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5-Story-Tall Treehouse Burns Down In East Tennessee

NOEL KING, HOST:

There was a fire in east Tennessee on Tuesday night. Authorities in the town of Crossville saw the flames from miles away, and they knew exactly what was burning - a five-story treehouse. NPR's Laurel Wamsley has the story.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When firefighters got word of the blaze, it was already too late.

BOBBY DEROSSETT: Yeah, it was fully engulfed when they first got the call. And by the time the first truck got there, it done fell in.

WAMSLEY: Bobby Derossett is assistant chief of the fire department in Cumberland County. He remembers how the treehouse began back in the early '90s with a man named Horace Burgess. He told the Knoxville News Sentinel he'd been called to build it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HORACE BURGESS: And the spirit of God said, if you'll build me a treehouse, I'll never let you run out of material.

WAMSLEY: And build it he did. Constructed around seven trees, it rose to about 100 feet with a steeple soaring even higher. It had classrooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, stairs that snaked around the whole thing, like the world's longest wraparound porch.

DEROSSETT: Anytime anybody that had any lumber leftover from a construction job, they'd bring it to him. And that's what he used to build that thing with.

WAMSLEY: Burgess gave tours of the imposing treehouse, and people came from around the world to see it. They carved their names into the wood. And it just kept growing, says Derossett.

DEROSSETT: Man, I couldn't believe how big that thing had got. You know, they just kept building on it, building on it, building on it.

WAMSLEY: It got so big that in 2012, the state fire marshal came and said that Burgess had to shut it down. He put a gate across the entrance, but people just climbed over it. Pablo Maurer was one of them.

PABLO MAURER: It looks like a castle or cathedral.

WAMSLEY: He's a journalist originally from Nashville, which isn't too far from Crossville. He was working on a series of photo essays about abandoned places, so he and a friend hopped the fence. He says it's hard to even describe the sense of peace he felt exploring the treehouse.

MAURER: Not a religious person in any way whatsoever. I'm pretty much an atheist. But, like, there is something beautiful about being in a place like that that somebody constructed just to try and get in touch with some sort of higher being.

WAMSLEY: A new owner bought the property a month ago and said he planned to keep the treehouse. The man who'd spent more than a decade building it said he was ready to start a new chapter. We may never know what started the fire on that cold, clear Tennessee night. There probably won't be an investigation. No one was injured, and the treehouse wasn't insured.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABOVE & BEYOND'S "BELIEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.