Nestled on a secluded lot in the hills outside of Austin, this architectural anomaly is a prime example of the Texan city’s motto, “Keep Austin Weird.” Dubbed The Bloomhouse, its sculpture-like architecture has been described as a “giant seashell unicorn.” One thing is for sure: this Seussian structure is a piece of local history.
You can rent this fantastical one-bedroom, one-bathroom home on Vrbo for an average of $784 a night. The Bloomhouse listing invites guests to “come take a vacation from the real world of right angles and ticky tacky boxes.”
Let’s explore this quirky vacation home that has been described as a “master study in organic architecture, innovative construction techniques and materials, eco-friendly building, and intimate space,” then delve into how it came to be.
Whose Brain Did This Come From?
Back in the 70s, University of Texas graduate student Charles Harker designed and built the unique home in the unincorporated Westlake Highlands region 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, banks weren’t in the business of lending money for sculptures, so a conventional mortgage was not an option. As Harker put it, banks were “not used to funding works of art.”
His friend and client Dalton Bloom commissioned the project, but construction was slow. It began in 1973 and took 11 years to complete. According to a Cision article, The Bloomhouse “won an Award of Merit in 1984 by 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 got tenure and eventually retired from teaching at Kent’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design. According to a Dwell article, Harker and Bloom sold their pet project to friends from the University of Texas and it was never fully occupied. Finally, in 2017, a former mayor snatched it up and restored it, making it into the lucrative, unique vacation rental that it is today.
What Inspired The Bizarre Bloomhouse?
“The Bloomhouse represents the symbiotic interaction of man and nature,” according to its website. “Its organic shape, rising from the earth, mimics the flow of the air, the curve of the wind, and the gentle rise and fall of nature’s melody,” it says. It calls Harker’s curvilinear designs “simultaneously familiar and fantastic.”
Although it may be disorienting to walk into, the abode was meant to be both a psychological and physical shelter. The non-linear forms are designed to be soothing, calming, and harmonious.
What Is It Supposed To Be?
The human mind loves to categorize and name things, and the architect seems to be having fun keeping us guessing. Austin’s Tribeza magazine quotes some of Harker’s old documents, which say that “art which is fully comprehended ceases to function as an art object.”
Much like an inkblot or cloud formation, what it “is” is entirely subjective. Interpretation is purposely and somewhat frustratingly left up to the eye of the beholder.
Where Is This Place?
For many years, The Bloomhouse did not have an address, but the 1,100 square-foot home can be found on Encinas Rojas Street off of High Road.
How In The World Was It Built?
You are never going to believe what The Bloomhouse is constructed out of — foam! That’s right, it’s a foam home! Basic shapes were formed with steel rebar, which was coated in layers of polyurethane foam, which was then sculpted by hand and finished with concrete stucco. “Charles spent seven months out here with an 18-inch pruning saw carving it into shape,” its current owner Dave Claunch said in a presentation he and his wife gave on The Bloomhouse.
Peek Inside The Bloomhouse
Seven mushroom-like figures line the front walk, greeting guests. Harker referred to them as “the seven sentinels.” Inside, the stairs lead down to the dining room, kitchen, living room, and up to the reading nook and tower.
In true ’70s fashion, the bedroom was designed for a circular bed. When you lay down, put your head on the pillow, and look up, you see a conch shell-like design above. The bathroom features a butterfly-looking mirror and a beautifully carved vanity.
Large chunks of cherry wood were embedded in the foam and hand-carved in place to create shelving, banisters, doors, and drawers. There are no pulls or knobs. Instead, doors and drawers have a lip to pull them open. Out of concern for those with mobility issues, the new owners did install steel handrails on one side of the staircase.
The ceiling is sprayed with flame-proof 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 in end-cut cedar disks, but they are actually handmade ceramic tiles.
The entire home is outfitted in furniture from West Elm, however, the triangular dining room table is original to the house. It is built so that it can be pushed back and used as a sideboard if you wanted to make more space and set out food on it for a party.
As you may notice, there is absolutely no art on the walls. That’s not just because it would be difficult to do on curved walls, it is also because the place itself is art. According to the current owner, the architect was adamant that folks should not “hang up any art inside of my art.”
Upstairs is the tower, which houses a daybed that serves as a reading nook. Sliding doors open to a patio, which features custom built-in benches.
Downstairs, a sunken living room features a fireplace with oversized sliding glass doors leading out to the deck.
With its angular design, the deck is not original to the house. It overlooks the wooded landscape and valley down below. There is also an outside shower, but you may have an audience of folks peering down from million-dollar Ridgecrest homes above.
Outside, there is also a sculpted bench, which was built as the prototype of the house. It is one of several relaxing and intimate places to sit throughout the property that was specifically designed for two to three people to have conversations. It is a great place to sit and keep an eye out for area residents, from frogs to foxes.
Resembling stiff egg-white peaks, the pitch of the roof is sloped to send water down a pipe, which once led to a tree that shaded the house. This is one example of the symbiotic relationship the architect intended for the home to have with nature.
Dave Claunch, who was the mayor of West Lake Hills from 2008 to 2015, and his wife bought the property in May 2017. Claunch was familiar with Harker, having researched a similar property called The Earth House. Unlike The Bloomhouse, it was never completed and was torn down in the 90s to make way for a shopping center.
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 in this work of art on the outskirts of Austin.
The surrounding city of West Lake Hills offers plenty of entertainment and dining options, including the Village At Westlake shopping center, and Jack Allen’s Kitchen, which is a local chain. Do stop by another local chain, Maudie’s Milagro in Westlake, for combo fajita nachos and a margarita. Have barbecue 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 Lions Municipal Golf Course. Other outdoor activities include hiking the Wild Basin Preserve and getting a bird’s eye view from the 360 bridge which runs over Lake Austin. See downtown Austin from a distance atop Mt. Bonnell, which lies along the Colorado River.