Nestled on secluded land in the hills outside Austin, this architectural anomaly is a prime example of the Texas city’s motto, “Keep Austin Weird.” Dubbed The Bloomhouse, its sculpture-like architecture has been described as a “giant seashell unicorn.” One thing is certain: this Seussian structure is part of local history.
You can rent this fantastic one-bedroom, one-bathroom home on Vrbo for an average of $784 per night. The Bloomhouse listing urges customers to “come and take a vacation from the real world of right angles and sticky boxes.”
Let’s explore this quirky vacation home that has been described as a “master study in organic architecture, innovative building techniques and materials, green construction and intimate space,” then dive into its origin.
What brain does this come from?
In the 1970s, University of Texas graduate student Charles Harker designed and built the unique home in the unincorporated Westlake Highlands area of Travis County for his master’s thesis. You see, Harker wanted to be a sculptor, but he wanted his sculptures to have an effect on people’s lives, so he built a habitable sculpture. Unfortunately, the banks weren’t there to lend money for carvings, so a conventional mortgage wasn’t an option. As Harker put it, banks were “not used to financing works of art.”
His friend and client Dalton Bloom commissioned the project, but construction was slow. It started in 1973 and lasted 11 years. According to an article by Cision, The Bloomhouse “won an Award of Merit in 1984 from the Austin American Institute of Architects and was part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and museums in Paris.”
In 1985 Harker became an associate professor of architecture at Kent State University. He achieved tenure and eventually retired from teaching at Kent’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design. According to a To live in article, Harker and Bloom sold their pet project to friends at the University of Texas and it was never fully occupied. Finally, in 2017, a former mayor took it over and restored it into the lucrative and unique vacation rental it is today.
What inspired The Bizarre Bloomhouse?
“The Bloomhouse represents the symbiotic interaction of man and nature,” according to its website. “Its organic form, rising from the earth, mimics the flow of air, the curve of the wind and the gentle rise and fall of nature’s melody,” he says. He calls Harker’s curvilinear designs “simultaneously familiar and fantastical”.
Although it can be disorienting to enter, the abode was meant to be both psychological and physical shelter. Non-linear forms are designed to be soothing, calming and harmonious.
What’s it supposed to be?
The human mind likes to categorize and name things, and the architect seems to enjoy keeping us guessing. Austin’s Tribeza magazine cites some of Harker’s old documents, which say that “art that is fully understood ceases to function as an art object.”
Just like an inkblot or the formation of a cloud, what it “is” is entirely subjective. The interpretation is deliberately and somewhat frustratingly left to the eye of the beholder.
Where is this place?
For many years, The Bloomhouse had no address, but the 1,100 square foot home sits on Encinas Rojas Street off High Road.
How was it built?
You’ll never believe what The Bloomhouse is made of – foam! That’s right, it’s a foam house! The basic shapes were formed with steel reinforcing bars, which were covered with layers of polyurethane foam, which were then hand sculpted and finished with concrete stucco. “Charles spent seven months here with an 18-inch pruning saw to shape it,” current owner Dave Claunch said in a presentation he and his wife gave on The Bloomhouse.
Take a peek inside the Bloomhouse
Seven mushroom-like figures line the front aisle, welcoming guests. Harker called them “the seven sentinels”. Inside, the stairs lead to the dining room, kitchen, living room and reading area and the tower.
In true 70s fashion, the bedroom was designed for a circular bed. When you lie down, lay your head on the pillow and look up, you see a conch shell design above. The bathroom features a butterfly shaped mirror and a beautifully carved vanity.
Large chunks of cherry wood were inlaid into foam and hand carved to create shelves, railings, doors and drawers. There are no handles or knobs. Instead, doors and drawers have a lip to open them. Out of concern for people with reduced mobility, the new owners have installed steel handrails on one side of the stairs.
The ceiling is sprayed with fire retardant and soundproof foam. In addition to dampening the sound in what would otherwise be a cacophonous cave, the foam also adds texture. The floor appears to be tiled with end-cut cedar discs, but they are actually handmade ceramic tiles.
The entire house is furnished with furniture from West Elm, however, the triangular dining table is original to the house. It’s built in such a way that it can be pushed back and used as a sideboard if you wanted to make more space and put food on it for a party.
As you can see, there is absolutely no artwork on the walls. It’s not just because it would be difficult to do on curved walls, it’s also because the place itself is art. According to the current owner, the architect was adamant that people shouldn’t “hang up art inside my art.”
Upstairs is the tower, which houses a daybed that serves as a reading nook. Sliding doors open to a patio with custom built-in benches.
Downstairs, a sunken living room features a fireplace with oversized sliding glass doors leading to the terrace.
With its angular design, the terrace is not original at home. It overlooks the wooded landscape and the valley below. There’s also an outdoor shower, but you can get an audience of people looking at million-dollar Ridgecrest homes above.
Outside there is also a carved bench, which was built as a prototype of the house. It’s one of many relaxing and intimate places to sit throughout the property that’s been specifically designed for two to three people to have conversations. It’s a great place to sit and keep an eye out for local residents, from frogs to foxes.
Resembling steep egg-white peaks, the slope of the roof is angled to send water down a pipe, which once led to a tree that shaded the house. It is an example of the symbiotic relationship the architect wanted the house to have with nature.
Dave Claunch, who served as mayor of West Lake Hills from 2008 to 2015, and his wife purchased the property in May 2017. Claunch knew Harker, having researched a similar property called The Earth House. Unlike The Bloomhouse, it was never completed and was demolished in the 90s to make way for a shopping mall.
For decades, no one had maintained The Bloomhouse. Over a year and a half, Claunch and his wife restored The Bloomhouse to its former glory. Now, thanks to the Claunches preservation, you can stay at this work of art on the outskirts of Austin.
The surrounding town of West Lake Hills offers plenty of entertainment and dining, including the Village At Westlake shopping center and Jack Allen’s Kitchen, which is a local chain. Stop by another local chain, Maudie’s Milagro in Westlake, for a fajita nachos and margarita combo. BBQ and watch the Texas Hill Country sunset at County Line on the hill.
Nearby Austin Country Club is private, but you can book a tee time at the Lions Municipal Golf Course. Other outdoor activities include hiking in the Wild Basin Preserve and bird’s eye view from the 360 degree bridge that crosses Lake Austin. See downtown Austin from afar atop Mount Bonnell, which sits along the Colorado River.