Natosha Carson once found solace in the chapel of the famous Minister's Tree House that peeks above the trees of Crossville. She went there one day when she felt like her life was falling apart because of an abusive relationship. That's when she met the tree-house's builder, Horace Burgess.
Carson told her story to Burgess, "a perfect stranger," and worried how she could move on with her life without any family or support system.
"He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You're a child of God, are you not?' I said yes. ‘Then you have a family in Christ,'" she remembers Burgess telling her.
Those words were repeated back to her months later, she says, and she credits Burgess for starting her on her path to a better life—which is one reason why she's fighting to keep his tree house open to the public.
Metro Pulse spoke to Burgess about his experience building the tree house over the course of more than a decade in 2010 ["Castles in the Sky" by Frank Carlson], at which time he said thousands of people visited each week. The tree house spans seven trees, with one in the middle serving as a winding staircase. It's four stories high, with mazes of rooms and balconies on each floor, including a sanctuary where church services have been held. According to an Aug. 28 letter from the state Department of Commerce and Insurance, brochures were printed about the tree house and souvenirs were being sold nearby.
These factors, along with the fact that the public could explore the structure freely, make the tree house an "attraction" in the eyes of the state, according to the letter and public information officer Christopher Garrett. After an "initial visit to learn about the building," Christopher Bainbridge, state director of code enforcement, determined there were too many safety hazards for the public to be roaming the structure, and Burgess would have to close it.
"The fire marshals have said it's unsafe," Burgess says. "You could get hurt on it, yes, but you could get hurt getting out of bed."
But Carson is leading the charge to get the state fire marshal to change or amend building codes that would allow the tree house to reopen after some repairs.
"We agree there are improvements that need to be made," Carson says. But the changes the state are asking for are more suitable to courthouses or schools, she says, not a tree house.
"It's a private structure on private property," she says.
Carson, who formerly worked for a manufacturing company that created materials that could help public buildings comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, says she was responsible for selling the materials to architects and engineers, and had to be familiar with public building codes.
She recently started a petition on change.org to ask the state fire marshal to work with Burgess to create a code that would ensure safety while not confining a unique building to unreasonable codes. Carson also takes issue with the tree house being deemed an "attraction," citing the fact that volunteers were responsible for bringing souvenirs to the tree house and selling them.
"It's not like Horace was the president of a company," Carson says. "He encouraged the volunteers to get involved," but did not instruct them to sell anything.
She adds that the brochures for the tree house are printed free of charge by a local company, and that Burgess doesn't make enough money from the souvenirs or concessions to cover the expenses.
The letter sent to Burgess cites several aspects of the building that need to be changed or fixed in order for it to be safe for the public. The building is 60 feet higher than what code allows for; no registered design professional was involved in creating it; there's no uniform load distribution; the stairs are uneven and difficult to climb; areas with no guard rails or hand rails could result in falls; the building is too maze-like; and there is no fire alarm, fire sprinkler system, or fire extinguisher in the building.
Carson's quick to point out that during the life of the tree house, no one has ever had an injury and that Burgess had a "climb at your own risk" sign posted.
Burgess, for his part, says "you'd have to be silly" to get hurt on his building, though he acknowledges kids could catch their feet in uneven floor board and take a tumble. But Burgess is determined to make every effort to reopen his tree house for people to come and visit as they always have.
"I just want to make sure all the little holes are covered and the handrails are safe," he says. "I'm gonna go as fast as I can."
Though the state's letter indicated Burgess was accepting donations from visitors, he says he won't ask for funds from anyone to make the required repairs.
"I've never asked anyone for anything," he says.
Carson's campaign is operating similarly. She's not asking for anyone's money. Rather, she'd like for people to help her contact the fire marshal, with whom she's had one conversation. Though she says she was promised she would be contacted for further cooperation, no one has called her back. Now, Carson is asking for people locally and nationally to help her contact the fire marshal. During the week of Oct. 8, she's asking people to call different state departments to request the fire marshal to work with Burgess on changing codes to make improving the tree house more reasonable. Then, on Friday, she's asking everyone to call the fire marshal's office directly.
"We're hoping that if we keep our message positive, they'll voluntarily work with us," Carson says.
Garrett says Burgess' next steps are to consult a registered architect or engineer on the safety and code issues of the building. "We are glad to meet with them to discuss resolution to these issues," Garrett says.
Burgess says he'll know more about what he needs to do in the coming weeks.