TREETOPS TEXT AND PHOTOS BY PAM VANDERPLOEG copyright West Michigan Modern 2016.
Robert Amor, AIA, designed TreeTops for a nearly unbuildable site on a low stable dune. The first word my husband used to describe this 1,500 square foot, three bedroom and two bath tree house, when I asked him for his impressions, was “organic.” Although a popular descriptor these days, "organic" perfectly describes this home that is, in the architect’s own words, “ a sculptural composition that is reminiscent of the massing of leaves in a tree.”
Matt greeted us at the door of TreeTops. TreeTops is located in the scenic Holcomb Hills neighborhood in Grand Haven along the Lake Michigan shoreline, where West Michigan Modern hosted a tour of another home in April. TreeTops was designed by architect Robert Amor, AIA. I knew of Amor because he finished some of the work in progress of architect Edgar Robert Firant who had died suddenly in 1972. However, I didn’t have any homes in my database designed by Amor, and since I had seen it from the road, I was eager to get a better look at this extraordinary house.
Homeowner Matt is lucky enough to have the architect’s design statement, prepared for potential buyers, and copies of articles from the Grand Rapids Press and Muskegon Chronicle, written when the house was completed. In these documents, Amor described how TreeTops is meant to be like a tree house set on pressure treated poles, randomly-spaced “like the spacing of trees in nature.” Heavy structural beams extend out beyond the walls of the house, like the branches of a tree. To complete this treehouse, Amor used “random-laid hand-split cedar shingles stained to a leaf-green color” for the sidewalls and mansard roof. The cedar shingle roof has since been replaced with asphalt shingles due to deterioration of the original cedar shingles.
Robert Amor used the construction of TreeTops as a summer job and a teaching experience for his three sons, all architecture students at the time. Convincing the boys to work on the project, Amor referred to his own architectural studies at the University of Michigan, when Frank Lloyd Wright came to talk to his class, and said that part of their education should be out on the field, “getting the feel of the materials with which we work.”
Today the tree house is just as glorious as originally designed by Amor and constructed by his sons. TreeTops is set sideways within the narrow lot lines, soaring upward on the massive poles. There is a distinctly Asian feel to the beautiful double doors. Rough cut cedar strips were glued to metal doors to emulate the feel of bark, continuing the three motif. Entering the house, you walk up four half-flights past the space originally designated for an elevator shaft and the wall covered with the rough cedar strips.
Amor likened this to "climbing the tree." And he designed the house with the potential for an elevator to make living in the tree house fully accessible to all.
The living space is all on one floor at the top of the stairs with the bedrooms on one side of the central stairway, and the open-concept living room, kitchen, eating area on the other. The main living area is spacious and comfortable. Built into the beams around the periphery is a frame that holds fluorescent lights with dimmers, designed by the architect to create variable lighting and warm up the space. The frame can also be used to display some of the homeowner’s treasures. The most striking feature of the main living space is the combination of poles and beams. The structure sits on the pine poles and beautiful Douglas Fir beams support the roof with cedar beams radiating outward in a geometric pattern to imitate the branches of a tree.
Carved, decorative beam ends for me evoke a totem pole. A skylight brings light into this structure nestled into the shade of the trees. Interestingly the windows have different sill heights. The house was designed so that one could stand in the corner of the living room, looking out from the floor to ceiling windows to the surrounding dunes, and down to an almost dizzying view of the multi-level decks below.
The outdoor decks distinguish the house and beckon you to spend time outdoors in what feels like a great party space. Yet at the same time, the house is very private in this neighborhood is set in the dunes, where the houses are sited creatively in the sheltering dunes.
One can only imagine how beautiful it must be in winter! And TreeTops has an enviable feature - a shared Lake Michigan beach.
In creating his treehouse, architect Robert Amor was justifiably proud that they barely disturbed the hillside. He said that they only had to cut about six small trees. He finished off the project with an amazing set of stairs that wrap around and hug the exterior, providing a visually beautiful path to climb the treehouse.
This house is a study in contrasts. Inside, Tree tops has a cozy and warm interior. Outside, you feel very small and human looking up at the beauty of the monumental and sculptural exterior.
As you can imagine, it’s very hard for Matt and his family — especially his artist daughter — to say goodbye to TreeTops, but this awesome home is for sale by owner. For more information on TreeTops contact Matt at 616-402-3113.