This Permitted DIY Kids Fort Stands off a Back Alley Near the US Capitol. From fall 2015 to mid-2020, 7 DC Government Attorneys were Tasked with the Job of Getting the Structure Torn Down, Running Taxpayers more than 100 X the Cost of the $1,500 Tree House. The Lawyers Failed. We’re Calling it Ludicrous Government Waste.

TREE HOUSE UPDATE, OCTOBER 2020:  Welcome to the Capitol Hill tree house blog.  Against all odds, the little castle in the old elm at 516 Archibald Walk SE celebrated its 5TH BIRTHDAY at Labor Day.  The play fort remains in our tree despite the fact that the DC goverment worked assiduously to get it torn down for almost five years, from fall 2015 to spring 2020.  The District came at the tree house year after year, even though the neighbors who pushed for its destruction over the winter of 2015-16 abandoned their campaign long ago.  Fortunately, we're close to finalizing an out-of-court settlement with the District, under the auspices of the US District Court of the District of Columbia, sparing the treehouse while our girls are still in elementary school.  Tune in...

The arboreal play fort is situated off a narrow U-shaped back alley near Eastern Market.  Archibald Walk SE loops off F St. Terrace between E & G and 6th & 7th Streets.  Our legal appeals of the DC Public Space Committee's decison to compel us to "abate" the fort from 20" of public air space, back in January 2016, are ongoing.  The tree house case has slowly wended its way through the Federal court system since January 2018.

This Independence Day was the first since the castle was built that we couldn't host a community tree house open house, due to the Covid19 crisis.  Next year; stay safe!

We, the tree house-building parents, Ellen Psychas and Bing Yee, created this site with help from supporters during the alley media blitz in early 2016.  Our little blog has gained steam over the years, mainly due to Washington Post coverage of the tree house saga: the counter at the bottom of this page now records over 65,000 views.  If you're a tourist on the Hill who likes getting off the beaten path, come find the castle-styled tree house that's caused all the fuss. The fort's exterior is easily viewed from the public alley.  

We're thrilled that the tree house has survived to see Covid19 restrictions as a wondrous play space for cooped-up kids.  But of course we had to cancel our Mothers Day open house during the DC shelter-in-place period.  Even so, the castle made the popular Uncommon District photography blog this past spring, featured in "Photographing While Social Distancing, Part 3."  Families with homes in the alley network have been playing socially distanced sports on Archibald Walk, e.g. badminton and street hockey.  

There's a simple reason that our girls' tree house remains in our tree off a hidden alley enclave, long after the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) first ordered us to demolish the play castle.  DDOT issued us with a public space construction permit under a DCRA construction code (not a DDOT public space rental permit) in November 2015, and let that authorization close out the same month.  With a closed construction permit in hand, we were in a position to push back against the City's campaign to get the tree house torn down. DDOT alleged that the play fort must go because it "blocks travel," but can see that the plywood castle doesn't overhang a paved surface.  Moreover, the alley in question, Archibald Walk, has been closed to vehicular traffic for decades. 

Over the winter of 2015-2016, after our permit had already closed out, objecting neighbors signed a petition to get the fort torn down, addressed to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B.  In mid 2016 we realized that neither of the zoning commissions that had come at our play fort over the winter to appease the neighbors--not the (ANC) 6B Planning & Zoning Committee nor the Public Space Committee (PSC)--had the authority to overrule permits.  At that point--please excuse our gall--we decided to spread the word that City permitting agencies are known to demand that homeowners demolish structures covered by valid permits.  Fail to comply with an unlawful permit revocation attempt and face enormous fines: ordinary DC homeowner beware.  

In early 2018, we COUNTERSUED DDOT in the US District Court of DC, representing ourselves.  In fact, we did all of our own legal work.  We sued to challenge DDOT's denial of our right to due process in permitting in order to save the castle for our girls while they are still in elementary school.  Our countersuit was such a low-priority matter for the courts that judges were in no hurry to hear the case.  Meanwhile our children, who were toddlers when the tree house was built in 2015, are eight and ten now.  

