There are a lot of homes on Long Island. But situated on about 300 wooded acres and nestled securely among a cluster of trees is a very special house, for very special people.
It's about 10 feet off the ground, and has forked branches in place of window panes. A long ramp slopes ever so gradually upward, leading to the deck.
It's a treehouse, a magical play space in Wheatley Heights for children who attend Sunrise Day Camp, a free, summer-only camp for children with cancer. The one-of-a-kind structure at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds accommodates 20 to 25 children at a time and is fully wheelchair accessible.
"These are children who spend a lot of their lives in hospitals," said Arnie Preminger, president and chief executive of the Oceanside Friedberg Jewish Community Center, which operates the camp.
And they don't normally get to do things other children might take for granted, such as climbing trees. The treehouse changes all that.
"The treehouse takes them into the sky and lets them look down at the world," Preminger said. "It's an incredible addition to their lives."
The JCC is not alone in understanding the magic of treehouses. On Long Island, many parents have built their own or have enlisted designers and architects to construct structures ranging from basic to more elaborate creations -- complete with windows, decks and plumbing -- and priced at a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.
The Sunrise treehouse is made of live edgewood -- untrimmed siding that makes the structure look deliberately rustic and whimsical, said designer James B'Fer Roth, of The Treehouse Guys, a company based in Warren, Vt., that specializes in universally accessible treehouses. Roth and his partner, Chris "Ka-V" Haake, also designed the Connecticut treehouse at the late actor Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which is for children with serious illnesses.
"A treehouse is the epitome of a childlike place," said Roth, whose company also builds treehouses for homeowners.
'A special place' to hang out
With so many children plugged into computer games, smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices, treehouses can offer a wondrous opportunity to be part of the outdoors and engage in imaginative play.
"It's special having a place for me and my brother to hang out," said Max Ludwick, 9, of the Sag Harbor treehouse his parents built so he and brother Roland, 6, could have a place to enjoy nature.
Max said he also likes to use it as an exclusive clubhouse for him and his friends. There, imaginations soar.
In a treehouse, "you're removed from earth, seeing it from a different perspective," said treehouse builders Jeanie and David Stiles, of East Hampton and Manhattan. "You're seeing nature and seeing things from a bird's-eye view." Through their construction company, Stiles Designs, they sell building plans and how-to books, such as "Treehouses & Playhouses You Can Build."
Their treehouses typically cost from $15,000 to $25,000, but if you build one yourself, they say the cost of materials is usually $500 to $2,000. More elaborate structures, such as the ones by San Francisco-based custom builder/designer Barbara Butler, typically run between $40,000 and $50,000, although she said she has built some that cost up to $200,000. The disparity in cost is based not only on the amount of building materials required, but also on how elaborate and detailed the treehouse is -- its size, accoutrements such as decks, working doors and windows, and extras like furnishings and zip lines.
For the ambitious, building a do-it-yourself treehouse can be a fun project, but careful attention must be paid to the details that go into building a safe structure, one that protects the children who will use it and the tree or trees that will support it. The tree should be strong and thriving, and the treehouse should never stunt its growth or health, advised Jeanie Stiles, who helped client Reed W. Super select a sturdy tree for the treehouse at his summer house in Amagansett.
Another way to go is to contact a certified arborist to recommend the best tree for the size and scope of the planned treehouse. Oak is a popular choice on Long Island projects. It is also important to keep in mind that not only do trees grow, they can also move with storms or heavy winds, so that must be taken into account when installing the platform and selecting the proper hardware.
But if you think a DIY treehouse will be a weekend project, think again.
"It always takes 10 times longer than you think it will take," said Pete Nelson of Nelson Treehouse & Supply in Fall City, Wash. Nelson conducts treehouse workshops and has traveled the globe to write his books, among them "Treehouses of the World" and "New Treehouses of the World." He is taping the reality show "Treehouse Masters," which will premiere May 31 on the cable channel Animal Planet.
Super knew it was best to hire a professional to build his sons' Robinson Crusoe-style treehouse.
"Even if I had the skills, I didn't have the time to build it myself," he said. Because the family lives in Brooklyn most of the year, Super said that for his boys, who are 7 and 5, "I wanted to give them more of an experience in a natural part of the property in such a beautiful part of Long Island," he said.
It seems he made the right choice. "They love it; it's their own special area," he said of the treehouse, which cost about $3,500 and has railings made of woven rope. "We didn't want it enclosed too much. It's got a full roof but not much in the way of sides."
Many design ideas available
Super had a clear vision of the style he wanted, but for those who don't, Butler, the San-Francisco-based designer/builder, suggests searching the Internet for ideas.
"I have about 550 custom projects on my website," she said. "Look at pictures of past projects; that's a good way to sort of see the range" of possibilities.
Pamela Harrison Ludwick had a few simple ideas in mind for the Sag Harbor treehouse Butler built for her two boys.
"I knew I wanted something blending with the environment and I wanted it to look like an A-frame home -- a traditional-looking treehouse," Ludwick said.
The process of building a custom treehouse with a professional builder pretty much emulates a home construction project: The builder does a site inspection, selects the best tree or trees for the project, submits sketches to the clients and then designs the plans. Butler builds all of her treehouses at her plant, then ships the parts to the site, where she assembles them with a crew.
The Ludwick boys are thrilled with their treehouse, which includes a deck, zip line, fire pole and a rope with a bucket attached to it, for hoisting up snacks and toys.
Many of Butler's designs include pop-up tables and benches, features that enhance playtime inside the treehouse Carmelo Musacchia had built for his children in Southampton. Windows with working shutters add to the charm.
Musacchia's children, Carmelo Jr., 9, and Sofia Rose, 11, had always wanted a bona fide treehouse, he said. His initial pre-made purchase, a freestanding swing set with a treehouse above it, didn't cut it. But Musacchia said the $35,000 investment in a custom design that Butler built -- of sustainable redwood that is fairly maintenance free -- was worth it. "The stains are very easy to clean, like a car," Butler noted. "You can use a soft soap and brush."
The treehouses are not just a draw for the children they're built for. Musacchia said his is the neighborhood focal point.
"It's become their own little world," he said. "Any kid that comes to the backyard, that's the first place they go. They get drawn to it."
And some parents, like Ludwick, don't seem to mind their kids' no-adults-allowed policy. Rather, they actually encourage it.
"It's their private getaway," she said of her sons' treehouse. "A place really for them to go and explore and have fun and go back to the old days."