Jeff and Amy Shea’s six kids can travel from their back patio to her parents’ next-door deck in Turner’s Station, without ever touching the ground. When they tire of racing across the two expansive, elevated wooden bridges—which soar some 16-18 feet off the ground—that connect the two homes, they can play in their winding, three-story octagonal castle. Or perch themselves high atop a 30-foot-tall Chinese pagoda. Or simply slide, swing, seesaw, wrangle on a jungle gym, and dig in the sand amid what is undoubtedly one of the largest and most intricate playhouses anywhere in the state.
Shea’s father, Randy Berry, first started on the playhouse when son, Jaydon, and niece, Megan, who they raise, were only 2. They’re now 12, and like Amy’s family—which now includes younger siblings Luke, 7, Josh, 4, and twins Brooklyn and Autumn, 2—the playhouse has grown in size along with them.
“The idea just came from my daughter wanting some outdoor things for the kids to play on,” says Berry, a Shelby Energy Cooperative member. “I really didn’t have any set plan. We just winged it, so to speak.”
With its winding hideaways, zigzagging bridges, spiral staircases, and even pretend kitchen nook, the detailing of the playhouse is as impressive as its size. Onlookers stop routinely to gawk at the structure; one family even asked Berry to build a smaller-scale version on their own property.
“It’s amazing that we don’t have to go to a park. We have the park right here in our back yards,” says Shea. “With six kids, it’s definitely convenient.”
Imagination lives here
While Berry’s playhouse creation may be larger than most, he’s far from alone in putting his handiwork to good use in creating unique, personalized backyard play spaces for the kids in his life.
When we asked readers last year to tell us about the playhouses and tree houses they have built, scores of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even some kindly neighbors wrote in to tell us about the innovative structures they’ve helped create. Congratulations to those featured; they receive $50 for sending their stories.
As different as they all were, all had one thing in common: they were built as a labor of love for the special children who play in them. And, oh, the things people will do for the kids they adore.
Just ask Owen Electric Cooperative member Kurt Meier of Cincinnati, whose vacation cottage in Warsaw is home to one of the most structurally unique playhouses you’re ever going to see.
It has a Key West-inspired sawtooth, dormer style roof, sheathed in corrugated steel and copper in a hodgepodge of obtuse angles so outrageous it looks like the whole thing’s about to fall out of the tree at any moment. (Don’t worry: Meier built it that way on purpose, in homage to renowned modern architect Frank Gehry.)
“With those crazy angles it was a tough frame,” says Meier, an attorney who built the playhouse in 2009 and 2010 with help from his contractor brother-in-law, Ray Bresser. “We were up there with scaffolding, hanging off the trees. It was pretty funny. I about killed myself doing it.”
For an added wow factor, Meier contracted with sheet metal fabricator Young and Bertke of Cincinnati to build a 400-pound, 6-1/2-foot rocket that now sits in the tree next to the playhouse. Hoisting it up there was no easy task: it took 10 friends, a pickup, a homemade pulley system—and a lot of luck.
But it was worth the effort: “There’s a radio antenna in there, and we like to play like it’s some sort of alien ship device,” says Braden.
“They all five get in there and pound on the walls, and make the noises like they’re blasting off,” Meier says. “It’s fun to see.”
In Oldtown, in Greenup County, at the Stephens family’s back yard, you’re more likely to hear the blasts of pretend cannons or the clang of play swords from pirate aficionados.
“I just had to dream it and draw it up,” says Jarrod Stephens, a Grayson RECC member and teacher and published author by trade. “The ship is made from simple fencing lumber. We’re always adding to it. We put in a spy area near the slide, built from an old tree stump from our farm with a giant knothole in it. And the kids asked for a lifeboat, in case the ship sinks, so I built them one from some old scrap lumber. There’s a hammock underneath the ship where they can hold one another captive, or just go to rest up on hot summer days.”
Eventually, Stephens hopes to add a fort adjacent to the play set so that the boys can battle one another—some from land, and some by sea. “This is just their place,” he says. “They’re out here every good day we have.”
Waiting for fair weather to play in their over-the-top London clubhouse isn’t something Jessica and Andy Bales’ kids have to worry about.
“They woke up Christmas morning in 2010 and there it was,” says Andy Bales, a lineman with Jackson Energy Cooperative. “It’s got everything but water out there.” Pulling the kids out of the playhouse that day—or since—has been a challenge, Jessica says, since they love it so much.
“My favorite thing is the electricity,” says Cole, getting right to what sets his playhouse apart from most. And he added that since his family has recently welcomed a new sister, baby Cassidy, “Santa might have to get her a playhouse, too.”