On 12/28/18, the popular DCist: News, Food, Art & Events blog RAN A FEATURE on Not-in-My-Back-Alley squabbles.  Deane Madsen, architectural writer, brings readers up to date on the castle with the first media report poking fun at DDOT''s incompetent permitting work.  The witty Madsen notes that DDOT sent citations to a "non-existent Mr. Lee" (vs. to our Mr. Bing Yee) fining him $8,000 for failing to tear his tree house down. 

https://dcist.com/story/18/12/28/what-do-fights-over-treehouse-castles-gardens-and-waffles-have-in-common-alleys/

The two Yee girls playing dress-up at the back of the Archibald Walk "U," spring 2018.

RECENT TREE HOUSE HAPPENINGS:  WHO, WHAT, WHERE & WHY

The castle was Hogwarts last HALLOWEEN, with our us as Harry Potter characters in a trick-or-treating ensemble.  See Dress Up Gatherings.  We also hosted a high-spirited Potter-themed birthday bash for local 3rd graders last summer, with the support of most of the Archibald Walk neighbors.  Check out the picts - who knew that the south arm of the Walk, with its 15-foot-high walls, would make an ideal Quidditch pitch?  

Ward 6 Cub Scout, Daisy Scout and Brownie Scout leaders, please contact us if you're interested in bringing your den for a socially-distanced educational fall BIRD WATCHING session at the old elm.  Click on the Birding Activities header for more information.

In spring of 2019, we lost a dear friend and hero, the indomitable Charity Tillemann-Dick, age 35.  Charity, tree house lover, was instrumental in CREATING THIS SITE.  

In recent years, DDOT leaders have come in for strong criticism by COUNCIL OF DC MEMBERS for failing to make adequate progress in implementing the agency's Vision Zero initiative.  The scheme has the goal of reducing annual traffic deaths in DC to zero by the year 2024.  Sadly, there were more than two dozen road fatalities in the City in 2019 alone.  Public outrage over the needless deaths of pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders on unsafe streets continues to generate negative press for DDOT.    

We believe that DDOT should committ more taxpayer funds to BOLSTERING PUBLIC SAFETY and none to beating up on permitted kids forts.  Agency leaders lost persepctive on DDOT's core mission in tasking multiple attorneys with demolishing a small tree house, built eight feet above a public-private mulched tree box, that neither obstructs travel nor poses a threat to the public.  Even so, one DC lawyer after another was given the unenviable job of ensuring that the structure is demolished because it overhangs unusuable alley space slightly.  See Castle Paper Trail for a list of the seven City attorneys who, embarrassingly, authored tree house legal briefs.  Remarkably, the names include those of a Deputy DC Attorney General and the DC Solicitor General.  

DDOT's nutty campaign to remove a CHILD'S FORT BUILT FOR $1,500 cost taxpayers six figures, mainly in senior staff time.  The City circles the wagons in a trifling zoning matters to warn homeowners not to challenge permitting wrongdoing, the stuff of political farce.  Kids age out of their play forts, then families take them down, irregardless of the public resources thrown at destroying a particular structure.

DDOT's OVER-THE-TOP REACTION TO OUR CHALLENGE to the agency's abuse of authority clearly stems from Post coverage of our accusations of government wrongdoing.  The newspaper has run a series of stories and op-ed pieces on the tree house.  The result?  In 2018, DDOT trained extraordinary legal firepower on us at taxpayers' expense.  That spring, agency leaders sent several senior attorneys, a DDOT division chief, and a senior forester to a dead-ended full-day mediation session to frighten us into submission.  That fall, at an inconsequential hearing at the DC Court of Appeals, the City turned up with no less than four lawyers to face off against us, ordinary citizens representing ourselves in litigation.  Yet DDOT could have ended the litigation at any point along the way, freeing up City lawyers to do real work in the public interest, simply by agreeing to let the back alley tree house alone while our girls are still little. 

Thus far, none of the COUNCIL OF DC MEMBERS on the Committee on Transportation and the Environment (providing DDOT oversight) has indicated a willingness to challenge the wacky government waste in question, a team of OAG attorneys trying to get child's fort torn down, year after year.  We see scope for the Committee to pressure DDOT to honor public space construction permits granted to ordinary DC homeowners, particularly for small projects.  The same can be said of ANC 6B's leadership.  Nevertheless, we continue to ask our elected officials to take an interest in the matter.  See our letter to the Committee members inviting them to a 2018 open house.  

