Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography by Woody Woodard.
As kids, most of us dreamed of having a tree house as a safe haven—a secret place where we could establish a top-secret club house away from our parents. Some of us still do. Interestingly, people in some countries don’t see tree houses as exotic, but as everyday parts of their lives. In New Guinea, for example, the Korowai people live in tree houses permanently. The raised homes help protect their food and belongings from animals and floods by keeping everything above ground level.
Luckily, the tree house has become more than just a fairy tale-like hideout or an exotic living place in faraway lands. Donna Frankland, an architectural designer with Bryant Glasgow Architecture based in Nashville, was looking for a unique way to recharge and relax at home in Madison County. Her tree house is the realization of one of her dreams.
Donna’s tree house was a gift from her husband, Bob, and his mom, Stella Frankland Fitts. Stella and I had a great special relationship,” said Donna. “She was so much fun and so out there and so into everything. She just loved life! Stella liked that I am creative, and she loved what I had done with the house and property.” Bob, who is president of Frankland Carriage Co., Inc. which is a holding company for The Barrel Wine & Spirits Co., Royal Liquors and miscellaneous commercial real estate, was born and raised in the house where he and Donna live. (Donna made some modifications to the house.) Bob is the fifth generation on the property.
“My mother’s family has owned this land since 1830,” said Bob. “My grandfather, Dr. Robert White, who was one of the founders of the Fitts-White Clinic, taught his family to love this land, and my mother passed that along to us.” Bob has happy memories of playing in the pond fed by cold spring water with his sisters, Leila and Wren. “We’d make Wren go in first to make sure there were no snakes,” he said laughingly. He also recalls playing in the forest where cedar trees were taken down and turned into the rough cut cedar siding for the tree house.
Donna talked to Stella about wanting a tree house and where it would go and what it would be like. “I was just dreaming, never thinking it would happen,” said Donna. “The Christmas after Stella’s death in 2003, Bob wrote me a beautiful letter thanking me for my love and care of Stella, especially at the end of her life, and his thankfulness of our life together. In the letter he said he and his mom wanted me to build ‘the tree house of my dreams.’ In addition to the letter, Bob gave Donna a door knob and book on tree houses.”
Building the Tree House
It took about five months to build the treehouse, which was completed in March of 2005 and named Stella Arbor for Bob’s mom.
There were several challenges in building Donna’s tree house. No big machinery could get to the site. All of the furniture had to be done by hand as no equipment could get to the site. “I consulted with respected tree house designers in Washington state and in New Zealand, where tree houses are more common,” stated Donna. At the time Donna was considering attaching a structure to the trees themselves as she wanted something more permanent, but after consulting with Sam Bryant, then an arborist, she decided not to do that.
The steel that supports the tree house is from The Frankland Building in downtown Jackson that was hit by the tornado in 2003. “We hired an engineer to do the steel work,” stated Bob. “Since no large machinery could get to the tree house site, the steel was set by hand,” he added.
“It was a challenge to get furniture to the tree house,” added Donna. “It was some hard work on some fellows to do this,” admitted Donna. “You’re going up 22 feet with 2 pieces of furniture, but that was a small part of it. The biggest challenge was handling things by hand, using lightweight machinery, carrying things up to the site. The dynamics of getting things up to the tree house—something as simple as concrete—were interesting. We take for granted that we can get a concrete pump in a concrete truck. Up there we had to mix the concrete on site. It is difficult when you can’t utilize those resources you are using every day,” admitted Donna.
Fortunately weather was not a factor in building the tree house. “It went so smoothly because everybody was having fun with it as the tree house is so different,” added Donna. “I had my best friend’s wedding up there a few weeks after it was finished,” said Donna.
Her advice to would-be builders of tree houses? “Don’t feel limited,” said Donna. You can do anything you want to do. It just takes somebody who can help you build it and not stifle you.”
The Interior of the Tree House
Inside the tree house, which has a cozy, comfortable, rustic ambiance, there are arrowheads and artifacts that Donna’s dad, Bill Blakeley, found on their farm in Ellerbe, North Carolina; a deer mount that Bob’s son harvested in Texas along with his handmade turkey calls; and a painting by Dr. Harold Yarbro of the old White family home place that his wife, Marion, shared with her sister, Stella.
The fireplace is perfect for chilly fall or cold winter days and nights.
Entertaining at the Tree House
The tree house has 950 square feet of entertaining space which includes 370 square feet inside along with a screened porch consisting of 385 square feet. The tree house offers breathtaking views of the rolling countryside below.
“Bob and I love to entertain in the tree house,” said Donna. “We host lots of dinner parties. Our friends seem to like the ‘away’ feeling without having to go anywhere. We had folks fleeing Hurricane Katrina brought over by mutual friends for a ‘forget your troubles’ visit. We had a family visiting from China come for a small gathering. They marveled at how much cooler it is up in the trees than in the city of Jackson. Lots of friends will call and ask if they may bring someone by to see the tree house. My friends will call and say they need ‘a little tree house time.’ It’s just been wonderful to have a place of retreat that is so easy and so fun to share. You can’t help but be relaxed there.”
Dreaming of a Tree House
I asked Donna if she had a tree house as a child and had she always wanted a tree house. “Really, a tree house was not on my radar,” she replied. “I love being in the woods and I love the spring on our property. When we started working on this property and making it our home, I dug the spring out and put the pump on it to recirculate the water. It has become a feature that I really love about this property.”
“The tree house allows me to get into the woods a little bit more and to have more of a reason to do it.”
She is not afraid to be up there during storms.
The tree house is “a huge retreat” for Donna. “I go up there weekly and when the weather is pretty, I go there almost every afternoon for contemplation, meditation and quiet time. It may be just for a short while, but it calms me down from my work. Usually I go to the tree house in the late afternoon—just me. Bob doesn’t spend much time in the tree house. But he and I have a date night up there a lot of times. We have an easy dinner up there. We sit on the porch or build a fire on the screened porch, kind of a Friday night thing it turns out to be.”
Donna remembers coming home and Stella would be sitting on the porch rocking and resting. “She loved it here. “I get that same feeling now. Somehow I know she’s had a hand in this tree house because it all just fell into place. That makes it even more special and if she ever slips away from heaven this is where she’d come.”