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Above all else // IS A GREAT PLACE TO BE

(ran TP)

Christopher Robin and Piglet played in one, high atop a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood. Comic-strip brat Calvin and his tiger Hobbes ran their anti-girl club from one. Tarzan and Jane lived in one, and the shipwrecked Swiss Family Robinson built one so comfortable that they decided to stay in it even after rescuers showed up.

We're talking, of course, about treehouses, magical configurations of branches and boards that make a natural setting for fantastic stories that capture kids' fancy.

But you don't have to be a domesticated apeman or a shipwrecked Swiss to appreciate the charms of a treehouse. All kinds of real kids and grown-ups find them the perfect place to escape from the cares of the earthbound world, to get a little peace high up in the cooling breezes and rustling leaves.

"I think you get a sense of freedom up in a tree," says Mark Barroso, a Tampa freelance writer and sound technician who built a "tree deck" for himself and a treehouse for his 2{-year-old daughter, Natalie, in their River Heights backyard.

"Sometimes I stretch out in the hammock and sleep out here," Barroso says. "If the moon's not too bright it's really nice. I get out my short-wave radio and listen to Radio Beijing or a station in Denmark that comes in pretty good."

Treehouses are also great venues for imaginative play.

Take a 3- by 4-foot platform and stick it in the branches of an oak tree, and you've got a secret hideout, a swaying boat, a spaceship. When you're suspended above the ordinary world, imagination takes over and transforms a few hours of play into a timeless journey to another dimension.

"We used to pretend there was fire and alligators on the ground," says John Skemp, 18, who spent much of his childhood playtime in his South Tampa treehouse. "If you had to jump down to get something, then you'd pretend that you had an invisible forcefield until you got back up."

Treehouse builder Peter Nelson published a book that traces the history of treehouses, from the fountain-equipped house built by Francesco de Medici during the Italian Renaissance to the 16th-century Tudor-style cottage still standing in a linden tree in Pitchford Hall, England.

Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb also chronicles fabulous modern-day treehouses. In Hawaii Nelson found a one-room hotel 25 feet up in a monkeypot tree. In Minnesota he took a gander at a triple-decker treehouse that cost the builder his marriage and thousands in legal fees when his behemoth ran afoul of local zoning codes.

Nelson's book has pictures of treehouses that function as dormitories or monastic retreats, treehouses with leaded glass doors and treehouses with plumbing and electricity.

The treehouse Michael Maher built in his Davis Islands front yard doesn't have glass doors or electricity, but it does have an elevator. Passengers get lifted up by means of rope and pulley, just like dishes in a dumbwaiter.

Maher built the house for his sons Chris and Richard without putting any nails into the towering oak that supports it, a move he sees as an important sign of regard for the tree.

"You don't put nails in it first of all so that the tree doesn't die and fall down, bringing your treehouse with it. But it's also a way to respect the tree. It's symbiosis. The tree gives us a place to build a house, and the tree in return gets the attention and concern of humans." Maher's take on the appeal of treehouses?

"They're magical. When built properly, they convey energy and life from the tree."

Some have suggested that contemplating the branching structure of a huge oak _ a configuration similar to the body's vascular system or the pattern of river tributaries _ calms the mind and puts us in tune with the archetypal forms of life.

Another attraction might be the way treehouses satisfy humans' primordial instincts to climb away from predators.

"We still carry the genes of our ancient primate ancestors who looked to the trees for safety," Maher says. "The trees give protection from the lions and tigers and bears. And when the flood comes, you're safe and dry in a tree."

Whatever the appeal, Maher's advice for would-be treehouse builders is simple:

"Respect your tree and go for it. It's the kind of thing you just have to do. It doesn't make any sense if you have to explain it."

_ Times researcher BARBARA HIJEK contributed to this report

Dad and daughter share a loft in the sky

Natalie Barroso's treehouse is the pink one with the the Pocahontas poster and Little Tykes play stove inside.

Her dad's is the space upstairs with the natural wood finish, where barbecues and Super Bowl parties sometimes last into the night.

"I can fit about 15 people up here, plus the barbecue," Mark Barroso says. "We'll get the barbecue going and get pretty loud."

