Castles in the Sky: Visiting the Minister's Tree House and the House of the Almighty

For going on 18 years, two local amateur architects have been building massive structures for God. What do they mean?

I built this park of broken pieces to try and mend a broken world of people who are traveling their last road. I took the pieces you threw away and put them together by night and day. Washed by rain, dried by sun, a million pieces all in one.

—Howard Finster, folk artist and amateur builder, 1916-2001

On the national stage, 1993 began with a fresh-faced, red-nosed Bill Clinton awkwardly taking on the issue of gays in the military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation laying siege to a compound that held a cult leader named David Koresh (ending in his death, and those of 80 of his followers, in Waco, Texas), and a terrorist group funded by a man named Khaled Sheik Mohammed exploding a truck bomb in the World Trade Center in a failed attempt to bring the towers down.

Here in Tennessee, it was the year of a record blizzard—the Blizzard of '93, as it came to be called—when more than a foot of snow, not a major record in many places, fell in Knoxville. It was also the year two men, each in his 40s and quite unaware of the other, began building massive structures that would come to define their purpose and time on Earth.

The men weren't trained architects or even construction workers. One, a 46-year-old named Floyd Banks, Jr., was a landlord of some family property in Greenback, where he'd spent all his life and had erected 14 modest houses for tenants. With some leftover material from one home, he began building a new structure, and then just kept on building. The structure eventually became a castle, with 15-foot turrets and crenellated walls, dozens of rooms, including a dungeon and throne room, and what he now sees as evidence of a divine hand guiding the project all along.

The other, Horace Burgess, then 42, lived 70 miles to Banks' west, in Crossville, where he'd spent most of his life—save a year in Vietnam in the early '70s. A landscaper by trade, Burgess says while praying one night he received instruction from God to build a tree house, images of what it would look like flashing across his ceiling "like a slide show." Today, the Minister's Tree House, as it's known, stands nearly 100 feet tall, with dozens of rooms adding up, by his estimate, to over 10,000 square feet of space.

When people first hear about Banks and Burgess, two men building massive structures for God over a prolonged period, a couple of stories come to mind: One is Noah and his ark; the other is Ray Kinsella and his cornfield-cum-baseball diamond in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. In each story a man—and it seems it's always a man—receives instruction from God, or from some voice interpreted to be God, to create something that seems to have no clear purpose, no context, and no support from the community. As the project exacts costs on the builder's livelihood, people respond in hostile ways to the architect and his claim—Noah is ostracized and ridiculed, Kinsella is written off as a nutcase while the bank works to foreclose on his family farm. Both men remain faithful, and are thusly rewarded.

These two myths, one biblical and the other Hollywood, are so familiar to the collective consciousness that their lesson seems almost banal—except, perhaps, to those who have been tested and sought solace in religion. But when these stories leave the realm of myth or parable and land in our own backyard, in the here and now, the structures become something else: folk art, expressions of dedication to God, creativity, and design, and perhaps unavoidable signs that all is not right in their creator's mind.

So where do Banks and Burgess belong?

***

Finding Junior Banks' castle isn't difficult. Located in Greenback, a town of about 1,000 outside of Maryville that straddles the Blount County-Loudon County line, the castle sits about a mile from Route 411, an asphalt ribbon that runs through rolling green hills. Just a couple of turns off the highway, you come across an old weathered yellow sign that says, in an almost cartoonishly simple way, "The Castle" with an arrow pointing down a narrow gravel road.

Following that gravel road past trailers and small homes, most of which the castle's owner built himself, you arrive at a clearing with three concrete crosses, encrusted with playing marbles and being swallowed by shoulder-high grasses. Just behind the grasses, there sits the castle's front wall, a 15-foot high, 200-foot long brick, mortar and cinder block face divided by wide turrets and painted in pink and gray.

The magnitude of the wall is impressive as you approach, especially knowing it was built by one man. Yet that sense of grandeur quickly gives way to a feeling that there's something off about it—that it feels forlorn, unfinished, confused. As the wall follows the hill slightly downward to the right, it tapers off, as though it's been pummeled by catapult or cannon fire on that one side only. Upon closer inspection, long structural cracks can be seen running up different sections, far too premature considering the structure's relatively young age. Vines peak over the top of the wall and turrets, and as you circle around to the back, the castle is revealed to be two L-shaped walls running parallel to each other. Mostly lacking a roof or floor, vegetation envelopes from above and grasses attack from below.

