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Big tree house has neighbors feeling queasy.

Byline: Dianne Williamson

COLUMN: DIANNE WILLIAMSON

Michael J. Chapman's neighbors had no objections when he said he wanted to build a tree house in his backyard at 37 Lenox St.

"We had nothing to object to because there were no plans and nothing to look at," said his next-door neighbor, Rudy Cepko. "Then we saw this thing progressing."

Progressing, indeed. From one level to two, then to three and finally four, each platform connected by wooden stairs that wound around the big old oak, until the multistory tree house towered 50 feet high and overlooked the yards of Mr. Cepko and another neighbor, Worcester Fire Chief Gerard Dio.

"Because the tree is spectacular, I wanted to make something unique," Mr. Chapman said. "I'm a person who makes things. Little things, medium things, big things."

This was clearly a big thing. Too big, according to Mr. Chapman's neighbors and city building commissioners, who fail to appreciate the creative merit of what Mr. Chapman considers a "work of conceptual art."

Construction of the tree house has led to the disintegration of a close friendship, a visit by Worcester police and an alleged threat by Mr. Cepko that he'd burn down the structure if it harmed his property values (So it may be fortuitous that the fire chief is nearby) It also prompted the Department of Inspectional Services to pay Mr. Chapman a visit and order him to take down the tree house.

Mr. Chapman said he'll follow orders and demolish his architectural masterpiece. First, though, he plans to finish it.

A 48-year-old college professor, Mr. Chapman holds a Ph.D. in botany and said he's loved the 300-year-old oak in his backyard since he moved to the city's West Side 12 years ago.

"It holds great emotional value to me," he said. "I don't own the tree - I don't have the temerity to make such a claim. But I've been looking at that tree for 12 years. I wanted to make something that would glorify the tree, and in my humble opinion, I've succeeded."

He hired a crew in August to help him build it and worked alongside them - "like Frank Lloyd Wright," he said. He used pressure-treated lumber and took almost two months to finish it, although it still needs final touches, such as tiles and chairs.

It should be noted that, while Mr. Chapman is married, he has no children. Asked why he wanted to build the tree house, he said, "I envisioned sort of a Bancroft Tower for the neighborhood."

But his neighbors have envisioned a bizarre structure that overlooks their yards and invades their privacy. Mr. Cepko, once good friends with Mr. Chapman, said he doesn't use his backyard anymore and declined comment on Mr. Chapman's claims that he threatened to burn the tree house down.

Mr. Chapman said he called the police after Mr. Cepko also threatened to kill him, but declined to press charges. Mr. Cepko declined comment on Mr. Chapman's claim.

Chief Dio, speaking as a private citizen and not a city official, acknowledged that he had no problem with the tree house when Mr. Chapman proposed it.

"It turned out to be bigger," Chief Dio said. "Now he's wondering why people are mad. But he's made the neighbors very uncomfortable."

Joe Mikielian is commissioner of the Department of Inspectional Services. When he initially got complaints from neighbors last month, he said he assumed he'd see "a kid's tree house thrown together with some nails and old lumber" and wondered why the neighbors were overreacting.

"But then I saw the thing," Mr. Mikielian said. "It's amazingly complex. It's like something out of Swiss Family Robinson."

Unfortunately for Mr. Chapman, it's also illegal. Deemed an "accessory structure" by code inspectors, it violates zoning ordinances that prohibit it from being higher than 15 feet, or located less than 5 feet from any lot line. Mr. Mikielian said he's given Mr. Chapman until Nov. 3 to take it down.

When told that Mr. Chapman plans to finish it first, Mr. Mikielian was silent for a moment. "That makes no sense," he said simply.

It does to Mr. Chapman, who considers the structure a misunderstood labor of lumber love.

"I'm fond of the tree house, so I have to finish it," he said. "It's apparently frightened the neighbors. It will be hard to take it down, but you can't fight City Hall."

Contact Dianne Williamson by e-mail at dwilliamson@telegram.com,

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: The sprawling tree house at 37 Lenox Sr. has many levels. The heart in the center says "Heart of Oak."

PHOTOG: SUBMITTED PHOTO
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 18, 2009
Words:768
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