The project started years ago with a huge wrought iron chandelier Sue Cristallo salvaged from the old movie theater at El Paseo de Saratoga, back when the shopping center was one of those red-roofed Town and Country Villages.
Cristallo loves “old junky, rusty stuff” and decided to bring it home to her property off Bear Creek Road above Lexington Reservoir. But after sitting outside for three years without hanging it, she thought it might find a better home at the Loma Prieta Community Center that was under construction. The group stored it in a barn for six years, but when it came time to open the new center, they didn’t use it.
Cristallo brought the orphan chandelier home once again and came up with another idea: Like kids in the neighborhood, she would build a treehouse and hang it from the ceiling.
But this is no rickety child’s clubhouse. This is more the size and shape of a sturdy cabin floating in the trees, with a shingled roof and wraparound decks spanning five big-armed oaks, salvaged windows and stained glass and a wooden bridge leading to it from the main house. There’s room inside for a daybed, a lounge chair and a small dining table and chairs.
With all salvaged materials and friends she calls “mountain guys” who took on the project beginning in 2006, she created a whimsical retreat that has become a magnet for neighborhood children, an entertainment spot for community fundraisers and a place of solace for two friends recovering from chemotherapy. “Invariably they say it’s a magical place,” Cristallo, 74, said.
In an ode to longevity and in memory of her artist husband who “always had a sense of humor in his work,” but died too young, she called it Fotta-fa-Zee, after the fantastical place in Dr. Seuss’s last book, “You’re Only Old Once.”style=”font-size: x-small;”A dozen neighbors helped erect the beams. Carpenter Richard Brode built the structure, changing course as Cristallo changed her mind: “Can you make a place where kids can crawl up?” she would ask him, and he would build a loft. “He started hammering away and seemed to know where he was going.”
Phil Lange created the butterfly gate and metal grapevines along the bridge, while Thomas Cahoon, when he was just 16, built the crooked chimney. Cristallo decorated with a ceramic parrot, an antler door handle, colorful glass insulators and one of her late husband’s pieces — a red metal telephone.
Tony Cristallo had bought the four-acre property in 1964 and built corrals for his horses. Sue Cristallo, a single mother of four, was working as a spokeswoman for PG&E when they met in 1988 and was a horse woman herself. They married eight months before he died of cancer in 1994. His paintings and sculptures adorn the house, including an oversize metal perfume bottle, roughed up and dented, with a tea-stained Chanel No. 5 logo. “He was a true Bohemian,” said David Middlebrook, a well-known artist and recently retired San Jose State art professor who lives down the country road. For years after Tony’s death, he said, “Sue and I were up there alone. No one had visitors for weeks on end.”But as Cristallo saw it, “here I am, left with all this beauty. It was given to me and I wanted to do something with it.”
In 2006, she started on the tree house, using shingles found in a dilapidated barn in Boonville, recycled redwood fencing for the walls, and — for $35 dollars each from Capitola Freight and Salvage _ three six-foot-by-six-foot French windows. Over the past decade, young Silicon Valley families have bought homes on the hills behind them. They walk down the hill pushing strollers or drive golf carts to show the children Middlebrook’s studio and bring apples and carrots to Cristallo’s horses.The property has come alive again.
“There’s always music, talent shows, impromptu plays, karaoke and dancing,” Middlebrook said. “It’s like a scene from Giant” — the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. “Sue is a magnet for good people.”
She has opened the treehouse to more than a dozen non-profits, including the horseman’s association, the YMCA and San Jose Ballet, who have auctioned off dinners for four in the tree house. She has hosted three weddings, with the brides descending to their grooms.
On quiet evenings, Cristallo will ascend the bridge with a glass of wine. “It’s a very peaceful place,” she said. And although her husband isn’t here to enjoy it, she said, “he would have loved it, too.”
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