The castle is more wall than anything else, almost like a two-dimensional movie backdrop that Errol Flynn would have battled the Sheriff of Nottingham in front of in The Adventures of Robin Hood. It's made mainly of brick and cinder block salvaged from old homes demolished when 411 was rerouted in 1996 and from the old Vonore High School. Over the years, people have stopped off to contribute their own belongings, mostly trinkets you'd find at a small roadside antique store or garage sale, like dolls, porcelain angels, and 101 Dalmatians figurines. They sit at various spots around the castle wall, in homage to the castle, to God, or perhaps to some loved one, yet there's something profoundly unsettling about finding the playthings of children here, bound with mortar to this gray, inanimate mass being swallowed by time and earth. And if that isn't creepy enough, there's a pet cemetery in the back with 14 headstones, apparently all dogs the builder took in over the years.

In the many rooms, references to everything from ancient civilizations to 20th century pop culture can be found. In one room, a recipe for "Happy Food" is carved into the wall, a dish that promises its consumer he or she will feel just that. Another inscription poses a question and then answers it: "How did the early settlers survive? Cornbread. It is a happy food. It would work today." In what appears to be the dining room, plates of concrete food sit on a concrete table, warmed by the sun as they presumably wait for concrete knights and maidens to consume them. Engravings of Egyptians and snakes are found just a few feet from engravings of Bugs Bunny and Bart and Lisa Simpson.

Walking through this place feels like wandering through someone's mind, a thousand different thoughts all screaming out at once.

***

After exploring the castle for a half hour and being ravaged by mosquitoes—likely borne in the buckets of algae-specked rainwater sitting about— I call Banks to see if he's forgotten our appointment. He has, but arrives moments later in an old brown van, waving from behind the windshield and bursting forth with a vitality that belies his age and condition. "I'm just tickled you're here!" he laughs. As we return to the castle wall, he apologizes repeatedly for his pace, blaming a heart condition and the medications he takes for it.

"Pardon my legs," he says, "I've got these beta blockers."

Banks lives just up the road with his mother, Annie, who has Alzheimer's, and his girlfriend of 20 years, Debra McCormick, who has a bone condition Banks says he can't pronounce. They all take turns taking care of one another, he says.

Understanding Junior, as he likes to be called, can be a challenge. He speaks quickly, and switches mid-sentence from one topic to another. In quick succession he mentions some "government documents" he has, the 50 policemen who have visited his castle, and how he ran for president in 2008 but his votes were tossed out because he filled out the paperwork improperly. "Them's Christ's votes," he says, telling me that a few days later a small earthquake rattled downtown Maryville. I ask him if he means to say God caused an earthquake because the Blount County Election Commission threw out his votes. "That's what it looks like, don't it?" he laughs.

As we talk, Banks often asks me, "Have I told you I'm tickled you're here?" His smile is disarming, and reveals a missing tooth that I later learn has been cemented into one wall, along with other precious stones from around the country. While proud of his castle, the House of the Almighty, as he calls it, what Banks really wants me to see are the images of his relatives that have begun to appear in the plaster in the last seven years.

Banks' castle and its meaning to him have changed significantly over its 17-year life. Originally he began building it because "everyone wants to live in a castle. And you say, I want to live in a castle, I want all the attention, I want to be a big guy." It held no divine dimension, and indeed was overtly rooted in the material, the profane, and the worldly pursuit of fame.

But in 2003, something changed. Banks began to see images of lost loved ones in the plaster he'd used to cover the cinder blocks, the way someone might see a face in the moon or an animal in the clouds. The first was his only brother, Randall, who'd been killed in a car wreck in 1988 at the age of 33. After placing a chess set his brother had given him in the throne room, Banks says Randall's face appeared in a wall, which he points out to me from a distance. I ask if we can go closer because I can't make anything out, but he says if we move any closer Randall's face disappears, replaced by that of Jesus Christ. "Here's the message: Your family loves you but I'm going to be the last one to leave you," Banks says. In order that others could find the image, Banks has outlined the face in paint.

Others began to show up. Banks' father and grandmother appeared about 10 feet up the front wall, their heads fused together because "in heaven men and women are equal." Non-relatives appeared as well—Sam Houston is below Banks' father and grandmother, and Banks reckons this is because Houston grew up nearby. Around back, the devil has also arrived, whispering into the ear of a man in a straw hat, an image Banks says is himself. There are paint outlines everywhere, with a story behind each one.

"See this eye, see the nose, see the lips, see the chin," Banks instructs, pointing at light markings in the plaster of a wall. "You see anything on that man that looks like it's chiseled?" he asks, fearing I'll suspect he's doctored an image I can't see. I try, but I simply can't make out most of them.

