Yale’s Magic Tree House

Annelisa Leinbach_Mag Treehouse
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

A drive 75.8 miles away from the campus skyline formed by Gothic towers offers entrance into a world silhouetted by towering trees. In the middle of the Yale-Myers Forest sits a 200-year-old sugar maple tree that will soon welcome more than just the most adventurous clamberers onto its branches for a sweeping view of the canopy. By the end of the school year, Griffin Collier ’13 will have installed in the tree’s branches the product of two years’ work: a tree house.

By the spring of last year, Collier had secured permission from School of Forestry officials to build his tree house in the Yale-Myers Forest, had completed his design, and had only the immense task of finding $7,000 to cover his projected material costs. He put together a three-minute explanatory video and created a page on Kickstarter, a funding platform that allows individual backers to pledge any amount to support creative projects, with the goal of raising $5,000. The support Collier received far exceeded his initial expectations. Through Kickstarter, he has raised $10,499 with 200 backers as of Feb. 2, 2013 —surpassing not just his original $5,000 goal but even his projected $7,000 worth of material costs.

Collier began with the seed of an idea to build the tree house during the summer after his sophomore year. His desire stemmed from a vision of a magical world he could build, removed from our own, that would “embody imagination.” In a tree house, says School of Architecture professor Turner Brooks ’65 ARC ’70, one of Collier’s advisers, “you can look out through the bower, the foliage, into the wider world around you and really possess that world all the better because your body is cozily held in one spot.”

The vision for the Yale Tree House grew from a casual but charged discussion among friends in Timothy Dwight about the magic and spirit of tree houses. Soon, the discussion grew into a conversation about building one in the college courtyard’s ginkgo tree. Collier brought his idea to TD Dean John Loge, who encouraged him to carry out the vision and put the idea in motion. The castle was built upon the clouds, and Collier set out to build the foundations beneath it.

As Collier became more obsessed with his tree house, what began as an enchanting dream began to come into focus. During the summer of 2011, he drafted and brought his preliminary sketches of a TD tree house to Yale to show Brooks, who also subscribes to “the fundamental desire” to build a tree house.

A tree house, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “house built in a tree for security against enemies” as well as “a child’s playhouse built in a tree.” Rich in its definition and connotations, a tree house promises safety from real or ideal assailants in the safety of the tree’s embracing branches. The construction is a portal through which visitors can shed the weights of adult brooding to return to a child’s irrepressible lightness of spirit.

Collier continued to work on his tree house as an independent art project during the school year, but when the ailing ginkgo tree in the TD courtyard could not promise to safely bear weight, he had to find a new tree to house his world. Serendipitously, Collier was already discussing the mechanics of installing structures in trees with Kris Covey, a School of Forestry doctoral student and director of new initiatives at the Yale-Myers Forest. The campus ginkgo tree was no longer an option, but the Yale-Myers Forest abounded in candidates.

During Collier’s visit to the forest this fall, he found the perfect tree, a sugar maple with hefty limbs alongside the Branch Brook Trail. The forest, like much of Connecticut, was farmland until it was deserted in the 1940s. Many of the trees are 80 to 100 years old, Covey estimates. The sugar maple, though, is a two-century-old wolf tree, meaning that it is much older than the surrounding trees in the forest. The century’s head start allowed it to spread out, accounting for its two thick, relatively low limbs that give it a commanding presence and make it the ideal host for a tree house.

With the tree house’s relocation from the TD courtyard to the tranquil Branch Brook Trail in the Yale-Myers Forest, the purpose of the tree house shifted as well. What was intended to be a physical and mental retreat for Yalies just a walk down Wall Street and a ladder’s climb away now has an additional hour-and-a-half car ride interposed between the student and the experience. Though the tree house will exist by the end of the year, there is the question of how real it will be for the students it aims to serve if many will never see it. But according to Collier, the tree house can thrive in student thought, leaving the ultimate aim of lifting student spirits unaffected.

Collier acknowledges that it’s difficult to articulate the exact meaning of the structure. He credits Dean Loge with likening a tree house to a playground, grounding its powers in evocation. A grand playground in the middle of Cross Campus complete with slides, swings, seesaws, and students’ shrieks would stir the idea of spontaneous play even for those who never lined up to go down the slide. “Even if you don’t play on it … it impacts you in that way,” Collier says. “And I think the tree house can do the same thing, even from a distance.”

Collier believes that undergraduates who are intent on visiting the tree house will find a way to traverse the 75.8 miles to the forest. He is in the process of creating an undergraduate organization that will manage access to the tree house. Covey says that the School of Forestry already encourages undergraduates and the rest of the community to visit the forest, so long as the visit’s primary purpose is academic. Once the tree house is built, perhaps more undergraduates will venture out. The construction of the tree house in Yale-Myers adds majesty to the scenery: imagining the lone man’s structure deep in the chirping, crunching forest is a Walden-esque meditation in itself. With less traffic, the tree house will offer visitors a more tranquil experience.

Once the new location was set, Collier had the task of designing a structure that would create a unique architectural experience while also complementing the tree. Achieving this balance was the struggle and eventual result of countless designs. From the start, Collier knew that the tree house would be anything but a house in a tree. “I think it’s very un-house-like,” said Collier. “We could have built this fully functional house with a roof and a chimney and toilets inside, like a full house that’s just stuck in a tree, which is what a lot of tree houses are. That’s not what we wanted to do.”

Collier’s design, a spare form that interacts comfortably with the tree, makes no efforts to camouflage itself in the forest — it glories in its existence as a man-made structure that celebrates the wild. As Collier says in his Kickstarter video, “It frames nature.”

“The dynamic of attachment is a negotiation between the man-made and the natural,” Brooks says. “It’s like the tree pushes back and tells him where to put the platforms, and I feel that it’s much more integrated with the organic quality of the tree than the early versions were.”

Also embedded in the design challenge was the paradox of man damaging nature in order for him to fully appreciate it. Maximizing impact on the human experience while minimizing impact on the tree required Collier to acquire an understanding of the forest and his sugar maple in particular. He approached the design from every angle possible, consulting architecture professors, a tree house research group, and forestry students, among many more.

The tree will of course experience some damage from the bolts drilled into the tree to support the weight of platforms and eventually the visitors who will stand on them. All wounds heal though, and Collier will use bolts that have proven to be the least damaging to trees, allowing the sugar maple to grow around the tree house over time. Though he plans to leave New Haven next year, the School of Forestry will conduct inspections and maintenance every couple of years, ensuring that the tree house will last, by Collier’s estimates, for at least 50 years. The tree, by Covey’s estimates, has a life that might extend another 100.

Collier’s work is not finished: the design may very well change as the structure begins to actually interact with the tree. In February, the “Treehouse Team,” a volunteer group Collier is organizing to build the tree house, will begin constructing on campus the panels that will form the tree house walls. By mid-March, Collier hopes to drive the panels out to the forest, where the team will assemble the panels on-site. He calls his construction plan “ambitious,” but expects to see it through by the time he graduates.

A fantastical energy surrounds the project. Professors and students alike transform into ardent dreamers as soon as they talk about tree houses. Brooks recalls hiding under overcoats and overturned furniture as a child, looking for a space to feel safe. Covey remembers his makeshift tree house in a pine tree, where he found “a feeling of independence” in a place to escape. And now Collier, who “never had a tree that was good enough to build a tree house in,” is finally creating one for himself, for Yalies, and for the tree.

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