1/28/20 marked the 4TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DC PUBLIC SPACE COMMITTEE MEETING at which the chair tore up the permit authorizing the tree house in plain view.  Our message to the City has been that when administrative agencies unlawfully revoke building permits like that, DC's investment climate takes a hit.  We hope that this bizarre zoning case has helped expose permitting incompetence and ingrained homeowner-hostile practices.  If other DC residents are better able to defend rights conferred by permanent permits as a result of our having dug in to challenge DDOT bumbling and wrongdoing, litigation will have been a small price to pay.  

The Washington Post Metro Section ran this surprising report on the tree house in January 2018, after finding our complaint via Pacer Legal Filings software:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/after-a-three-year-neighborhood-dispute-the-case-of-a-capitol-hill-treehouse-lands-in-federal-court/2018/01/17/61229ec0-fb10-11e7-ad8c-ecbb62019393_story.html?utm_term=.fea5530b2d89

The story about our countersuit in US District Court was scooped by none other than the DC URBAN REAL ESTATE BLOG.  Their report explores why we've been challenging DDOT's denial of due process in permitting in Federal court for over two years.  Find a list of dozens of annotated tree house-related media links under Press Coverage

https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/hacked-accounts-and-improper-notices-the-saga-of-the-capitol-hill-treehouse/13455

LITIGATION TIMELINE - DDOT DIGS IN TO TEAR DOWN A PERMITTED CHILD'S FORT:

July 2015:  Ellen Psychas and Bing Yee, longtime Hill residents, ask permiting officials which authorizations will be required to build a kids fort at their Archibald Walk SE property.  The proposed tree house would project slightly over the tree space abutting their lot off an historic pedestrian walkway/back alley.  The creative design would enable the builders to use a wooden fence with posts laid in concrete as supports, minimizing the drilling of 18-inch lag bolts into a rare American elm.  They learn that there is no reference to play forts or tree houses in the DC Municipal Regulations (DCMR) or Historic Preservation Rules.  They show officials plans and are told that DC does not permit structures with footprints of less than 50 SQF. 

August-September 2015:  The tree house is built for the two preschool-age Yee girls, by relatives and family friends.  Immediate neighbors are left courtesy notes telling them that a non-permitted fort will go up in the backyard elm tree, whose branches extend over alley space.  None react.  The 7' x 4' fort cannot be viewed from a street.  

October-November 2015:  One Archibald Walk neighbor complains to DDOT that the fort was built in a public tree, and constitutes a public nuisance (both untrue).  A senior public space management inspector visits the alley and directs the parents to apply for a permit for the tree house to extend 20 inches into public air space over tree roots.  The parents do as instructed right away, quickly securing the permit.  The DDOT City-wide permitting manager chooses the type and length of the authorization, which closes out on Nov. 20th.  This is the parents' first public space permit in any jurisdiction.

December 2015-January 2016 A dozen alley neighbors and local supporters sign a tear-down petition addressed to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B.  The ANC reviews a permit "renewal" application the parents did not submit for a "proposed tree house" that's stood for months.  The "renewal" is of a "balcony construction" permit under a Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) code.  This is clearly a permanent permit, vs. a limited-duration "public space rental" permit, e.g. for a street party or temporary parking. The parents had not been instructed to submit to City review before being issued their building permit, whose language does not state "temporary," or specify that the authorization would need to be renewed.  Neither does the fine print state that the parents would need to apply for an applicable 2nd permit.  

A DDOT official goes into Ellen's permitting account to apply for the "renewal," unbeknown to her, and changes her password.  He memorializes his hacking in an email.  In October 2017, the parents will lodge a complaint with the FBI Internet Crimes Center.  The PSC denies the "renewal application," DDOT's crude attempt to take an administrative shortcut to revoking a building permit after a group of neighbors had complained about the tree house. No permit revocation documents are ever served.  At public hearings, ANC 6B commissioners and senior DDOT officials dodge Bing's questions as to why the original closed-out permit is not being respected.

February 2016-November 2017:  The parents appeal the "permit application renewal" denial to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) court and, later, to the DC Court of Appeals.  DDOT ignores Bing's requests for clarification of the status of the original permit, which the agency now refuses to recognize.  DDOT fines the parents $8,000 for not "abating" the tree house from public space, with half a dozen Notices of Violation served in the wrong homeowner's name, to a "Mr. Lee" vs. a "Mr. Yee" (because all East Asian immigrants must be, er, "Lees," like Kung Fu fighter Bruce Lee...?).  The nearest US Post Office will not release the notices of violation to Bing Yee.

