Off the ground in Bowmanville | Space | Chicago Reader

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Off the ground in Bowmanville

Lightning be damned, Liz and Alex Gabbard's urban tree house has stood tall for a solid decade.


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When Alex Gabbard turned nine years old in 2003, his mother, Liz, had a trick up her sleeve. For his birthday, she gave him a two-by-four inscribed with the word "treehouse." Alex was confused by the slab of wood at first, but when Liz brought him out to the silver maple in their side yard and blurted out, "You're gonna get a tree house!" the dream of every kid would become a reality.

But a mere six weeks later, both the Gabbards' tree—towering nearly 100 feet tall—and their home were struck by lightning. What are the chances? I'll tell you: one in 200 houses are struck per year, according to And, hey, can you believe that lightning strikes result in an economic impact of about $5 billion in the U.S. each year? The more you know . . .

So the tree-house dream was temporarily dashed as the family recovered. They lost all of their electrical appliances and the tree suffered some damage—so building a glorified sky fort didn't take priority.

"Once the house got struck by lightning, I lost hope," Alex says. "But I started begging my mom . . ." Liz eventually called in a tree doctor to assess the damage. Diagnosis: the tree had endured a small burn but still met the safety standards for construction. The project was soon back underway.

Liz, who is an award-winning gardener, initially designed the structure to be an open deck—but that was just too simple. In its current form, the powder-blue urban getaway is a clean-cut cube with a window on each wall and an A-frame roof complete with shingles. Basically, it's a miniature version of the main house that sits a mere ten yards away.

"The tree house had no intention of being this lovely," Liz says. "The contractor came over, and the next thing you know they're running to Home Depot getting windows, getting all the walls, and then someone went and got shingles. It was built within three days."

Not only does it have a pulley system for transporting supplies up and down in a bucket, this tree house has its own address with a mailbox. And electricity.

"We would spend multiple nights up here. We had an XBox and Playstation 2, so we would play video games all night, have little tournaments," Alex recalls. "At one point we had two TVs."

This summer marks the tree house's tenth anniversary (the maple itself is around 80 years old). Alex is now officially an adult, enrolled at Illinois State University. Inevitably, the wonder years fade into a nostalgic haze. "All of my friends have gotten bigger so now we take up a lot of room," Alex says. "For the most part, it's a show-and-tell kind of thing."

Trees expand slowly and subtly, and there's been some talk of dismantling the playhouse. "As the tree grows, it's pushing the frame out," Liz explains. "It's growing half an inch a year." But following a recent visit from the tree doctor, Liz has been assured the tree house has some life left in it. "We're good for another five years."

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