It's a few hours after midnight on New Year's Day, and I'm 45 feet in the air, standing on a satellite dish that's been converted into a platform on the fourth story of a 50-foot-tall tree house. The platform is tied to the tree with about a dozen or so ropes and, though it seems to hold my weight comfortably, I'm not exactly thrilled about where I am.
"Hold still," says my friend and cameraman Jonathan Bachman.
I look down at the party below me and up at Bachman. He's trying to get a picture of me with all the wild action in the background. I'm trying not to slip from my perch, which is swaying back and forth. The tree house is filled with almost 100 people celebrating the New Year.
"Help me out of here. You've taken enough pictures," I say.
"Just one more. You keep moving," Bachman responds, clicking away. We had joked that a photographer's first instinct in a moment of crisis is to take pictures and then provide help to anyone who needs it. This is no longer funny.
With Bachman taking pictures and the pod still swaying below me, I start to think about how we got up there in the first place.
I heard about the Tree House from my friend Casey Derbes while we watched our dogs play at Coliseum Square Park last October. Sipping a beer, she spoke of a "tree house party" she had attended. I asked what she was talking about.
"It was just, this tree house party," she said, not quite believing herself. "It was, I mean, it was crazy. There were naked people and everyone was drunk and this, this, tree house."
A few weeks later, I saw a Facebook announcement about a Voodoo Music Experience/pre-Halloween party at the NOLA Art House (its yard is home to the tree house), and decided it was time to take a look.
Standing 50 feet tall, the tree house features five stories, a cargo net, two slides (one water, one dry), about a dozen entrances and exits, and it's all built from discarded jungle gyms, satellite dishes, tons of wood and miles of heavy-duty rope. At the bottom, the water slide pours into a makeshift pool.
Two staircases lead into the main structure, which spirals out in every direction. Plastic platforms edge the tree house in some spots; at another juncture, a cargo net spans 50 feet to a second, smaller tree house on the other side of the yard. Those brave enough can slip down the second slide from the smaller tree house onto a landing pad below. The most daring people climb to the top of the main tree house, where two pods are stacked on top of each other, forming a watchtower. There's enough space for one person to witness a breathtaking view of the action below as they stand eye-level with cars passing by on Interstate 10.
"The Installation," as it's called, was put together by residents of the NOLA Art House, a 19th-century mansion that's been converted into an artist commune where everyone from painters to writers to graffiti artists and DJs live, play and ply their trades. While all of the 14 or so residents have contributed in one way or another to the tree house, it was the brainchild of Scott Pterodactyl, a sinewy young hipster who squats rather than sits and regularly climbs the outside of the tree house instead of taking the quicker (and safer) route through the inside. He began work on the tree house in July 2009.
"It will never be finished," Pterodactyl says. "If the tree dies, the cat's claw (vine) will encapsulate it and will hold it up." The cat's claw to which he refers is a nuisance to most who keep a garden in the tropics, but for Pterodactyl, it acts as a support to the gangly structure that sways in the wind and whenever anyone climbs up or down it. Kim Pterodactyl, Scott's partner, verifies the vine's strength: "He just jumps into it like a spider," she says. "It's like a big net."
For anyone who's been in the tree house, the fact that anything at all is keeping it up is only slightly reassuring. When the installation is full of people dancing to music spun by DJs, the whole structure reverberates with the beat. The shaking is not so fun when you're standing on an isolated pod and the only person who can help you off is busy taking pictures of your terrified face.
When Bachman finally did get me out of there and I made my way down to ground level, I ran into McCabe Hense, another tree house resident, and told him about my experience on the satellite dish.
"That's probably one of the safest places on there," he said, explaining the ropes holding it up could support more than 3,000 pounds apiece. Safe or not, it made me wonder what would compel anyone to build an adult tree house.
The jump from Art House collective to party venue came at the end of last summer, when Tess Kisner, a Web designer and graphic artist from Baton Rouge, took the seriousness of planning and executing parties to a higher level. Kisner had known Scott Pterodactyl before she moved to New Orleans, and when the opportunity to live in a tree house/party venue came up, Kisner jumped at the chance.
Residents come from as far away as Quebec and Madrid. Most of them heard about the house through a Craigslist ad that said: "Art House seeks residents." The cast of characters constantly changes, and a sort of Fight Club nihilism pervades the building. Altered paintings hang on the walls at awkward angles, and computers from the 1980s line one hallway. In a bathroom, a doll hand sticks out of the wall with a little note above it: "Need a hand?"
It can be a little crazy living with so many people in the same space, "[but they] have a solid, core group of people right now that I think will work out for a long time," Hense says. A consistent group of residents keeps a sense of order in a house where it seems anything goes: At the party I attended there were, indeed, people walking around naked.
Nevertheless, the tree house has managed to avoid any major catastrophe or injuries to partygoers. Those who plan the parties at the Art House say security is strictly enforced and there is a policy is that anyone entering must sign a release form. The forms are supposed to keep the house safe from liability concerns, but the slacked jaws of revelers who see the tree house for the first time is a sign they won't try anything stupid should they venture up there.
Francis Wong, a friend of NOLA Art House residents, talks about how excited he is for 1614 Esplanade Ave. to become "a legit venue." The tree house was the site of four big bashes in 2009 (a "Spirit Animal Party," the Voodoo/Halloween party, a "Before and After" event and the New Year's party), all of which drew well over 500 attendees, Wong says. The money made from each party is reinvested in the property. Residents plan to include live bands and to make what was once an artist collective into a party venue. Wong says he is looking forward to the tree house's three-day Mardi Gras bash, which will include, for the first time at the tree house, live performances from entertainers Quintron, Givers, Snarky Puppy, Andrew Duhon and Rusty Lazer.
Charles Garrett, a writer with a deep voice and bold Buddy Holly glasses, giggles as Bachman and I play around in the empty tree house on a weekday. "It's hard to ever get sick of this place," Garrett says. I know I can spend at least one afternoon just finding new and interesting ways to get up and down the structure.