November 2017-January 2018:  DDOT refuses court mediation at OAH, even though the lead judge has lined up a mediator, and deemed the tree house matter "small."  The Office of the Attorney General of DC (OAG) begins representing DDOT.  After two years of being on the receiving end of abusive administrative errors and shenanigans in public space permitting, Bing, a lawyer but not a civil litigator with trial experience, and Ellen countersue DDOT to challenge hefty fines.  They also sue the two senior DDOT officials most involved in permitting at the agency's Public Space Regulation Division.  

The parents represent themselves in the first complaint they file in any court of law.  The case is brought under the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and other causes of action right before the statute of limitations on various causes of action is to expire in early 2018.  The parents' goal is simply to keep the tree house until their daughters have outgrown it.   Alternatively, they would like fair compensation from the City for tearing the play fort down, to build a replacement entirely on their lot.

February 2018:  DDOT/OAG argues that the parents' lawsuit is "not ripe" in US District Court, after having asserted that the case "is moot" at the lower court, OAH.  The DC Court of Appeals dismisses the City's motion to throw out the appeal and refers the case to mediation.  OAG lawyers begin to insist that there was never a "permit renewal process."  They now claim that the parents actually applied for a 2nd permit, a mythical but mandatory "public space occupancy permit for balcony construction," denied by the PSC.  Evaluate DDOT's flip-flopping legal arguments at Castle Paper Trail.

March-April 2018:  DDOT/OAG tries to get the Federal case dismissed.  Mediation fails at the Court of Appeals after DDOT refuses to leave the tree house alone.  

September 27th, 2018:  The DC Court of Appeals hears oral arguments regarding vacating a DDOT stop-work-order that was likely illegal. The panel moots the apellate case.  The Federal case, however, continues on appeal.  

July-October 2020:  The treehouse case goes to mediation at the US District Court of the District of Columbia (Federal court).  The parties ask Judge Amy Berman Jackson to remove the case from her docket.  END OF TIMELINE  

We've stayed in litigation to protest how we did what the City required of us to build a legal tree house.  However, DDOT moved the goal posts on us as a result of internal dysfunction and administrative overreach.  An arbitrary project screening system also set the stage for litigation.  A paternalistic ANC 6B had no business informing us that we should submit to City review to defend a closed permit, thereby abetting an unlawful permit revocation.  Why not?  Because DC Code 1-309.10(a), spelling out ANC powers, states that the commissions “may advise…with respect to all proposed matters of DC government policy…” Completed construction projects authorized by closed permits cannot be described as "proposed matters."  If an ANC has an issue with a project covered by a closed building authorization the City hasn't lawfully revoked, the commissioners' quarrel is with the issuing agency, not the homeowner. 

The City's permitting games to demolish a legal kids fort have been enabled by a failed regulatory process in a jurisdiction supporting a byzantine construction permitting scheme.  The District's poorly explained and discretionary system for issuing and withdrawing ordinary homeowners' building authorizations set the stage for litigation in the tree house case.  The arrangement is particularly problematic for building projects overlapping public space and in the DC Historic Districts, where ANC project review is required.  Thus, your homeowner is predisposed to have real difficulty defending rights under permits covering small projects, e.g. sheds, fences, and play forts. 

This narrative not only chronicles the evolution of a knock-down neighborhood fight over a tree house, it proposes measures the City could take to prevent history from repeating itself when a family sets out to build a backyard play space.  See Castle Paper Trail, Proposed Tree House Rules.  The conflict hasn't been as much about a kids fort as lack of accountability to the public on the part of the DC permitting agencies.  The story also encapsulates an urban community's struggle to balance the needs and interests of the old guard with those of the droves of young families putting down roots in neighborhoods.  What else could explain why a kids fort a stone's throw from the Capitol Dome has attracted media attention?  The story has not only appeared in the WaPo, it aired on four local TV stations in January 2016: NBC-4,CBS-7, ABC-9 and Fox-5.  That year, NBC affiliates broadcast footage of the castle from coast to coast. 

