In 1993, Horace Burgess was inspired to build the largest treehouse in the world. Like Noah’s ark, he believes the idea was a divine calling. Burgess turned to prayer when his supply of lumber began to dwindle. “And the spirit of God said, ‘If you build me a treehouse, I’ll never let you run out of material,’” he explained. In fact, people donated the wood to Burgess throughout his building journey. When it opened, the Minister’s Treehouse attracted tourists from all over the country to east Tennessee. However, in 2019, the treehouse was destroyed in an uncontrolled fire. 
Building a Treehouse With No Blueprints
The Minister’s Treehouse stood at almost 100 feet, spanning across seven giant trees. It contained terraces and staircases, and tourists loved exploring all of the unique aspects of the structure. It hosted weekly church services in addition to funerals and weddings.
But this wasn’t Burgess’s first treehouse. He built and burned one down himself in the 1980s. He described the place as “just evil” since it became his spot to do drugs. But after a few friends died, he resolved to quit except the house had become a large factor in his addiction. So a voice came to him, telling him to raze the place so he could start fresh. People usually think “you’re a little bit crazy when you say that God spoke to you,” Burgess said, “but really he’s the one that tells us to put our pants on in the morning.” In hindsight, Burgess says that burning that first treehouse down was “probably the most sane moment in my life.” 
So the pastor and landscaper devoted himself to religion and his community, which led him to another treehouse. (It was actually the fifth or sixth he had constructed in his life.) He started to work on his family’s farm that contained a “zoo” of two of each animals, also akin to Noah’s Ark. He began building a staircase, not knowing where it would lead. One day, he prayed for inspiration and received the impulse to turn the “Stairway to Nowhere” into a treehouse.
The entire construction depended on recycled wood and other reused materials, as well as the support of his community. He had no real plan, blueprint, or professional expertise; he just kept building. Finally, he built the roof and opened it to visitors in 2005. To his surprise people from all over the country came to see what became known as the Minister’s Treehouse. Even Pete Nelson, a professional treehouse architect, came to shoot an episode of Treehouse Masters about Burgess’s work.
“Looking up at it from the ground, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that one man had created this place all by himself,” says Chad Gallivanter, a videographer who visited the treehouse back in 2009. “Just like architectural marvels of old, it was a modern-day example of human ingenuity and determination.”
The Closure of the Minister’s Treehouse
However, the state fire marshal’s office closed the treehouse in September 2012 due to safety concerns. “The State Fire Marshal’s office has determined that the building presents an imminent safety hazard to the public. You must close the building to the public IMMEDIATELY,” read the letter from Christopher Bainbridge, director of codes enforcement Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s office.
Because the treehouse had become a public attraction, it had to comply with adopted building codes. Violations included a lack of fire alarms and sprinkler systems, no registered professional involved with the design, fall hazards, no marked exits, and questionable structural stability due to sloped floors and other building mishaps. To reopen the treehouse, Burgess would have to work with a registered design professional, engineer, or architect and submit a plan for approval with the state fire marshal’s office.
No visitors had ever been harmed at the attraction but Burgess accepted the decision and gracefully let go of the project. He sold it to Glenn Clark who planned to build a new house on the property. He also kept the treehouse, which eventually began a target for vandalism and trespassing as it fell into disrepair.
Lost in a Fire
But in October 2019, the architectural feat burned to the ground in several hours. It burned so swiftly there was little firefighters could do but contain the blaze. Cumberland County Fire Chief Trevor Kerley said, “The origin of the fire is undetermined. There was no electricity to the Treehouse. There were no storms that night and there was no insurance on it… Unless there was a witness, or someone who says they set the fire, we have no idea how it started or who started it.”
Burgess took the loss in stride while previous visitors mourned the attraction. “This place was awesome, from 10,000 square foot treehouse to the swimming hole and even the horses waking us up at 6 in the morning,” wrote David Sulcer on Crossville Chronicle’s Facebook page. He had visited the treehouse several times as a Boy Scout “It only took 15 minutes to burn down. It took all day to find the hidden rooms!”