Rochester's secret tree house retreats inspire tall tales

Christopher Shanahan built this three-level treehouse in the backyard of his Rochester home.

Rochester's tree house secrets include three generations, three-cornered hats, and three-storied structures proving that like Animal Planet's show "Treehouse Masters," our town boasts its own tree house fanatics.

Dan Van Hook's tree house predates the recent craze. He built it for his children Alison and Jordan, who were ages 2 and 4 when it was built in 1987. The tree house is nestled 9 feet off the ground in the midst of three converging trunks sprouting from the same roots. It sports a through-the-floor trapdoor entry, two-peaked gables, green trim, and its own deck.

The tree house has taken on new life for Van Hook's 2-year-old granddaughter, Hayden. Thinking back to her own childhood, Hayden's mother, Alison, remembers, "We'd wake up in the morning and just go out and play in it."

"Its part of the family," Van Hook said of the tree house. The latest addition to this "family tree" is a tremendous rope swing suspended from the upper branches that swings in lazy gigantic circles as Hayden, pushed by her mother, giggles in delight. "It is their world," says Van Hook.

Another notable tree house requires residents to don three-cornered hats and eye patches. Complete with muslin sails, a netted gangplank, curved prow, and tattered pirate flag, this ship sails among tree trunks as if captained by Peter Pan.


The ship's builder, Henry Walker, modeled it on a 1700s-era galleon. Walker built it to help his sons Bjorn, 13, and Ari, 11, "play with imagination."

Walker's wife, Shawna, fondly recalls the family Christmas card photo taken on board with parents held at sword point, but laments earrings she lost to games of "X marks the spot."

Six-year old Lilly is one of the luckiest children in Rochester: Her father, Chris, from Shanahan Building and Remodeling, built her a three-story marvel perched within a towering walnut tree. With three decks, a fully-insulated and wired room with a fold-down bunk, and a rooftop observation deck, it seems like a tree house mansion.

"I really wanted to do something fun for Lilly," Shanahan said. He spent 15 working days and around $4,000 on the tree house.

On lush wooded acres within sight of the Zumbro River, twinkling solar-powered lights lead upstairs to the high, reclaimed cedar decking fronting the tree house John Archbold built for Emma, 16, and Jack, 13. It is home to a cheery blue interior with two comfortable chairs, a bookshelf holding the complete Harry Potter series, and a peg board holding a slingshot and archer's bow.

"There were many, many times when high heat, bugs and fading light all came into play, with John being able to work on the project after work and in between busy kids activities," says his wife, Laurie, who calls the project "inspirational."

It's not going out on a limb to say all these tree houses have whimsy and playfulness in common. They are portals for piratical imaginings, quiet spaces to read, and perfect slumber party spots. As Walker puts it, "Fun doesn't need to be justified."


— Want to build your own tree house? John Archbold recommends consulting Black and Decker's book "The Complete Guide to Building Tree Houses."

— Love the idea of a tree house but want to avoid the sweat? Try having a custom tree house built and designed by Lanesboro’s Out Door Structure Pros. Check them out at .

— Want to experience a sleepover in a luxury tree house? Try booking a night in a "real" house in Long Prairie that was built in a tree. Find it online:

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