top of 12-foot by 12-foot platforms.

“The first one is a portrayal of what the houses looked like when we arrived. Most of the homes we worked on were uninhabitable, gutted completely, just rough framing remained of them.

“You walk across a suspended catwalk to the second house, and the idea for this house was to display all of the pictures we took in Mississippi, of before and after our work on these houses. This second house will be clear plexi-glass so we can post pictures facing in and outside the house.

“If you keep walking you will walk across another catwalk to our third house. This third house is a portrayal of the same house from the first platform, but this house is complete. So basically we are taking some of those before and after pictures and bringing them to life with our tree houses."

Evoking memories from childhood

Most of the tree houses don’t document such earth-shattering events, of course. Some are whimsical, or explore the structure of a tree, or pay tribute to the animals that live in the woods.

(See the conceptual drawings for several of the tree houses – exhibits titled “Nesting,” “Arboreal Adventum,” and “The Birch House” – from top right.)

“Tree houses evoke cherished memories for many people,” says Tyler Arboretum Executive Director Richard Colbert. “Totally Terrific Treehouses invites visitors to relive those memories.”

Tyler Arboretum and other environmental organizations have even coined a word to describe the study of trees and how to enjoy them: Treeology.

There will be lots of treeology happening at Tyler during Totally Terrific Treehouses, including two self-guided tours that will help visitors learn more about Tyler’s native and historic trees:

The Native Woodland Walk Tour explores the diverse community of the native woodlands from the majestic canopy trees to the graceful understory.

The Painter Heritage Tour steps back in time to highlight trees planted by the Arboretum’s 19th-century founders, including five state champions that are the biggest of their kind in Pennsylvania.

For more information about Totally Terrific Treehouses, visit

For more information about Nature's Castles, visit

Events for Saturday's 'Tree Housewarming'

Tyler Arboretum celebrates the opening of Totally Terrific Treehouses: Where Imagination Goes Out on a Limb with a Tree Housewarming on Saturday, May 31, from noon to 4 p.m.

Tours, displays, activities, crafts, and entertainment throughout the afternoon explore the diverse nature of trees that inspired this exhibition of one-of-a-kind tree houses designed and built by local artisans.

All Tree Housewarming activities are included with admission. (Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors (65+), $4 for children (3-15), and free for children under age 3.) The first 500 Tree Housewarming visitors receive a tree seedling.

Tyler Arboretum is located at 515 Painter Road off Route 352 in Media, Pa. The Arboretum opens at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 8:00 p.m. on May 31. For more information, call 610-566-9134 or visit

Live woodland animals and insects from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Insectarium
Woodland creatures from two Philadelphia museums are on the guest list for the Tree Housewarming. The Academy of Natural Sciences presents Animal Encounters, 1:00–3:00 pm, featuring box and wood turtles, snakes, rabbits, and raptors. Insects that live in and underneath trees take a daytrip from The Insectarium to join the festivities, 12:30–3:30 pm, while the costumed character Woodsy the Owl strolls throughout the Arboretum, asking visitors to “give a hand, care for the land.”

Fairy houses and craft activities
What kind of house would a tree fairy like? Children can use their imaginations and the Arboretum’s bounty of bark, seeds, acorns, pods, twigs, and grasses to create a tiny home for fantasy creatures that dwell in trees. Visitors can also create souvenirs of the day during ongoing make-and-take tree craft activities.

Performances by singer/songwriter Mary Roth
Singer/songwriter Mary Roth performs environmental songs for children at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 pm. Mary accompanies herself with dulcimer, Celtic drum, and guitar, singing with what Joan Wider of the Peace Center of Delaware County has described as a "beautiful voice with a stirring message."

Learn treeology with tree activities, exhibits, and talks
Tyler Arboretum has coined the word treeology to describe the study of trees and how to enjoy them. Tree Housewarming guests can hunt for Tree Treasures using a special map, make a Playhouse Tree House with sticks and logs, or check out Tree Adventure Discovery Packs that contain tree field guides, binoculars, magnifying glasses, storybooks on trees, and suggestions on how to use them. Throughout the afternoon, professional arborist Robert Dugan offer tips on how to identify and select trees.
Representatives and displays from numerous environmental organizations offer guidance on what, where and how to learn about trees in the Delaware Valley. Participants include: The American Chestnut Foundation, Big Trees of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Tree-Vitalize Program, Habitat Resource Network of Southeastern PA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Department.

Tours of historic trees, library and home
Throughout the day, visitors can step back in time and imagine what it was like to be Jacob and Minshall Painter, the Arboretum’s founders. Tours of their home and library offer a fascinating glimpse of the daily life and studies of these 19th-century nature lovers.

Tree tours highlight historic specimens planted by the Painter brothers, including five state champions that are the biggest of their kind in Pennsylvania. Tours of the Wister Collections showcase trees planted by Dr. John Wister, the famed 20th-century horticulturist and the Arboretum’s first director.

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