A Short History of Capitol Hill Tree House Community Events: 2016-2020:

MEMORY-MAKING AT TREE HOUSE OPEN HOUSES FOR LOCAL CHILDREN:

Local families have stopped by Archibald Walk after the Capitol Hill Independence Day parade on 8th Street, two blocks west of the tree house, almost every year since the first tear-down order came in 2015.  During the early 2016 media blitz, Slate Magaine's Nora Caplan-Bricker called the tree house "a monument to freedom." At the open houses, changing neighborhood demographics have been on vivid display as Hill children, accompanied by parents and grandparents, celebrated the play fort's survival.  Each event has drawn 50-100 kids, although the ANC 6B-03 commissioner for the Walk, Jim Loots, proclaimed to the media that we'd "dedicated public space for exclusively private purposes...with no benefit whatsoever to the public at large" in building the tree house in the elm.

The open houses have been fun for little kids in the community. Teens serve as monitors in the elm, helping keep young visitors safe.  A rope-and-pulley controlled bird feeder system lets kids fill several feeders from the alley.  Visiting children have fun playing Crusaders in knights helmets.  Inside the fort, young visitors bang a gong, ring farm bells, peer through a toy telescope, blow bubbles, have tea parties, try out climbing rocks on the tree trunk, raise a supplies bucket and draw on a chalkboard.  Children have also collected stamps in "castle passports."  Tree house frequent fliers mix with first-time visitors, from babies to grandparents. A few neighbors who once opposed the tree house join in.  Each year that the play fort has survived has felt like a victory over construction permitting abuses in DC. 

An adhoc nerf arrows archery range has been a draw at the open houses.  Arrows are trapped nicely by the high walls of the two historic "Walker Dairy" warehouses sheltering the south arm of Archibald Walk.  A new generation of Hill residents appreciates an out-of-the-way historic walkway ("Marks Alley" in the day), making happy memories of participating in kid-friendly celebrations around the tree house. 

 

Game of Capture-the-Castle, June, 2018.  Neighborhood children have grown attached to the creative tree house at open houses, play dates, parties and birdwatching events.  See Dress-Up Gatherings.  We're concerned that, if this tree house is demolished prematurely, it will be the last built in a DC Historic District for a generation.  The local historic preservationists who came at the structure would do well to explain how backyard play spaces pose a threat to ongoing architectural restoration efforts on the Hill.  Which old building is threatened by a child's fort?  We believe that the DC community can balance safety, heritage, public space and the need to promote outdoor play for children.  When City leaders help make the DC Historic Districts child-friendly zones, they encourage the young families making their lives in them to thoughtfully invest in their classic properties.  One result is that parents become motivated to help the Department of Public Works maintain public alleys providing access to play spaces.    

Hill Tree House Foam Sword Battles for the Ages:

THANKSGIVING WEEKEND OPEN HOUSE 2018 - TERRIFIC FUN IN THE ALLEY:

The fall community open house was a wonderful time on a cold but sunny November afternoon.  Neighborhood kids converged on the Walk, with (foam) sword fighting emerging as the most popular activity.  More than 60 people rocked in to chat over pie and hot cider.  A hard-working teen tree house monitor kept good order up in the elm, giving the grown-ups below a chance to relax.  Alley visitors enjoyed filling the play fort's inventive pulley-and-rope-controlled bird feeders and bird bath.  See Photo Gallery.

AUGUST 2018 - MR. TONY'S CAPITOL HILL ADVENTURE CAMPERS VISIT: 

What luck!  Seventy well-behaved knights from Mr. Tony's popular adventure camp, for ages 3-8, defended the castle in August.  They had help from a dozen stellar camp counselors.  The decade-old camp is a popular program for local children, serving hundreds each summer. The adventure campers honed their archery skills on the Walk and made pine cone bird feeders to take home.  We really enjoyed hosting the adventurers on their epic visit.  Come again! See Photo Gallery for more pictures.

When District Zoning Commissions Overstep their Authority, Who's Watching and Challenging?

How did the future of a permitted kids fort wind up on the agenda of a meeting of the PSC, a City-wide zoning commission lacking the authority to revoke building permits?  What led to this surreal development in a petty matter?