Purists might sniff that Barroso's platform isn't really a treehouse. It's more like a tall deck built next to a clump of live oak trees in Barroso's River Heights backyard. But why quibble with names when you can sit on the platform with leaves rustling beside you and wind chimes tinkling in the distance?

Barroso built the deck about five years ago using $1,000 in materials from Home Depot. He called to tell his wife, Julie, who was then studying for her Ph.D. in Texas, and her first question was "How big is it?"

The first thing she said when she saw it was "Oh my God!"

Natalie's playhouse was added last year using about $800 in new materials.

"I want it to be a getaway for her, because that's what treehouses were for me," Barroso says. "I think they're essential, really.

"I remember being about 8, standing barefoot on a branch and looking out over my neighborhood. You could see the whole neighborhood _ I could see as far as I was allowed to travel. It was like it was my domain."

Barroso built railings to keep Natalie safe, but he isn't overly anxious about her falling out.

"You kind of judge what your kid's tendencies are. If I had a boy, maybe I would have put up nets.

"But anything I built had to be strong enough to hold an adult. Adults like to climb on things, too. You just can't keep 'em off."

Pop built a fancy house suited to a tree

The treehouse Michael Maher built for his sons Richard and Chris is pretty impressive _ it's got two stories, a wraparound deck and a rope-and-pulley elevator.

Maher doesn't want it to be too perfect, though.

"It's a pretty fancy treehouse, but I like it that it's not quite square and not quite level," he says. "It shouldn't look like a house _ it's supposed to look like something built for a tree."

When he started construction last fall, Maher took pains to protect the huge oak on his Davis Islands property. He used chains, not nails, to secure the beams to the tree.

He also used wood recycled from the construction of the "land house" he and his wife Emmy Acton were building on the lot.

"It's better if you scavenge, better if you use scraps," he says. "That's the way a treehouse should be."

Richard and Chris, both 11, say they haven't yet spent the night 12 feet above the ground, but that they've found plenty of fun stuff to do in the treehouse.

"You can spy on people," Richard explains. "We have a big obsession with spying on our parents' parties. Plus, when you want to talk about something private, you can get away from everything. My friend has a sister who is very nosy, and we can go up there without her."

The boys have to use an aluminum ladder to get to the treehouse when no one is there to pull them up the elevator, and they've politely suggested that their dad build the promised steps someday soon.

"All these big construction projects have scheduling problems," Maher says with a wry smile. "But you should know that a treehouse is never finished."

Peter Skemp jokes that while other husbands have doghouses, he has a treehouse.

"I stretched myself out on the floor and had my neighbor measure me before we started building it," he says. "I figured if Nancy (his wife) ever got mad at me, I could come out here."

Skemp never had to sleep in the cozy little house out in the unusually large magnolia tree, which faces a towering oak where a screech owl lives. But his daughter Genie, 14, and son John, 18, used to spend countless hours playing under a canopy of shiny green leaves and huge white blossoms.

"We used to play with GI Joes up there, get coffee filters and string and make parachutes out of 'em," John says. "And we'd pretend the magnolia cones were grenades. If you broke the stem that meant you pulled the pin, and it was live."

Nancy Skemp says Genie wanted to get up in her big brother's treehouse as soon as she could walk.

"I probably played house up here a million times," Genie says. "Sometimes we would pretend the branches were horses."

The tree fort, as Southerners like the Skemps are apt to call them, was built for John's fifth birthday party, and John remembers that his dad still was up in the tree with hammer and nails even after the guests started arriving.

The lumber for the treehouse was salvaged from a torn-down carport on the South Tampa property.

"If you have to buy the lumber, it's not as much fun," Peter Skemp explains. "The way it was constructed, you have to be big enough to climb the tree to get into the treehouse. I made it that way on purpose. The tree basically functions as a spiral staircase."

At 12 years old, the Skemp treehouse is getting on in years, and is showing signs of its long life. Peter Skemp says he'll probably have to tear it down soon, but Nancy Skemp has other ideas for that singular magnolia tree.

"I'd like to replace that deck and have cocktail parties up there," she says. "If you built it two stories, you could see the bay from up there."