Before leaving, Banks takes me to one of the two fully enclosed rooms to show me the government documents he'd mentioned earlier. They turn out to be correspondence from various official bodies, ranging from the Smoky Mountain Convention and Tourism Center to the University of Tennessee to the House of Representatives. "Thank you for your letter requesting that I keep your letter and the copies of your work as proof of your discovery of the equation for gravity," reads one, dated July 5, 1994, from the office of former U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser. "I assure you your findings will be protected." Banks later gives me copies of his theory on bird migration, promising it'll save humanity a great deal of money.

I ask Banks if there's anything else he thinks is important. He pauses for a second, and then says his castle is "the second best gift to the world. Now, not me. But Christ said His son was the biggest gift, and then His house. This is His house, and you know pretty well it is, it's gotta be the second biggest gift. And even in the Bible, some of them old boys is precious, but I don't think He even gave them a gift like this."

***

While Banks believes his castle has become embedded with traces of the divine as the years have passed, the Minister's Tree House was born out of divine inspiration and then seems to have become corrupted by man along the way.

Heading west on I-40 and getting off at the Genesis/Crossville exit, the tree house is as easy to find as the castle. About a mile and a half off the interstate, its peak rises 97 feet, poking out just above the treeline over 4.9 acres of Burgess' 139-acre farm.

When I arrive on a Monday morning in September, the place appears empty, save for two very large dogs lazing about beside a fire pit where pine embers still smolder, giving the whole place the air of a pioneer village. After considering the dogs' size for a moment and a possible escape route, I step out of the car and gingerly walk past them, trying to strike a balance between being nonthreatening and assertive. They're uninterested in me, so I proceed to the stairs at the tree house's base and begin to climb.

Constructed over seven trees—all dead now except the massive white oak housing the staircase—the tree house is really two structures in one: the stairs I'm climbing, which wrap around the white oak and lead up to the peak; and what Burgess calls "the Way," a much larger, four-story building that rests upon the six remaining trees and holds the many rooms, balconies, and the sanctuary that serves as the physical and spiritual heart of the structure. The sanctuary contains pews, a choir loft, and a wooden podium, and looks well-worn. Near the center, a bible sits opened on the podium with a pamphlet that asks, in white lettering over an American flag, "What is the answer to life's most important question?"

Inside the sanctuary, there's a sense of calm; walking out to the balcony, light made soft by the trees above spills in, and I feel hidden and protected. A tree branch above cradles the next floor and shoots out into the sky, blurring the line between exterior and interior, between man and nature. The sound of wind blowing through the branches is soothing, and the whole building exhales a deep musk that reminds me of an old cabin or barn. (It turns out much of the wood came from the seven barns Burgess agreed to dismantle in exchange for the boards he needed.) While Banks' castle appeared to have a multitude of authors often working at cross purposes, this place, the size notwithstanding, seems to have just one, and belongs to its surroundings in a way that the castle did not.

The castle felt isolated, eerily removed from time and the wider world. Here, despite this morning's quiet, there's evidence of people everywhere. Across the walls, on windows, on pieces of scrap wood, on the trees themselves, there are names and messages scrawled in pen, marker, or etched into the wood. "I love you daddy," reads one on a scrap of wood covering the stairs. "George McDaniel will not be forgotten," reads another, and I see that same name repeated in many places. "I love God" is written under a painting of Christ behind the podium in the sanctuary.

Not all the messages ascend to the heavens or commemorate lost loved ones. There's plenty of "John loves Amy," too, and on a sanctuary wall someone's written lyrics to a song: "Life ain't funny, when you ain't got no money, the clock strikes 4:20 and you wanna get high." There are other references to drugs, sex, and the kind of acts the churchgoing crowd tends not to discuss, at least while still at church.

Leaving the Way and climbing the remaining floors to the peak, the building narrows, and the stairs become steeper. They then terminate in a small room, perhaps 5 by 5 feet; looking out a window onto a field below, I see some grasses have been arranged to spell JESUS.

***

Horace Burgess, 59 years old and of average height but powerfully built, wasn't always such a man of the lord. Now an ordained minister, Burgess' first 39 years were spent "running with the devil" and included a drug-fueled trip across the country that turned his hair white ("I was the candy man for a while," he says) and sexual exploits that sound more the stuff of Penthouse than reality.

Burgess is handsome, with cool blue eyes, a white goatee, and skin browned from the sun. He speaks slowly and deliberately, and while his explanations often drift into logic that's hard to follow—at one point he gets lost with himself in a debate about whether Jesus turned water into wine or merely into Kool-Aid—he seems much more coherent than Banks. He has a kind of Kris Kristofferson, man's man air to him.

