In the last few days, Harold Burgess, the creator of the world’s largest treehouse, has been taking calls from mourners all over the world who had made pilgrimages to the 97-foot-tall wooden structure in Crossville, Tenn.
On Tuesday night, it burned to the ground. It took about 15 minutes for the monastery-like edifice to become a pile of ash, officials said.
Firefighters received a call at their station around 10:30, and could already see flames against the dark sky, said Trevor Kerley, the Cumberland County fire chief. By the time they arrived on the scene, he said, “there wasn’t much to do.”
The treehouse has been closed to visitors since 2012, and Mr. Burgess had sold it to new owners. Still, though the structure had played a powerful role in his life for decades, Mr. Burgess, a minister and landscape architect, said its destruction was, in some ways, a relief.
“It’s always been a pain,” he said by telephone two days after the fire.
To visitors, it became known as “the Minister’s Treehouse.” But to his wife, he said, it was “a mistress.” To build it, he drove 258,000 nails with a gun, and about 500 pounds of penny nails by hand, into the wooden planks that would make up the structure. “It took 12 years of my life,” he said.
Over the years, Mr. Burgess said, he officiated 23 weddings inside. (Only a few of the couples still remain married. “I tied the knot for them,” he joked, but “maybe not hard enough.”)
The idea to build it arrived as a vision one morning in 1993, he said, when he was in a dark place in his life. But as he was lying in bed, God had showed him the plans of the treehouse, inside and out, “with art on the wall and an elevator,” he said.
“If you build a ministry house,” he recalled a voice saying, “you’ll never run out of material.”
Nearly every plank of barn wood, oak and pine that he secured required divine guidance, he said.
“A lot of times,” he said, “I had to stand there and let the spirit of God show me what piece to put up,” sometimes while dangling 60 feet above the ground.
“I don’t want any accolades,” he said. “God gets the glory.”
Pete Nelson, the host of “Treehouse Masters” on Animal Planet, first heard about Mr. Burgess’s treehouse more than a decade ago.
Mr. Nelson, who has written six books about treehouses and runs a business building elaborate ones, said Mr. Burgess’s structure was “by far” the largest in the world. (The second, he said, is probably the Alnwick Garden Treehouse in Northumberland, England, a 6,000-square-foot complex, including a restaurant, built 60 feet in the air and connected by suspended walkways.)
“It was extraordinary,” Mr. Nelson said of Mr. Burgess’s treehouse. “It was all handmade and, in the essence of a true treehouse, just recycled and repurposed and salvaged and just cobbled together.”
Like a tree itself, the structure had a narrow base anchored around a huge white oak that expanded as it rose, and meandered into about 15 nearby trees.
There was a belfry at the tippy top, he recalled, where Mr. Burgess had made churchlike bells out of large gas canisters used for welding.
“I’ll never forget swinging underneath,” Mr. Nelson said, recalling pumping his legs like a child to get height on the 20-foot ropes.
“And you could just lean back and look up at this thing that was just like, what the hell, man, this is crazy,” he said. “And it was.”
During one visit, Mr. Nelson said, Mr. Burgess told him about the fire officials who had been threatening to shut the treehouse down.
“They were giving him grief about the rungs of the ladder being out of code,” Mr. Nelson recalled.
And Mr. Burgess quipped, “You think people are going to worry about whether it’s 15 inches apart when this thing’s on fire?”
In 2012, state fire marshals finally shut down the Minister’s Treehouse, because, according to a local news report, the building exceeded height restrictions, did not have a fire alarm or sprinkler system, and was not built by a registered design professional.
Soon, the space was visited by trespassers instead of tourists. Vandals defaced the property. Mr. Burgess sold it recently.
It’s still unclear what sparked the fire, Mr. Kerley, the fire chief, said.
“There was no electricity” in the structure, he said, and there had been “no storms.”
The treehouse was a place of refuge and contemplation, Mr. Burgess said.
“You’re above all your situations, circumstances, for a moment,” he said. “Your eyes can see over all the stuff that’s under you.”