- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006


eter Lewis’ hideaway sits a third of the way up a 105-foot white pine, with bird’s-eye views of his old farmhouse, its back lawn and the forest canopy. It’s a quiet place with no distractions where he can read, write, daydream or nap.

“It’s the place where I go when the world gets too loud. I think everybody should have a place like that,” says Mr. Lewis, 46, who conceived the two-story treehouse as an antidote for what he calls “adult-onset adolescence” and in the process gave birth to an award-winning book.

A local landmark weighing three tons, the timber-framed hexagonal treehouse is suspended by cables strung over a crotch in the 200-year-old tree. It’s very different from the treehouse Mr. Lewis, at age 8 or 9, built with his dad at their home in Connecticut and tore down a few years later because “it was a kid thing.”

His midlife version is a 250-square-foot insulated retreat — five times larger than originally planned — with two porches, 21 windows, a small coal-burning stove, a futon, a desk, a spiral staircase, a retractable drawbridge whose steps lead up to the house and an upstairs chess room with chess pieces made from twigs, pine cones and acorns.

When the wind blows, the structure sways gently, a feeling not unlike standing on a floating dock. It gets interesting when the gusts exceed 40 mph, Mr. Lewis says.

How his vision expanded beyond a garden-variety treehouse and created a project that drew in friends and family is detailed in “Treehouse Chronicles: One Man’s Dream of Life Aloft,” put out by the author’s niche publishing company in Conway, N.H., whose areas of expertise include wilderness medicine and rock climbing.

The handsome volume, by Mr. Lewis and illustrator, friend and co-worker Ted Walsh, 47, was an outgrowth of the journal Mr. Lewis kept as the project unfolded. From the start, the two builders wanted to go beyond a how-to book and tell the story through the eyes of the people involved.

“I wanted to make it a book about a bunch of people who are mostly middle-age doing something really silly just for the heck of it,” Mr. Lewis says.

He and Mr. Walsh worked on the treehouse and the book simultaneously, a process that encouraged them to include distinctive features — such as a secret door lock or the hand-carved chess set — that they otherwise might have dismissed as beyond the pale.

“The two fueled each other. We used the fact that we were doing this book to justify some of the more fun things which essentially we wanted to do,” Mr. Walsh says. “But without the fun things, the book wouldn’t have been nearly as whimsical or as interesting.”

Mr. Lewis, who tapped out his $5,000 in savings for the project, managed to build the treehouse on a shoestring. The biggest expense — labor — was free, and he scrounged most of the building materials, including discarded windows, leftover steel for the roof and scrap wood for floors and stairs.

The timber-framing technique had the builders working with large pieces of wood, chisels, mallets and pegs instead of traditional lumber, hammers and nails. No bolts were placed in the tree, leaving it undamaged.

Construction took almost three years, largely because the men did most of the work while suspended from ropes. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Walsh are both experienced rock climbers, as is Mr. Lewis’ son, Jeremiah, a teenage daredevil who did much of the rigging from heights of up to 90 feet.

Their nemesis, the erstwhile villain of the book, is Vinny the thug squirrel, who made himself at home in the treehouse, chewing insulation and gnawing on pieces of wood. He remains there to this day.

The project unfolded after Mr. Lewis, his wife and their two children moved to Maine from Colorado.

Mr. Lewis got the idea while his family was watching the movie “Apollo 13” in another room and he heard Walter Cronkite report Neil Armstrong’s 1969 landing on the moon. That set Mr. Lewis’ mind back to his boyhood and the day he climbed down from his old treehouse with a bucket on his head like a make-believe astronaut.

“It’s kind of a common theme in our family,” he says. “A screwball idea leads to who knows where.”

It was Jeremiah, Mr. Lewis says, who pressed to make the treehouse more elaborate and add a second floor.

“Even now, he thinks it’s too small and not complicated enough and way too close to the ground,” Mr. Lewis says.

The book was completed in 2005, a year after the treehouse. It went on to win the 2006 Independent Publisher Book Award in architecture and was named a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award finalist.

The book also won praise from Peter Nelson of the Treehouse Workshop in Seattle, who designs treehouses throughout the country and has turned out four treehouse books of his own.

Mr. Nelson, who has built treehouses ranging in price from $50,000 to more than $300,000, says the adult market for such structures is exploding, with the baby-boom generation fueling the demand.

“We’re rule breakers, and we love to do things that maybe our parents didn’t do,” he says, noting that treehouses can provide an extra bedroom, a smoking room, an office, an art studio — or simply “a place to get away from the kids.”

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