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Higher Education

Michael Taylor lived a secret life behind Building 1. He dodged police, studied with finches, and gave top administrators a new perspective on the meaning of a hands-on education.

By Abigail Inman

Alumnus Michael Taylor stands by the tree he built a tree house on.Michael Taylor was on a mission to build one of the most interesting structures on campus, and he didn’t worry whether or not he had permission. It was something that would give risk management teams today an aneurism, but when you talk to Taylor, it seemed completely natural back then.

In 1979, without the knowledge of campus police, right behind the administration building, within earshot of the university president, Taylor built a tree house in the Voorhis Ecological Reserve. A full-blown, 65-feet-above-the-ground, wood-and-nails tree house.

And for two years, no one had a clue.

“I was walking in the reserve, and it had just rained, and everything was fresh and green, and I came across this tree, this beautiful tree,” Taylor says. “I climbed it, and I was sitting up in the branches when I noticed a big open space that would be perfect for a tree house. I thought ‘No… Yes! No, no… Yes, I’ll do it!’”

Taylor is proud to point out that he never used nails in the tree. Instead, following the oak’s natural contours, he created a structure that did no harm yet followed the building and safety codes for outdoor decks.

Michael Taylor is exactly the person you’d imagine driving a primer-pocked VW van. In faded pictures from his time as a student, he’s shirtless and wearing high-waisted running shorts. He has a Tom Selleck mustache and handmade moccasins. Today he looks much the same, except for a few gray hairs. He walks confidently through the Voorhis Ecological Reserve, taking a familiar path back to the beautiful oak.

“This place was my favorite part of Cal Poly,” says Taylor, a 1986 horticulture alumnus. He puts his hand against the bark of the tree he climbed so many times and looks up through the branches. “I love it here.”

Taylor says he did most of his building at night, when campus was empty. He parked his van on Mansion Lane and dragged his lumber and tools through the undergrowth to the tree house, hiding any time a car drove by.

“I would see headlights come around the corner and drop whatever I was doing. It’s the strangest feeling to run 100 miles an hour and just jump headfirst into a bush. You don’t even know what’s in the bush — a sprinkler head, a large rock, a raccoon. You just need to get out of sight.”

It was an ongoing process, and Taylor never really felt he’d finished. There was always something to fix or improve.

Once the main structure was built, Taylor found that the oak’s thick foliage insulated him from the distractions of campus, creating the perfect place to study, connect with nature or just check out — all within yards of where top administrators parked.

“I could hear people very clearly in the lot as they were leaving, saying goodbye,” says Taylor, who would visit the tree house between classes or in the late afternoon. “I would even hear their keys jangle. I could throw a stone from the tree house deck and hit the president’s car. I was that close. “

The tree house quickly became a refuge.

“It was a little hide-away where I could focus. I could make flashcards and do homework. I could study and it would stick better because there weren’t distractions, no people coming by shouting at their friends.”

Instead, he was surrounded by the gentler sounds of wildlife and a nearby stream.

“It was so strange to have animals go through the tree crown,” Taylor says. “They’re not accustomed to a human being up 62 feet in the air. So I wouldn’t move, and there would be 30 or 40 little finches that would just hop from twig to twig all around me and then they’d be through the tree and were gone.”

Taylor had lots of visitors — great-horned owls, hawks and squirrels, and below, coyotes and deer. Sometimes he’d even bring carefully selected friends up with him, although they had to follow a strict set of rules to maintain secrecy.

The University Library’s special collections office has a copy of the original handout that Taylor gave to the lucky few. It included a map to the tree house and the rules:

 “Don’t wear bright colored clothing,”

“Always listen for voices.”

“If you hear someone, don’t make a sound.”

If visitors were caught while returning to civilization, they were instructed to say they had been “checking out the water reservoir and stuff.”

But in the end, it wasn’t a student that gave away the secret. It was Sylvester, his orange ’67 VW van.

Taylor bought the van from a friend after his previous VW van caught fire. It had cream-colored details and was covered in primer spots from constant touch-up work.

After two years of seeing Sylvester parked near Kellogg House on holidays and at strange hours, the University Police decided to investigate. Unfortunately for Taylor, he was sanding the tree house floor that night. Hearing a loud scratching sound near the administration building, the two officers followed it through the undergrowth to the base of the tree.

“I heard some branches and little twigs breaking under the tree house,” Taylor recalls. “I looked over the side, and there was a man and a woman in tan uniforms with badges on, and I thought ‘Ooooh man.’”

They ordered him down and let him know that if he returned to the tree house he would end up in jail.

Taylor decided to take matters into his own hands.

First, he went to Henry House, dean of students, and introduced himself. He created a packet of information about the tree house — page after of page of carefully arranged Polaroids show the tree house and the surrounding area from different angles, with captions that describe his building techniques and point out the structure’s sturdiness.

At the front of the packet, Taylor explains why the tree house was so important: “I would go there to study, work with the tree, play my flute, or just sit quietly. The whole thing has been a labor of love. Having this hideaway has brought me more happiness than anything I could imagine.”

House conferred with Vice President of Student Affairs James Bell, as well as the university’s lawyer about what to do with this quirky, innovative young man and his tree house.

They decided to see it for themselves.

With Taylor in the lead in his workout shorts, and three of the university’s highest ranking administrators trudging behind, they set off. When they reached the edge of the parking lot, Bell realized what they’d gotten themselves into: The whole area was surrounded by almost impenetrable growth, and they were wearing three-piece suits.

“There was a little pause, and they looked at each other and Dr. Bell said, ‘Well, I don’t know, Michael. I think we may have bitten off a little more than we can chew.’”

Taylor assured them it was manageable. In fact, he pointed out, they could see the tree from where they were standing.

“Dean House took a few steps and said, ‘You mean it’s there?’ and he took a few more steps and pointed at it. ‘You mean it’s right there?’ Dr. Bell was just kind of chuckling to himself.”

They went up the hillside to get a better look. In an interview with the University Library’s special collections office in 1999, Taylor described the scene.

“There were decomposing leaves and it was hilly, so it was very slippery, especially in wing-tip type dress shoes. These are professionals from the school, the head honchos, and they’re on their hands and knees going up the hillside because they’re so jazzed to see this tree house.”

Taylor even offered to show them how to climb the tree, but they politely — and very quickly — declined.

A few days later in a memo to House, Bell summed up how they all felt when he said, “Henry, considering some of the problems we have with students, this one is almost refreshing.” In the end, they decided to let him continue to use the tree house, with the condition that he had to take it down when he graduated.

Soon afterward, all three administrators retired. Taylor graduated and, true to his agreement, he disassembled the tree house, though he kept the wood from the railings to build an end table as a memento.

A few pieces of wood are still visible in the tree, a sparse skeleton of the original structure. Last time he visited campus, Taylor dragged away the rusting remains of one of his old chairs that had fallen and become buried in the shrubbery.

Though his first job after Cal Poly Pomona was as a diving clown at SeaWorld, Taylor went on to teach horticulture at Glendale High School.

Nowadays, he channels his love of nature into backpacking and fishing trips.

“When you’re fishing, it’s very soothing. Any kinds of problems just fade away. It’s like being in the tree house.”

Taylor recently built a tree house for his 11-year-old son, and he often thinks about his time at Cal Poly Pomona.

“That was a very important part of my life,” Taylor says. “Moving lumber around under the full moon, hiding in the shadows.  It was an extended childhood for me. It was my secret place. It will stay with me forever.”