When he rigged a pulley system needed to build his treehouse, Peter Nelson used ropes to scale an oak tree branch 35 feet above the ground.
While that might make anyone with a fear of heights shudder, it was no biggie for Nelson, whose adventurous spirit has motivated him to climb mountains in the Soviet Union, Alaska and Argentina.
“My dream would be to put up a zip line,” he said, looking down from the treehouse he built more than 30 years ago.
For children who share that love of adventure, treehouses and playhouses represent an aide to fantasy, those forts becoming pirate ships, castles, or tea houses in their minds. Built with wood, nails and a lot of love, a good treehouse will make a child the envy of a neighborhood. And — let’s be honest here — it can also keep parents sane by deterring boredom.
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“They entertain themselves,” said Tad Walters, a Cambria resident who built both a playhouse for his daughter and a treehouse for his son about four years ago. “And it hasn’t lost its charm for them yet.”
When The Tribune asked readers to submit photos of their treehouses and clubhouses, close to 30 responded. Some of the structures photographed are more basic, while others feature modern amenities, such as electricity and cable TV.
Allen Jacobs of Atascadero built his modern treehouse 10 years ago. But his daughter, now in college, still hangs out in it.
“She just had a few friends over, and they were playing board games up there,” Jacobs said.
The treehouse started when his daughter — then 10 — said, “Let’s build something!” So they built a ladder. Jacobs, a landscaper, found supplies from an old house in Atascadero and inspiration from a book titled Glorified Sheds.” A friend with a Victorian-style home in San Luis Obispo offered an old door. And, before long, Jacobs could be found outside in the dark, hammering into the night.
“I used to not sleep really well,” he said, standing below his creation. “And to put me to sleep, I would think about building some part here.”
The inside of the treehouse features knotty pine walls, a futon, a light fixture and a Bob Marley flag. While Jacobs has two children, the treehouse has mostly been his daughter’s play pad. His son has a 25-foot teepee equipped with a fire pit, wood floor, couch and TV.
“They would have as many sleepovers as they could with their friends,” Jacobs said.
While a tree or clubhouse might not be close to the fridge or bathroom, that doesn’t necessarily hurt its appeal. Lydia Fuller, of Arroyo Grande, said her oldest son once slept for more than two months in a clubhouse his father made — “until I made him come inside to sleep in his bed on Christmas Eve,” she wrote in an email.
Ever since she was 5, Eithne Walters, now 9, has had sleepovers in the playhouse her father made, located in the garden of their Cambria home. The house, loosely based on a “Better Homes and Gardens” blueprint from the 1920s, features a loft, antique furniture, a wood-burning stove, a TV and stained-glass windows. It has both electricity and heat.
“It is built so well that if there is an earthquake, I am running out to the garden,” wrote Eithne’s mother, Hilary Walters.
Eithne does her homework in the playhouse and often eats breakfast there. But mostly, it’s a place to explore creations of the mind. Since it was built, the playhouse has been a fairytale cottage, bed-and-breakfast, beauty parlor, fashion house, movie studio, veterinarian’s office, art gallery and more.
But if you build a playhouse for one child, be prepared to hear complaints from the others.
“Once I built that, my son was like, ‘Hey!’ ” said her father, Tad.
After spending about a year on Eithne’s playhouse, he built a treehouse for his son, Ethan, 12, made mostly from the branches of the Monterey Cypress it sits in.
Before building, Ethan drew up the designs, which included a spiral staircase going up the tree.
“He was into Harry Potter and Hogwarts,” his mother said.
Elaborate, professional designs
Some of the treehouses submitted to The Tribune were built by professionals. An elaborate, mining-themed fort in Paso Robles was built by John Daniels, who coowns Daniels Wood Land, which specializes in elaborate treehouses. Contractor Charlie Main sent a treehouse that was designed by Karen Armitage, a former Disney imagineer.
But one doesn’t have to be a professional to make a treehouse. Tad Walters doesn’t have any construction training — and his jobs teaching English at Cal Poly and Cuesta College certainly don’t require hammering.
“We looked up plans online,” he said.
Peter Nelson didn’t even have the Internet when he built his treehouse — or when he built the cottagestyle home he and his wife, Suzanne, live in.
“I’m not a builder; I’m a dentist,” said Nelson, of San Luis Obispo. “But I like to build stuff.”
His kids are now 41 and 43, but his son, Scott, was just 10 when he helped his dad build the treehouse.
“He could nail, and I let him do as much as he could,” Nelson said of his son.
His son, Scott, is now a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. His daughter, Heidi, is a managing director at Goldman Sachs and the wife of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Nelson pre-made the walls of his treehouse, then used a pulley system to raise it to its home — nearly 20 feet above ground. Nine years later, Nelson would almost make it to the top of Mount Everest. He was already an experienced climber so heights didn’t bother him.
His treehouse includes a folding bunk, electricity and running water.
“We had a party up here one time with 18 people,” he said.
One year, he and his wife celebrated their anniversary up there.
“I told Suzanne we were going out for dinner, and we went and drove around Avila, and I came back, and she said, ‘What’s happening?’ I said, ‘We’re going to have dinner in the treehouse.’ ”
Their son had set up a table, with flowers and music, and served them dinner among the oaks of their yard.
More than three decades after it was built, the treehouse isn’t as sturdy as it once was. But its continued presence is a testament to its solid construction.
“I didn’t know it would last this long,” Nelson said.
Eventually, kids do move on, though, leaving it to the parents to decide what to do with the empty nests in their trees.
Mike Lee, of Atascadero, said when his son, Jake, now 6, is grown, he will keep the treehouse as a place to have lunch.
“I’ve thought about redoing it as a gazebo,” he wrote.
Tim Krauk, of Nipomo sees the playhouse he and his father made for his three children as a future playhouse for adults. “It will be Mom and Dad’s getaway.”
While Nelson’s treehouse now sits as a reminder of bygone youth, the structure is still eye candy for new generations of kids who like to make believe.
“We do a big barn party once a year, and we had, like, 150 people here yesterday,” Nelson said last month. The barn dance, which the Nelsons have put on for 20 years, features hay rides, ponies and kids who love to climb trees.
“All the kids like to come up here when we’re doing that,” he said.