Summer VILLAGE: RiverBluff rallies around neighborhood tree house

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The neighborhood tree house includes a ladder-like climbing wall and knotted ropes, plus a zig-zag walkway. Photo: Martyn Kyle The neighborhood tree house includes a ladder-like climbing wall and knotted ropes, plus a zig-zag walkway. Photo: Martyn Kyle

After a decade spent living with a hand-me-down outdoor playhouse, Charlottesville’s RiverBluff community decided to do its children a favor and upgrade. “Originally, the community was designed with a small private playground in mind,” says RiverBluff resident Janet Evergreen, who helped spearhead the project. “So when we held our annual homeowners association potluck [in 2015], we brought crayons and art supplies and asked the neighborhood’s children to get together and draw their ideal playground.”

Thrilled at being asked for their input, the children gave feedback so robust that the 20-home community decided to form an all-inclusive committee and work to draft a plan to replace the existing structure. “It was important that these decisions be made with all the generations in mind, because we wanted the space to be kid-centric but community-centered,” says Evergreen.

Photo: Martyn Kyle
Photo: Martyn Kyle

Collaborating as a neighborhood, the group shared ideas on Pinterest, held meetings and, enlisting the help of resident architect Camilo Bearman, began to make drawings. Nestled atop a steep, idyllic hillside overlooking the Rivanna River, the playground needed to be more than just a fun place for kids to play—a community gathering point, that’s what RiverBluff was after. “I work designing schools, so I have a very acute understanding of how adults experience spaces that are designed for children,” said Bearman. “We wanted something very oriented to nature that would allow for creative outdoor play while also being attractive to adults.”    

A bit under a year later, the community settled on a wooden stilt house hugging a massive hillside oak with terraced levels with Adirondack chairs, a picnic table and small gardens. Researching costs, Evergreen realized they could install a custom, locally built structure for about the same amount of money it would take to purchase something prefabricated. Asking around, she found Builderbeast LLC, a small company owned by master art/design builder Jason Roberson.

“Where we built there’s a very steep ravine dropping down to the Rivanna—you’re only six feet off the ground, but it looks really high due to the drop,” he says. “We played on that effect by designing the structure to give you a sense of being perched in the canopy. That way the kids can climb through, be safe, but have an adventure.” Toward that end, Roberson installed a ladder-like climbing wall and knotted ropes, created a zig-zagging walkway and used slatted siding for the angular stilt house, which extends outward from the hillside toward the river. For further fun, swings were integrated into the structure and a slide was built into the slope. “We brought in these huge rocks and made a rock scramble nestled into the already cool topography, which was a real bonus,” says Roberson.

Now, with the project completed and community gardeners beginning to install landscaping, Bearman says the space has become a part of the daily life of the neighborhood—in fact, the community held its spring potluck at the playground. “It was truly a community project,” says Evergreen. “There were just so many layers of involvement and art and beauty. It really shows what can happen when we work together and respect one another and bring our different gifts to the table.”

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