Back in his late 30s, Burgess hit rock bottom. He says he was sleeping under his cabin to avoid talking to anyone, letting his beard and hair grow long, and raising marijuana by the creek to give away. "I loved having everybody stoned, just as much as I love having Christians around me now," he says. He subsisted on stale brownies someone had donated and cans of Orange Crush soda that had fallen off a truck. He doesn't like to speak in many specifics about that period, but says he plans to write a tell-all book one day—not to be published until after his death.

At any rate, in his early 40s—the same time his youngest brother, just 23, committed suicide—Burgess turned to religion. A year and a half after his rebirth, while sitting on some steps he'd built from another tree house he'd torn down, Burgess says he received his instructions for the one he stands in today. "The spirit of God just quickened me," Burgess recalls. "‘If you build a tree house, I'll never let you run out of materials.'" A couple of weeks after that, while lying in bed, his wife asleep, he says God revealed what it would look like to him.

"I try to tell everybody—in the spirit realm, everybody wants to see angels and stuff," Burgess says. "You don't really ‘see' anything. He shows you stuff. That's a totally different—it's totally different than, ‘Oh, there's a picture.' It's just like your whole being becomes what He's got you on. I saw that tree house. The whole ceiling of my bedroom became that tree house." Burgess stresses that he did not set out to build the world's largest tree house for himself, but for God.

As we talk in the rafters of the sanctuary, three pot-bellied men from Ohio, dressed in lightweight shirts and khaki shorts, wander in. They've come to Crossville to golf, which apparently this area's good for, and say while they were having breakfast at a local diner, a waitress told them about the tree house.

"It took 11 years to get it to this point," Burgess tells them as they stand below, looking up. "Two-hundred sixty-three days and four hours, to be exact. That's not man hours, because sometimes I had help. Two-hundred fifty-eight thousand nails. I nailed over 1,000 nails every eight-hour day."

The men seem impressed, turning to take in the sanctuary's many levels. "If you had to put a price on it—I mean, I know it's priceless," says one, "but if you had to put a price on it, what would it be?"

"Never even crossed my mind," Burgess responds.

Burgess has put some money into it, though, and he's about to begin work on it again to clean off the graffiti and restore it to its original form. For much of its life, the tree house had a caretaker, or treekeeper, as Burgess calls him, living on site to watch over it. But the original treekeeper, Terry Nickel, died, and while another was watching it, the copper wiring Burgess had installed to light the tree house was stripped out. The graffiti worsened, drug use escalated, and someone smeared blue paint across the walls, including on a crab orchard stone Burgess found in his truck that he believes contains an image of God creating the world. "Here's his eyelids, his nose, his lips, his chin, and his robe. He's got the world in His hands," Burgess says, pointing to faint markings on the stone, which he's cleaned and hung on the wall of the sanctuary, encased in an old wagon wheel that belonged to his father. "Before they graffitied it, you could see the solar the system and the planets."

Consumed with other projects, for five years Burgess decided to let people have their way with the Way. Then about two years ago, he decided to close it up. After two weeks he reopened it because he says he couldn't stand to see people being turned away.

He seems to have taken all of this in stride. "You can't get really puffed up because you built the world's largest tree house. You've got to get ready for everything else that follows that. I wasn't created to build this for God. I was created to follow up all the way to the end of my life, and this would just be one of the little obstacles that I was faithful in, which is one of the few that I ever was faithful in.

"It is a tree house. You cant deny it, period. It might not be finished or flushed out, or anything, but it's a tree house. I mean, that's what He told me to build."

***

Banks' castle and Burgess' tree house, while wildly different, both belong to the realm of boyhood fantasy, recalling the stories of King Arthur and his court and Swiss Family Robinson. What happens to these fantasies when the grown men who created them are no longer around to pour their time and energy in—when their dreams become centers of blight and infestation, havens for rats and drug addicts—is unclear. If the past is any guide, protecting them from the ravages of time, nature, and man won't be easy.

In the meantime, each builder plans to continue work on his project to the best of his ability, and in doing so continue upending yet another architectural convention: We tend of think of buildings as existing in stages, from commission, to design, to construction, and completion. But the castle and tree house will never be complete—they'll always be growing, evolving, and changing, just like their creators. "It'll rot before I'm through," Burgess says. And Banks, almost a decade ago, told a reporter, "As long as I am able to crawl, I will work on it."

Each man hopes to die working on his building, a final act of devotion to his creation, his inspiration, and to God.