Crazy cribs: inside the weirdest homes in Austin, Texas

The Austin Weird Homes Tour visits some of the US city’s many eccentric dwellings

“Keep Austin Weird” is a somewhat contrived – not to mention dated – slogan. But it didn’t emerge out of nowhere. The draw this city has had for those living on the fringes of the mainstream has allowed for “all things different” to flourish, including architecture.

Not so much on the skyline of the city itself – which wouldn’t be all that distinct from any other wealthy US metropolis. However, a trip into the suburbs tells a weirder story.

Now in its fourth year, the Austin Weird Homes Tour was created by husband and wife David J and Chelle Neff, initially to satisfy their own curiosities about the source of the city's eccentric reputation: its people.

“Everyone has walked past a weird-looking home in their neighbourhood and thought, ‘what is going on behind those doors?’” says Chelle. “We’re just providing the opportunity to go one step further and actually find out.”

According to David and Chelle, supply for the tour has never been a problem.

“There are more than enough weird homes in Austin to warrant the tour,” says David. “It’s finding them and convincing the owners to open up that’s the hard part.”

“We get turned down a lot,” Chelle adds. “We called one property manager to inquire about a house we both really hoped we could showcase, but were quickly refused and told if the owners even knew their house was considered ‘weird’, they’d be furious.”

Demand from the curious clearly exists. The Weird Homes Tour has now been extended into Houston and New Orleans, Louisiana with plans to move into Portland, Oregon and Detroit, Michigan.

The most interesting dwellings on the Austin Weird Homes Tour, perhaps, are the ones which – externally – look like every other “normal” home on the street, but conceal an interior which is anything but. It came as some surprise to this writer to discover he had walked his dog past one such home a thousand times without ever giving it a second glance.

The ‘Torres Temple’ 

Located in Travis Heights, one of Austin's hippest neighbourhoods – which until very recently boasted Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant as one of its inhabitants – the Torres Temple doesn't look any different from many other modern homes in Austin.

Inside, however, one finds a series of rooms, each with its own unique spiritual theme. Designer & muralist Nancy Harte helped owner Michael Torres incorporate Feng Shui and chakra-inspired colours into every aspect of the interior. A red velvet-lined livingroom, known as the "experiential velvet lounge", exudes senses of heightened creative energy while the master bedroom, with its relaxing pastels and gold colour scheme, is bound together by a towering oak tree mural whose branches spread across the ceiling and back wall.

The Art Dome 

Austin is located in what's known as the Texas "Hill Country". Surrounded by rocky hills and heavily-forested countryside, it belies a lesser-known side to the Lone Star state's topography. The rolling hills also provide the backdrop for some stunning neighbourhoods, such as Cuernavaca. This is where the "Art Dome" is located, home to local painter Katy Nail who bought the house – made up of of five connected blown concrete domes – in 2000.

“It was built in the late 1970s by Austin musicians,” she says. “I was single at the time and wanted somewhere I could both live and work from in peace. Then my husband showed up in 2005 and never left,” she laughs. “His man-cave is located somewhere way in the back.”

Man-cave is right. Star Wars fans would immediately notice the similarities between Art Dome and the dwellings on the fictional planet Tatooine – birthplace of Darth Vader from the Star Wars movie franchise.

Lit by several windows and 27 skylight panels, Art Dome is surrounded by gardens governed by a kind of organised chaos. “I uprooted around 100 cedar trees when I first moved in,” says Nail. “Gradually, native plants returned and filled up the empty space I’d left behind. It’s beautiful.”

Ebba Springs Wildlife Refuge

Allowing nature to forge its own design traits is a central theme in the home of Sam and Barbara Attwell Ritter. Called Ebba Springs, this home/wildlife refuge incorporates design elements known to attract animals of all kinds into the surrounding gardens. There is a definite Celtic vibe in the garden, too, which contains everything from cavities in the surrounding walls which attract different species of birds, to freestanding habitat towers drawing in everything from squirrels to vultures.

Most impressive, however, is the huge bat cave – complete with Celtic swirl design – which dominates the front garden. "We collect the bat poop and use it as fertilizer for our vegetable garden," explains Barbara Attwell, another artist-in-residence on the Weird Homes tour who, while visiting Ireland, was taken by the countryside's large sheep population, as can be seen in her animal-inspired felted sculptures hanging on the walls inside her home.

The house itself was constructed using a rammed earth technique from the soil onsite. Poems, sandblasted sculptures, and prints of leaves, birds’ feet, and geodes are built into the walls.

Under The Sea 

This home encapsulates the “Keep Austin Weird” brand better than most on the tour. While the structure itself is no different from thousands of homes built here in the 1950s and beyond in Austin, it is a shrine to the kind of liberal, hippy vibe this town has become synonymous with.

Situated in Austin’s most recognised zip code for weirdness, 78704, the multicoloured “Under The Sea” home is inspired in part by marine life (despite its location several hundred miles from the ocean) and, in part, by The Rolling Stones. Sure, why not?

This is a house filled with stuff. Not in a messy, hoarder kind of way. But everything is something. Salt and pepper shakers, miniature shoes, matches, and a variety of Rolling Stones memorabilia cover a home painted in over 20 different colours inside and out. The “rock star rock garden” even includes a swing with a chandelier.


Photographs: Thanin Viriyaki and John Holden