By Mike Hiestand, Houstory President
“All treehouses are sort of magic, don’t you think?”
I’m having pizza with Karen LaVerne, sitting in her treehouse, outside Bellingham, Wash., and I have to admit, lit up with candles on this beautiful fall night, a bit of a mist settling into the woods outside, this place feels very, very magical indeed.
“This place has that feeling for me,” Karen continues. “Pretty much everything in here has a story, has some meaning.”
And though I’d just come to have dinner and catch up with my friend, I knew it was time to put on my home historian hat and get out my notebook. Because, like all homes, it occurred to me that every tree house also has a story. And this one sounded like it would be a good one.
Karen tells me that she and her husband Peter moved into their main home in 1992. That home — which has its own impressive history — sits on about 5 acres, most of which is heavily wooded. There are only a few paths disturbing the natural setting, which includes soaring old growth maple and cedar trees.
Peter, she said, loved these woods. He was a horticulturist for the county park department for several decades. Part of his legacy, I learn, is being the primary force in creating a popular fragrance garden in my hometown of Ferndale, Wash., which has always been one of my favorite spots
Peter, Karen tells me, had promised their grandson Dane that he’d build him a treehouse amongst the trees and plants he loved so much. In fact, he’d just started putting the plans together when he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He died about four months later in January 2011.
Time passed as Karen and her family adjusted to their new life. After several months, she said, talk about the treehouse came up again.
Dane, she said, assumed the treehouse plans had come to end with Peter’s death.
“I heard that,” Karen said, “and asked myself ‘What’s a grandma to do?’”
Still working through the sudden loss of her husband, she said something told her she needed to move forward and finish Peter’s vision.
And so she told her grandson the treehouse plans were a go and hired a carpenter.
“I gave him pretty much free reign. He was creative and having fun. But it was pretty rudimentary, like most treehouses.”
The front porch view. The porch railings were repurposed from a teepee Peter had built on the property.
That would soon change.
The first thing was that I wanted some doors and paint, she said. And then Dane came up and asked for rugs and curtains.
“He’s a city boy,” she laughed.
When it became clear this was going to be something more than a kid’s tree fort, she hired a second carpenter and friend, Rebecca Meloy – who was also an artist – to take on the project and add the features she and Dane were looking for.
Rebecca, she said, saw the treehouse’s potential from the beginning.
“She loved this place. She loved the setting and the idea. I gave her creative license and she ran with it, adding flourishes here and there, and really turning this into the magical place that it is.”
Part of Rebecca’s vision was incorporating Peter’s presence.
“This is definitely Peter’s treehouse,” Karen said. “He was a packrat.”
Karen said her husband would pick up odd pieces here and there and set them aside, storing much of it in their basement.
“It (the basement) was a mess,” Karen said. “But on some level he knew what he was doing, because pretty much everything in the treehouse came out of that basement – and fit perfect.”
Snow skis Peter collected incorporated into wall.
Music from songbooks Peter had collected over the years
A totem pole belonging to Karen’s grandmother and needlepoint created by her mother
In addition to incorporating many of Peter’s finds into the treehouse, Rebecca added one big thing.
“Rebecca told me one day, I’m going to make you a bedroom.”
“And that was it!” Karen said.
Adding a small separate sleeping area, she said, made this more than just a playhouse to spend a few hours — it made it a magic home in the woods, a real place to entertain occasional guests and to live with the trees and plants and animals in the forest.
The sleeping area
Karen frequently spends the night in the house during the summer listening to the wind and the birds, sometimes the rain.
The back of the treehouse incorporates some old mirrors that Peter had collected create a floating effect
She says she’s never alone. And not just because she is usually accompanied by her beloved dogs, who are still learning to navigate the open stairs leading up to the treehouse.
Karen and her Corgi companions
“I love this place. And Peter loves this place.”
Now, on to The Herd for this month…
What is “The Hearth Herd.” It’s simply a roundup (or “Herd”) of a few stories we’ve seen recently that we feel our fellow Houstorians would be interested in. The Herd’s content will generally focus on three things: 1) House and property history; 2) Family heirlooms; 3) Environmental sustainability. If you see something that you think belongs in The Herd, we’d love to hear from you!
Author: WBUR, Boston Public Radio
Title: “This Thanksgiving, Listen To (And Interview) Your Elders”
Herd-Worthy Because: Yes! Yes! Yes! We’ve been urging folks for a couple years now to use Thanksgiving (or any family gathering — but we love Thanksgiving!) to walk around the house with older family members and have them tell you the stories of a couple important things to ensure their stories aren’t lost. (In fact, we’ve created a simple form you can download that helps you do just that and makes it easy to later enter that information into The Heirloom Registry if you are so inclined.) The folks at NPR’s Story Corp would have you do much the same thing — they’re just asking that you take a recording device with you. A great idea, if we do say so ourselves!
Author: Kara Baskin, Boston Globe
Title: “Can Heirlooms Really Fit Into Your Decor?”
Herd-Worthy Because: Heirlooms are special — different from a piece of furniture you just picked up from Ikea — because they have a history. But that “specialness,” this article notes, can often bring with it interesting, sometimes difficult, emotional and practical issues as one tries to incorporate heirlooms with a past into a present-day life.
Author: Keri Sanders, HGTV.com
Title: “Restored! Nicole’s Best Historic Home Saves“
Herd-Worthy Because: No surprise, but we’re big fans of HGTV’s Nicole Curtis, host of the TV show “Rehab Addict.” Nicole is passionate about honoring a home’s past and telling its stories as she brings properties back to life. It is simply part of her DNA. Here’s a fun before/after photo slideshow showing some of her favorite projects.