In summer 2015, we built a tree house off a narrow "U"-shaped back alley on the Hill.  The open fort, which encorporates elaborate safety and security features was painted to match our SE house.  The structure was built in an environmentally-friendly manner.  We hired a DDOT Urban Forestry Division-recommended arborist, to advise us on the care of our rare American elm, planted in the 1920s.  Elms are uncommon to DC, because more than 80% succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease decades ago.  The host tree is thriving: you can see that the elm is in much better circulatory health than when we built the castle tree house.

Over the winter of 2015-16, the ANC 6B-03 commissioner got retroactive review of our closed out construction permit on the agenda of a PSC meeting.  The Committee voted 4-0, with an abstention by DCRA-Construction, to overrule the permit, portending the fort's immediate destruction.  However, since the PSC lacks the authority to revoke permits, the Committee was not within its rights to vote at all.  The Mayor's Order establishing the PSC did not grant the body the power to withdraw permits.  We were unaware of ANC and PSC overreach at the time, having been told by ANC and DDOT officials that post hoc review was mandatory.  We have since extensively researched the legal issues to mount a series of legal challenges.  

At the PSC hearing in January 2016, the Chair strong-armed committee members to vote to tear down the play fort, insisting that we should have gone through a (non-existent) process for permitting DC tree housesBut the window DDOT has to require any builder to submit to City review is the time before they are issued a construction permit, versus after the permit has already closed out.  See the PSC's unfathomable letter announcing their decision. 

Litigation has preserved the castle.  After the PSC vote, we considered inching the fort's overhang over our land boundary to save it.  But we reached the conclusion that the relocation project would be too hard on the elm, and that the shifted fort would be destabilized.  Moreover, we had our eyes opened to post hoc City review of our project plans as a cynical effort to fool and pressure us to alter or destroy a legal structure authorized by a pre-existing permit.  On principle, litigation is preferable to surrender.   

The authors of the tear-down petition, which some of the immediate neighbors refused to sign, argued that because the tree house clashes with its surroundings architecturally, it should be demolished.  Their petition reads  "The castle-theme...is incompatible with the rest of the neighborhood and therefore antithetical to the historic nature and existing streetscape."  In supporting documents, made public by ANC 6B, neighbors expressed concern that the kids fort would attract vagrants, prove unsafe, depress alley property values and tourism, irreparably damage the host tree (which we own), fall into disrepair, and greatly compromise their privacy.  But none of this has happened, helping explain why the neighbors' campaign to destroy the fort had petered out by late 2016. 

The backlash against what Slate Magazine's Norah Caplan-Bricker dubbed "DC Treehouse-gate" suggests that the public at large has not been swayed by the argument that a permitted play fort off a Capitol Hill back alley should have been destroyed.  Supporters have come forward to help us in various ways.  The elm has been pruned by a tree care company without charge.  Backers have included kids offering allowance money and Hill realtors who like showing the castle to clients with kids.  

In late 2015, a DDOT inspector found dozens of large potted plants alley residents had been keeping in public space years.  DDOT forced the removal of the planters, a development for which neighbors blamed us.  Their spokesman complained to the Post that the fort "encroaches on" and "overwhelms" the public space...."  Fortunately, alley tensions have eased considerably over time.  To our knowledge, none of the 11 signers of the 2015 tear-down petition continues to agitate to see the tree house removed.  In fact, several of the most ardest tree house-hostile neighbors, including the author of the tear-down petition, Loraine Heckenberg, have moved away from the Walk in recent years.

Creating a Process for Permitting Kids Forts in the DC Historic Districts - It's 2020 and It's Time:

Not only did we preserve the tree house until our girls will grow out of it, we'd like to see clear play fort-building rules enacted in DC. To this end, in 2016, we petitioned the directors of DCRA, DDOT and the Historic Preservation Office for rule-making on tree house building.  See our petition, ignored by the agencies, here.  The rescue operation has been an opportunity to raise awareness that there is no niche in the DCMR for kids forts.  DC categorizes tree houses as non-permitted "playground equipment" or "accessory sheds," overly broad categorizations creating permitting confusion over arboreal play spaces. 

Our committment to preserving the banged-up historic alley the tree house overlooks was made clear in 2011, when we succesfully lobbied DDOT to repave its badly degraded surface. The paving project improved alley conditions, particularly drainage.  Archibald Walk was occupied by a large swarm of insects in warm weather before repaving.  Our contribution to keeping up the neglected narrow alley, which we clean up regularly, is apparent to long-time visitors.  