While having all the amenities of home in your playhouse (right down to cold Kool-Aid at arm’s reach) as the Bales kids do would undoubtedly thrill any kid, a little imagination and the simple joy of having a space to call your own is all it takes to make any clubhouse magical.
Just ask 5-year-old Rachel Bolin of Russell Springs, who plays in her adorable 8×10-foot cottage playhouse nearly every day with her mom, Johnna Bolin, a member of South Kentucky RECC.
From tea parties to McDonald’s drive-thru to doll salon, Rachel imagines new uses for the playhouse all the time, her mom says. She loves rocking on its front porch, daydreaming in the upstairs loft, and tending to her flower boxes.
“That playhouse has been a godsend. She just wants to stay out there all the time. It’s just her space. I think it will always be her space, whether she’s 4 or 5, or 16,” Bolin says. “When she’s a teenager, I imagine it’ll be a good ‘mommy-escape’ place.”
And of course, for the kids lucky enough to have one, knowing that their playhouse or tree house was built especially for them by someone who loves them, makes it that much more special.
That’s what Jackson Energy Cooperative lineman Roger Carpenter of Mt. Vernon hopes his 5-year-old niece Isabella Grace Whitaker feels, anyway, when she plays in the custom, fit-for-a-princess castle playhouse he built for her last summer.
“It was a lot of trouble to build it,” Carpenter admits, noting he had to fit the mitered pieces together like a puzzle. “It probably would have been simpler just to buy one and be done with it. But she’ll never forget that someone built this especially for her. She’ll always remember that. It’s something that I don’t think anyone would ever forget, growing up—knowing that someone took the time to make something, just for you.”
Cool Play Spaces
We received so many wonderful submissions from across the state that we decided to share more unique playhouses and tree houses
THIS UNIQUE, 25-FOOT-TALL, THREE-STORY TREE HOUSE was built by Nolin RECC member Strat Warden, Elizabethtown, roughly 12 years ago for his son, Chas, now 15, and daughter, Rachel, now 14. Made from treated lumber, the third-story, south-facing wall is covered in translucent, rigid plastic panels, giving the play space passive solar heat. The Warden kids still love to entertain friends and camp out overnight at the playhouse in the summer. Photo: Strat Warden
THIS MASSIVE, 18X20-FOOT TREE FORT is situated over a picturesque hillside branch in Keith Lakes’ back yard. Lakes, a Jackson Energy member from Annville, built the fort last year, with Delmar Hundley, as a way to offer his kids—shown left to right: Asia, 4, Dalton, 8, Zion, 6, Jude, 7, Eden, 8—a fun way to get more exercise. With rope swings, monkey bars, a swinging bridge, fireman’s pole, balance beam, and more, the fort has been a huge hit. Photo: Keith Lakes
COMPLETE WITH GAMBREL ROOF, IN THE FARMHOUSE STYLE of their home, 6-year-old Noah Ballard’s charming playhouse sits high atop four power line poles discarded near their Smiths Grove farm. His father, Daniel, a Warren RECC member who owns a construction business, created the playhouse with nearly all reclaimed materials. Noah loves playing “sheriff’s office” at the clubhouse—which boasts carpet, electricity, a kid’s size La-Z-Boy, and a loft area big enough to sleep four. Photo: Daniel Ballard
THIS LOVELY—AND BRIGHT!—LIME GREEN PLAYHOUSE fits the vibrant personality of its current owner, Karli Noelle Hurt, 9, shown on left with her neighbor Jayden. Her grandfather, Noel Godby of Russell Springs, a South Kentucky RECC member, originally built the playhouse in his back yard 17 years ago for Karli’s older sister, Kelsay Leanne, now 19 and a freshman at Lindsey Wilson College. When Karli inherited the formerly pink playhouse last summer, she “remodeled” with her own choice of color. Photo: Noel Godby
WITH ITS PLAY SPACE UPSTAIRS AND COOL GO-KART STORAGE SPOT and other toys down below, the Wright family’s unique Richmond playhouse does double-duty. Built by Blue Grass Energy member Jason Wright for his kids, Logan, 9, and Bella, 5, the clubhouse—made from repurposed lumber and siding—includes a basket “elevator” to haul toys up and down, a tube slide, and electricity to power the TV, DVD player, lights, and small heater inside. Photo: Jason Wright
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >THEN AND NOW PLAYHOUSE
Read about Ada June Thompson’s 1940 playhouse that her Papa built for her in Owingsville and the good memories she and her friends still reminisce about today. The original playhouse now sits in the front yard on her farm. See photos of it then and now! Go to Owingsville playhouse.