A treehouse can be a child’s sanctuary. Sometimes, it can be an adult’s wish fulfilled.
Where Darren Sharpless grew up, in the New York City borough of Queens, no trees had the potential to hold any structure. “Every tree in New York is on a maintenance schedule,” he said. “It’s on a list somewhere.”
Likewise, in the Virgin Islands, where Sharpless lived nearly half his life, suitable trees got protection as a part of national heritage. “They’ve outlasted hurricanes, and you hang on to those trees,” he said.
Sharpless, a carpenter since beginning work in a wood shop at age 16, never let the idea leave his mind, a treehouse dreamer. Any drive became a reason for mental inventory ... “Hey, that would be a good tree.”
Then came that sugar maple.
It stood behind the business he bought near Rock Port, Missouri, the tree on a hill overlooking rolling fields below and wind turbines in the near distance. Solid below and spreading in its upper reaches, the maple had the look of accommodation.
Bingo! Sharpless found what he had been looking for.
He explains this under his creation at a picnic table of his construction. He points up to the wooden deck among the leaves and limbs, accessible by a winch-driven retractable ladder.
“I made the foundation,” he said. “Now comes the imagination.”
This long-held desire seems in tune with the times. Travel websites revel these days in treehouse hotels, glam and rustic. A television program, “Treehouse Masters,” ran for a number of years on a cable network, employing themes from medieval to après-ski.
Sharpless enjoyed this show without finding it fully instructive. He wanted the hands-on knowledge of how to anchor the structure, the best ways to distribute weight, the down-and-dirty techniques of building off the ground.
More to the point, he knew that all his previous buildings needed an immovable base but this one required flexibility. The tree grows and shifts.
“It has to be able to sway and move and bend. You have to account for all of that, especially the growth and the wind,” he said.
He had moved his family to Rock Port in 2013. Having lived on both coasts and in the Virgin Islands, Sharpless found life in those places too expensive. He also wanted a safe place to raise his children, and he felt construction work had a limited life span for him.
A friend of his father owned a liquor store on U.S. Highway 136 in Atchison County, and Sharpless came to Rock Port to study the place. He even met with the school principal.
“I got a really good feel for family. I thought people really looked out for the kids,” Sharpless said.
He kept up handyman work for a few years after relocating, and he sold wooden yard furniture to supplement the income of the business. When the store began to find its footing, the builder started the treehouse as a summer project.
An instrument exists, he would learn, to bear the weight of the structure, called TABS, short for Tree Anchor Bolt System. From seven of these placements, he figured the structure would hold at least 35,000 pounds. He added a 4-by-4 support on one side to add to the base.
He built a model for the ladder, sorting through various ideas for ease of use and to keep intruders out. Unless someone brings an electrical source, the ladder will not lower.
In recent weeks, Sharpless finished the treehouse, though “finished” seems a fluid term. Once business returns to normal after a flood-slowed spring and summer, he intends to build higher.
“I want to go with a second floor. I’m thinking two bedrooms,” he said. “My friends want me to put electricity in it. Maybe I’ll run the wires. There’s electricity not far from here. There’s a septic tank right over there. I could put a toilet in if I wanted to.”
If a treehouse recalls childhood, it need not only do that. Adulthood requires some amenities, and where there is a will, and a dream and a sugar maple, there is a way.