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Arboreal architecture

2010-08-01T00:05:00Z Arboreal architectureBy EVE BYRON, Independent Record Helena Independent Record
August 01, 2010 12:05 am  • 

On a private piece of paradise surrounded by the Helena National Forest sits a treehouse that most kids would give up their summer vacation to live in.

The bedroom, living room and kitchen, about 10 feet off the ground and suspended from three Douglas fir trees, have an astounding array of accouterments packed into a mere 190 square feet. Look under the countertop for the wine rack. Use the strategically placed knobs on the wall to climb up to the bed loft. A cupola above the bed provides standing room for dressing and windows for a breeze. The futon couch folds out for company. Cupboards built into the bottom of the loft hold matches and other supplies.

Walk across the treehouse’s deck to a second, two-story building that’s the utility room on the bottom level and a bathroom on the upper portion. Around the back is a climbing wall. Don’t forget to check out the folf course. And try not to fall into the creek, which flows underneath the treehouse.

“Every 12-year-old boy dreams of having a cool fort,” Kalvin Wille says with a broad grin. “We have one.”

The treehouse is the brainchild of Kalvin, his wife Virginia Wille, and their friends Chad and Lori FitzGerald. They were looking for a little piece of property in the mid 1990s, and stumbled across a three-line classified ad in the newspaper saying this parcel was for sale.

Kalvin notes that they wanted to build something small but weren’t sure of much beyond that. Then in 1997, they saw a Smithsonian magazine cover featuring a beautiful adult treehouse.

“We went, ‘Oh boy,’ ” Kalvin recalled.

“This is it,” Virginia added.

That was only the start. They attended a meeting of the World Treehouse Association — yes, there really is one — and realized this was more complicated than just nailing some boards to a tree.

“It’s all about a relationship between the treehouse and the trees,” Kalvin said. “You have to attach it to the trees without killing them, and you still need to let them move. And if you use more than one tree, you have to let them move independent of one another.”

After a lot of “cuss and discuss” meetings with friends, they came up with a plan that involved trailer hitches, some huge chains, a couple large pieces of iron, some big bolts and two stout poles. Once those were attached to three trees, they built the biggest platform they thought was reasonable.

Kalvin had also built a little cardboard 3-D model of the home, and they erected the shell of the treehouse by 1998. By 1999, they were sleeping there.

“Then we had the fires of 2000,” Virginia says dryly.

The 26,000-acre Cave Gulch Fire raced through the Helena National Forest late in July, burning at least two cabins to the ground. The Willes and FitzGeralds didn’t know if their treehouse would survive the inferno, but when they finally were able to return to the area they found the home intact and a note from firefighters inside.

“On July 28, we had the extreme pleasure and honor of protecting this structure,” the crew from New Jersey wrote on a piece of paper that’s now framed and hanging on the wall. “When the fire stormed through we had to run from this area. It was with great excitement when we heard your treehouse was still standing.”

Virginia points out the back door, noting that a Douglas fir burned between two of those holding up the house. The flames melted some of the molding on the door and blackened shingles used for siding, and charred trees still stand on the surrounding mountainsides. But their home was intact.

So they built a little more. This time, it was the two-story structure with the old-fashioned bathtub. That was about the time they decided running water and electricity would be nice.

“To be able to take a bath when we stay out here and not have to go to the outhouse seemed like a good idea,” she said.

Still, they’re off the grid. They did install a propane tank, but wind generates most of the electricity and a generator adds to the power supply. A bank of batteries stores electricity for later use.

Another wooden walkway connects the treehouse and bath to the new guest and party room, which is the largest of the buildings. Kalvin’s shop is on the base floor, and upstairs is another kitchen, an office, a cubby hole that holds a bed, and a large room for entertaining. The refrigerator is a cooler, but the faucets have hot and cold running water.

Kalvin notes that none of this was planned in advance, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

“This was a lot more complicated than it needed to be, but it’s totally fun,” he adds quickly. “It feels pretty good to be as independent as we are.”

The treehouse is renowned for the Octoberfest parties held there, and the Willes say it’s not unusual for people passing by to stop and stare. They don’t mind if you stop by when they’re around, either, because they like to share their home with other adults whose inner child is woken up by the treehouse.

“We like to have big dinners out here,” Virginia says, pointing to the table that seats 12 easily, made from a tree that was cut in half lengthwise. “People seem to enjoy coming out here for a visit.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@

helenair.com

 

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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