Text by Lisa McEwen | Photos by Frank Miramontes, DMI Agency
As many grandparents can attest, the arrival of grandchildren sparks a desire to create moments and memories like no other force of nature. For Barry and Donna Sommer, the birth of two granddaughters encouraged them to look beyond the walls of their home and up into the stately oak trees that surround their 2.5-acre forested property.
“How nice would it be for them to have their own special place?” Barry explained. “We had always wanted to build something high up in one of our trees so we could get a clear view of the Sierra.”
As construction projects go, a simple design soon morphed into something more complex and contemporary. It also presented an opportunity for Barry, a psychologist, to put his carpentry and architectural skills to work.
“Soon, it became another wonderful project to invest in,” he said. “It created time and focus at home for me, and a chance to do work that I don’t get to do in my regular job.”
In tackling this project, the Sommers ended up building the first permitted treehouse in Tulare County. This included verifying with an arborist that the tree — a Valley oak — is healthy enough to live another 100 years. The project also required the expertise of a structural engineer who could pour the concrete and fabricate, weld and install the structural “bone” needed to support what amounts to a tiny house 25 feet aboveground, in the canopy of the gorgeous century-old tree.
During construction, at the urging of their daughter, an employee of Airbnb, the Sommers decided to also offer the treehouse to guests from around the world on their way to Tulare County’s main draw — Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. This has blended well with their past as Servas hosts. Servas is an international, nonprofit and nongovernmental network of hosts and travelers, founded after World War II in an effort to build world peace and understanding of cultures.
“We have met people from all over the world,” Barry said, both through Servas and in the past six months through Airbnb. “Our treehouse guests are here to see the parks. They love the proximity to the parks as well as to downtown Visalia, which is very appealing to foreigners. They love the restaurants and nightlife of downtown.”
The 400-square-foot, modern, energy-efficient treehouse was designed by Visalia architect Sharon Sheltzer. In September 2018, the Sommers had their permit and construction could begin. At this point, building the treehouse became a weekend-warrior type of project.
“Every Saturday and Sunday, we were building whatever needed to be done,” Barry said.
Friends and construction professionals pitched in, including Ron Overaker, retired owner of Structures Plus in Tulare, who oversaw the building as project manager, as well as Ryan Snyder and Robert Wood. Merced Doria, a friend from Lindsay, and Jose Estralla also provided help and heavy lifting. After all, each piece of material had to be hoisted up the tree 25 feet or more using heavy building equipment.
Today, a gorgeous set of handcrafted stairs guides guests up the tree and, to protect those stairs, a small dumbwaiter carries suitcases and groceries to the top, a fun project that son-in-law Dustin Cram helped design, engineer, build and install.
Even though the treehouse was a small project, it came with its own set of big challenges. After it cleared the hurdles of the permitting process, another springtime challenge buzzed in with the citrus bloom — swarms of bees. At 25 feet high, the treehouse was a comfortable location for them to set up camp.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot about bees,” Barry said with a smile. A county beekeeper was called to remove the nests, but Barry had to repair some damage that was done.
Once the structure was complete, decorating the interior was quick and easy, as there is just a bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette.
The Sommers continued with a natural decor, seamlessly blending interior and exterior views with maple flooring and custom-designed furniture made by Travis Rupp of Visalia. Barry constructed a light fixture with mulberry branches he found on the property; it rests like a headboard.
One should note that guests have a bull’s-eye view into Sequoia National Park from the veranda of the treehouse, with Castle Rocks, Moro Rock and Sawtooth all visible on a clear day.
The structure is also “smart,” as in all electronics are operated with the help
of Amazon’s Alexa. At the sound of a command, lights, the miniature Napoleon-brand fireplace and even the microwave can turn on or off.
One item that guests won’t see: a television. “That was intentional,” Barry said.
In June 2019, granddaughters Noah and Shonna arrived from their home in Portland, Ore., and finally climbed up the stairs and spent the night with their grandmother in the treehouse, its first-ever inhabitants.
“They have a lot of fun when they come to stay here,” Barry said.
With their help, final touches, such as window treatments on the east-facing sliding glass doors, were added. The sunrise is especially bright at 25 feet in the air!
Since then, the treehouse has been rented every weekend through Airbnb — so busy that even Barry and Donna have not had the opportunity to spend the night in it yet.
And for fun, the Sommers donated a night in the treehouse for the Sequoia Symphony’s September “Moonlight and Music” fundraiser.
Looking back on the 10-month project, Barry said he enjoyed every aspect of the process and appreciates the time spent with friends and fellow craftsmen to create a special place for not only world travelers but also friends and their granddaughters.
“Ultimately, there were a lot of laughs and no one got hurt,” he said.