A Place to Dream
Letting a child’s imagination come alive in a tree house
Photographs by Megan Haley
For nine-year-old Mathias Seber, it takes equal parts creativity and tenacity—not unlike those powers rendered by superheroes—to reach his lofty treetop retreat. His initial desire to dig a tunnel connecting his yard with his neighbor’s morphed into a “secret hideaway that was away from adults,” recalls his mother, Thao Do.
This alternate, elevated plan worked well for the adventurous Seber. “I don’t need to pretend,” he says. “When I swing on a rope from tree to tree, I am Tarzan.”
The idea became a reality during a weekend drive from their home in Lakeville, Connecticut, through Sheffield, Massachusetts; they spied a treehouse sitting atop a hollow stump at Berkshire Fence. “This is exactly what we want!” Do exclaimed and, as luck would have it, they were directed to the builder straight away.
Allen Timmons, they soon found, is a kid at heart; were he to don a cape, he might resemble a real-life superhero with a coveted power of capturing the whimsy and wonder of childhood through fanciful treehouses.
“Allen was very artsy, very soft spoken, and very friendly with this way of speaking to kids that I noticed right away,” she says. Do’s first impression of Timmons was spot-on. He and her son hit it off right away, and the result of their collaboration now resides in a sugar maple on the family’s property.
Timmons, who lives in Great Barrington, remembers getting a carpenter set when he was six, and the first thing he built was a birdhouse. Making shelter for a fragile bird gave him purpose and proved a therapeutic escape from his own coming of age during the tumult of the Civil Rights movement. Timmons characterizes his childhood in Anniston, Alabama, as being rife with harshness, suffering, and isolation. His empathy for others on their plight is palpable; he lived through a bus carrying Freedom Riders being burned near his hometown on Mother’s Day in 1961, and he watched the whole world turn upside-down on the day that southern schools were integrated. It was clear to him, from a young age, that his values often clashed with those around him. So he retreated, seeking refuge in the wild, and his deep knowledge of the woods—from snaring rabbits to starting fires to wielding hatchets—contributes to his strong belief that “nature is our teacher and in straying is where we become ill.”
Homeowner Amy Pollack, a consummate collector, found Timmons through their mutual affinity for birdhouses. She recalls her interest being piqued by the birdhouse at his Backyard Heirlooms gallery in Great Barrington, and their connection was immediate. The creation of a treehouse ensued, situated on the shared five-acre Stockbridge property where Pollack and her sister, Cindy Levin, have homes. The structure has become “a place to converge,” says Pollack, an art consultant from Miami’s Coconut Grove who makes her time in the Berkshires “all about the kids,” in reference to the sisters’ nine collective grandchildren. Their treehouse, located just a stone’s throw from IS183 Art School and the Berkshire Botanical Garden, invites creativity. Each summer, the family declares a theme: last year it was pennants, and remnants of jaunty canvas triangles remain despite 12 months in the elements. Plans are underway for a “treehouse gallery,” where examples of both two- and three-dimensional artwork by the grandchildren will be on display.
A tour of Timmons’s varied creations invites the question: What constitutes a treehouse? In Lakeville, “the tree grows through the treehouse; it’s pretty awesome,” says Do of the stately maple that remained unscathed in the building process. Timmons and little Mathias spent time brainstorming and sketching to arrive at the finished product. “What we really like about our treehouse is we didn’t have to take [any of the tree] down,” says Do. The structure’s open front creates the best of both worlds. “Mathias has his space, and I can still see him when I’m in the kitchen cooking,” she says. The addition of a wicker basket, complete with pulley system, adds function when he chooses to stow away for any length of time.
In Stockbridge, the treehouse design was driven by accessibility and visibility. The elaborate building was sited on gently sloping ground rendering it “high enough that it felt like a treehouse,” but close enough to the ground that it felt safe, according to Pollack. Sight lines from both homes, as a means of keeping an eye on children spanning the ages of two to 11, were key. While the sturdy staircase and ample decking invite independent exploration, and access to the wide slab counter to play store, several small saplings punctuate the floorboards and allow for greenery to encroach. Beneath the branches of the most prominent tree, a silver maple, three generations of siblings and cousins quite literally converge. “[We’ve created] a legacy for our four girls,” says Pollack of their decision to cultivate a summer retreat in the Berkshires. The shared treehouse, in many ways, has proven to be instrumental in providing a platform from which to grow as a family despite their disparate locations throughout much of the year.
Timmons’s affable smile and big-hearted laughter, in which a slight southern twang is still audible, only hint at his affinity for making connections; his clear, blue eyes reveal humility despite the tousled, white hair that hints at the wisdom collected in what Timmons calls his phenomenal journey through life. His passion is clear: “I live to inspire people,” he says. His creations, which evolved from birdhouses to treehouses, reflect this organic and holistic way of thinking. To build shelter from the proverbial storm for the most fragile among us, as a means of bolstering their creativity and sense of wonder about the world, is indeed a gift. In just a decade he has built 11 treehouses, including one in Alabama, in the top of an old red oak tree, and his catalogue raisonné includes numerous forts, children’s gardens, and other projects with kids.
In a nod to the genesis of the Pollacks’ project, Timmons topped a newel post on the structure’s staircase with a single birdhouse; not surprisingly, three birds made nests in theStockbridge treehouse that first summer. The remnants of swallows and robins who sought shelter there are symbolic, perhaps, of their great collaboration with Timmons whose practical approach accommodates kids safely while daring them to dream. And he is very aware of the impact of his creations. “When you inspire someone, you change their life. It is profound and powerful.”
Allen Timmons is one of nine local designers and builders who have re-imagined playhouses for Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “PlayDate: Playhouses in the Garden.” The exhibition, through September 24, features 11 iterations on the notion of what makes a playhouse. Timmons has two creations on display: “The Grownup Hobbit House,” a hollowed-out giant white pine designed for meditation and relaxation, and “A Cottage for Kids,” which provides a colorful and especially “green” space for children. These two pieces—originally one—caught the eye of Thao Do and Robert Seber when it was on display at Berkshire Fence in Sheffield.