Longwood Gardens’ Treehouses: The Lookout Loft

Longwood Gardens, the Kennett Square, Pennsylvania estate of flowers and fountains, has built three treehouses – for children and adults of all ages.

The Lookout Loft treehouse is near the edge of the forest, not far from the Pierce-du Pont House, and very near the meadow.  Along the cool, shady forest walk, you’ll discover the wheelchair accessible ramp leading up to the Lookout Loft.

As you explore this wonderful house in the woods, you’ll find that it is about the forest that surrounds it.  It’s about the managed meadow, only a hundred yards distant – through the trees.

And the Lookout Loft is very much about seeing and feeling the lovingly selected and crafted wood and ribboned metal that it’s built of.  Run your fingers over anything you can reach – surface, edge, corner – and you’ll find that it is, without exception, smooth and gentle to the touch.

The golden color and rich texture of the wood – the graceful curve of bole and branch that has been imaginatively explored and developed – all of these convey the welcoming warmth and reassuring strength of our partner and protector, the trees.

Nature’s Castles

Longwood’s treehouse project is called Nature’s Castles: The Treehouse Reimagined.

Their design shows Longwood’s commitment to protecting their trees.  The houses do not use any trees for support.  They do not impact or impede any part of any tree – root, trunk, branch, or twig.

You can see, from the plaques mounted around the railing, that Forever Young, the group that built this treehouse, uses materials local to their home state of Vermont whenever possible. The treehouses often use recovered, reclaimed, or repurposed wood, to reduce the need to cut living trees.

The Lookout Loft

The wooden walkway from the forest path leads to a small uncovered platform with a tree growing through the floor.  The deck timbers never touch this tree – or any tree.  The floor is cut so there’s a clear gap.  This gap is filled with thick, interwoven vines, to keep anyone from stepping into it.

From this small platform, a short walkway leads to a somewhat larger platform, which is enclosed and covered by an open, airy, white cedar, trellis canopy.  The trellis is not built of thin slats of wood.  It’s built of blond trunks and logs – ranging from nine inch thick upright posts, to four inch thick logs at the top – all clear of their bark, so you can see the golden texture of the wood itself.

The upright posts retain the graceful curve of the natural tree.  The roof is built mostly of straight logs.

But the structure isn’t heavy and ponderous.  For all the substance of its pieces, the canopy is light and airy.

Beyond the trellis, another walkway leads to the third, final, and largest platform, which is covered by a curving roof with wooden shingles.  Each of the trees that grow through the floor has it’s own opening through the roof.  And the edge of the roof bends gently away from a tree that’s growing close by.

Each successive platform is a little higher off the forest floor.  And from the third platform, a stairway steps back down to the forest path.

Forever Young shared how they found materials for the treehouse in the woods near their base in Burlington, Vermont.  “It is one of our favorite parts of the process to walk the forest, looking for just the right curve or twist to fit, and at the same time, to see how we might amend the design to fit unexpected but wonderful finds.”

The ramps that make the Lookout Loft wheelchair accessible reveal Forever Young’s skill in the craft of designing and building universally accessible treehouses.

An Observation Point

Several plaques, along the Lookout Loft railing, tell about the forest and about the meadow.

Three of the plaques describe the levels of the forest: the canopy, the understory, and the floor – with the understory being the first twenty feet above the floor.  Two plaques tell about “The Forest and Water” and “The Forest Walk.”

Two further plaques are about “The Meadow” and “Managing the Meadow.”  One explains that “The Meadow is a naturalized 35-acres managed and maintained as a habitat for grasses, wildflowers, butterflies, and wildlife.”  The other tells how the Longwood staff manages the Meadow to preserve the open space.

I think Longwood Gardens could benefit enormously from developing the Lookout Loft further as an educational resource for appreciating the trees and the forest more fully and deeply.

The TreeCanada web site says, “Trees and forest ecosystems are tremendously important for our environment.”  The CoolForests web site explains that “preserving our remaining old forests represents one of the easiest, cheapest, and quickest ways to reduce carbon emissions.”

A recent issue of Longwood Gardens’ “Passwords” newsletter said, “Trees are an important part of Longwood’s history and mission.”  I’d say that anyone who spends any time at all at Longwood knows that.  But it’s an idea that fades when visitors are dazzled by the flower garden walk, by the conservatory, by the fountains, or when visitors are calmed by the peace and gentle power of the Eye of Water.

It would seem a logical – indeed a vital and essential – extension of these magnificent treehouses to develop them further as ecological education and appreciation opportunities.

The Pin Foundations

All three treehouses are supported by a new technology called a “Pin Foundation,” also called a “Diamond Pier.”

The Pin Foundation web site explains that, “The precast concrete head is installed at the ground surface, and steel bearing pins are slid through holes cast in the concrete and driven into the ground using simple hand-held tools.”

There are four pins (the pins are 5-foot long pipes) angled down at about 45 degrees through each precast head.  A support post is bolted to the top of the head.  And these posts support a structure of steel beams, which in turn supports the building above.

The Lookout Loft has 34 of these Pin Foundations.

The Pin Foundations make it unnecessary to bolt the houses to any tree or to excavate and pour a concrete foundation.  They create a sturdy foundation that is not impacted by frost heave, and is unobtrusive to the tree root system.

So …

Longwood Gardens’ Nature’s Castles treehouses will be open through November 23, 2008.

If you enjoy the treehouses, there are two ways you can share your thoughts with Longwood Gardens.

There’s a card you can get at the Information Desk, near the Visitor Center entrance, and there’s a box on the desk to slip the completed card into.

You can also go to Longwood Gardens‘ web site.  On their front page, select the “Nature’s Castles” link, and on that page, click the e-mail link.

Give Longwood Gardens your feedback on their Nature’s Castles.

There is apparently some discussion about whether to retain the treehouses beyond the end of this season, and feedback from visitors will play some part in this decision.  I’ll try to find out more about this.

So – between now and November 23, visit Longwood Gardens – and play in their treehouses.

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