Play rooms in the sky | June 21, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - June 21, 2013

Play rooms in the sky

Tree houses make a comeback as unstructured play spaces of the past

by Karishma Mehrotra

When Anne Frahn's family moved to University Avenue in 2010, their first order of business — even before remodeling their house — was to put in a tree house on the side of their driveway.

After Frahn's architect father spent about two weekends putting up a structure and a hired worker added the finishing touches, her kids, Celia and Harrison, were left with a new play room in the sky equipped with a rope swing, a fireman's pole, a permanent broom, a dumbwaiter to send up snacks and window covers for rainy days.

Harrison uses the house about every other day to shoot water guns or play "capture the flag." And even though they scream about the spiders, Celia's friends said it makes her house more of an attraction for play dates.

"When I think back to my generation, kids weren't so scheduled," Frahn said. "If you had a tree house, you and your friends were in it day and night. All summer long. You would sleep out there. So I want the kids to sleep out there sometime."

For some, tree houses provide the perfect touch to their children's lives. Palo Alto residents are rediscovering tree houses as a way to give children less scheduled playtime and more old-fashioned fun.

And relaxed laws provide that extra push. Nothing in Palo Alto's city code explicitly governs tree houses, said Amy French, Palo Alto's chief planning official. They do fall under the zoning code's definition of "accessory structures," which leads to height and placement regulations. Structures within those regulations — those less than 120 square feet — do not need a building permit.

"I cannot think of a single case of someone requesting a planning permit (required for variance from zoning codes) for a tree house," French wrote in an email. "I am guessing there may be non-compliant tree houses not reported by neighbors."

In Sue Allen's case, her neighbors loved her tree house. In fact, ever since she created the rule that only 5-year-olds could climb to the 15-foot tree house — after a neighborhood kid fell from the top — every kid came to Allen's South Palo Alto home on their fifth birthday and climbed the huge fig tree.

More than two decades later, the 105-year-old tree became ill and had to be cut down. With her kids now out of the house, Allen remembered the joy that tree house brought to the neighborhood.

"I feel like kids' lives now are way too planned and scheduled," Allen said. "They have all kinds of lessons and activities and camps. But my kids grew up inventing their own fun. And I think it was really good for them."

Allen remembered when her neighborhood was filled with wild kids who would run from house to house and she never knew who would be over for lunch that day. For her, the tree house is a symbol of a childhood lifestyle that has given her kids the type of inventiveness that they carry to this day.

Daryl Savage, the Weekly's Shop Talk writer, calls South Palo Alto "tree house central." Her tree house is a simple platform made out of wood, plumbing pipes and ropes. As ivy has hidden the platform to complete obscurity over the decades, she can recall the scenes of her backyard vividly.

She remembered her sons' marshmallow guns and water balloons and her fear when they climbed to the top of the tree. She remembered handing them their dinner up in the house and how the house stood as a neighborhood attraction to nearby kids. Looking back, the choice to build the house was obvious.

"What do you do when you have two wild boys and a tree in your backyard?" Savage said.

"You build a tree house."

For others, it is not so simple. Beth Dolsen has been looking for a way to build a tree house in Barron Park for a while both for "good family emotional life" and to have a creative play space for her kids. She has spoken to several general contractors and was shocked with the financial barriers she encountered; the cheapest quote for a rudimentary design was $1,500. She also doesn't feel she can take that financial risk with general contractors who simply sketch a quick design on a notepad.

"Frankly, it seems like some of the people don't want this work," Dolsen said. "I haven't met someone who says, 'I know exactly. I can show you pictures. This is what I do.' So maybe it's a hard project."

Or perhaps, Dolsen is speaking to the wrong people.

Meet David Lehmann. Even though he is not a contractor, word of his tree houses has spread.

"I started by building decks. And a tree house is kind of just a deck in a tree — with a little building on it," Lehmann chuckled.

As a side hobby to his daytime graphic-design career, he has now made three tree houses in Menlo Park for his neighbors and one in Los Gatos that made it to a photo gallery on the San Francisco Chronicle's online website, SFGate, titled "The greatest tree houses of the Bay Area."

Elena Mosko, owner of the Los Gatos tree house, said her tree house has been getting a lot of attention since the SFGate blog and will soon be in a music video.

"To me, it was really an effort to relive my childhood memories," she said. "It's a little place that is your own. ... It almost doesn't matter how comfortable it is. It's your little space."


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