Without specific rules related to play or tree house-building in DC, unlike in many other US cities, the door is left open to permitting adhocery.  More than one permitting official took the position that the fort's design broke none of the tree space rules for owners of adjoining lots, spelled out in DCMR Rule 24-109.3.  The permit even references "the property owner's street box."  In 2017, the rule was amended to read that a "structure" cannot overhang a tree space, surely as a reaction to the tree house war.  With the amended rule, the law has been updated, meaning that no DC homeowner could build another such structure legally.  Thus, no dangerous precedent for tree house-building in the District was set when DDOT finally opted to leave this kids fort alone.

It Takes a Tree House to Call Attention to Construction Permitting Abuses Targeting Ordinary District Homeowners:

We went to court to defend rights granted by a permit DDOT came to regret issuing.  Agency officials opted to harness a bogus retroactive "review" of the authorization to tear it up. This type of casual permitting malfeasance, targetting ordinary homeowners who build small projects and probably can't fight back, is seldom challenged in the District. 

DDOT's "review" was government gone awry: the PSC Chair declared the tree house illegal to the WaPo in advance of the specious hearing, without even the pretense of impartiality.  Afterward, media attention brought us advice from real estate professionals wise to City permitting games.  Architects and contractors reached out, urging us to challenge DDOT's bad faith, because, under DC law, a permit like our is a closed chapter, absent a legal revocation process.   

Archibald Walk SE on Hill Walking Tours:

Come find the tree house!  The quirky castle has become something of a Hill landmark since the 2016 media blitz.  We first opened the fort to the public on Mother's Day Weekend 2016, during the Capitol Hill Restoration Society House & Garden Tour.  We invited tour-goers to visit our patio and fort, prompting several hundred tour ticket holders to stop by.

The guided Capitol Hill Food Tour, and the "Barrack's Row Tour of Duty" walk, often bring tourists by the tree house.  The authors of the tree house tear-down petition argued that the struture "impairs the public use and enjoyment of this space...and the enjoyment of neighborhood tours which transit Archibald Walk" with the fort "disrupting the integrity and visual beauty of the alleyway."  Their view has not been universally shared.  Local tour guides will tell you that visitors sometimes ask to be shown the sweet tree house they saw on TV news, or read about in the Post.  Tourists walk by, snap pictures and call out encouragement to kids to "Defend the castle!"  

Visiting the Tree House - Neighborhood Children Welcome at Community Open Houses

The tree house has become a Capitol Hill community resource since our first open house in 2016.  Before the Covid19 crisis, were were opening the castle to local families once or twice a year.  Look for announcements of our open houses on the Next Door Eastern Market, MOTH (Mom's on the Hill) and Brent Neighbors listservs. Email rescuetreehouse@gmail.com to ask to bring a small group of Daisy, Brownie or Cub Scouts for socially distanced fall birdwatching activities.

Having trouble finding the tree house?  Try searching for "East Archibald Walk" on Google Maps.  If you don't plug the "East" into your GPS, the device may not direct you to one of the two entrances to Archibald Walk off F St. Terrace SE, the main alley (paved in gray pavers) behind Christ Church on G St SE.  F Street Terrace runs north to south between E and G Streets, by the church parking lot.

Parting Thoughts on the Future of DC Tree Houses:

Going forward, the construction of tree houses should be regulated in the District, but in a way that encourages families to build them responsibly to promote outdoor play.  In a society where most urban youth spend too much time inside, the City should not be in the business of encouraging sedentary lifestyles for local children by making backyard kids forts difficult to build, and even harder to preserve.  

Discouraging homeowners in the DC Historic Districts from building tree houses is short-sighted in a city with many large trees in residential neighborhoods.  The unlawful revocation of building permits by the government is another losing strategy in a municipality that has long struggled to rein in abuse of authority and dysfunction on the part of its administrative agencies, dampening statehood prospects. 

Homeowners in the District have a right to know exactly what they are, and aren't, allowed to build, no matter how large or small a construction project might be.   

To urban tree houses as places of joy and discovery!

Friends of the CH Tree House

Photos courtesy of julieannwoodford.photoshelter.com and Ellen Psychas of rescuetreehouse@gmail.com

Thanks for stopping by.  Capitol Hill visitors and denizens who haven't seen the tree house, we encouage you to come find it and draw your own conclusions.