Earth, Wind & Fire
A historic renovation project preserves the soul of old Austin
By Hannah J. Phillips
Photographs by Jana Cantua
When David and Susan Claunch started their search for short-term rental properties, they didn’t expect to stumble upon a piece of Austin history. Nestled in the woods of West Lake Hills, David recalls finding Bloomhouse listed in the insert of a magazine. With its organic shape and ethereal concrete dome, the structure was far from the investment piece the couple had in mind; the very thing that made it beautiful also rendered it completely impractical for modern life—much less for tenants. But for David, Bloomhouse was a time capsule from a bygone era, a passion project and an opportunity to preserve a piece of Austin’s soul.
“Austinites love to say Keep Austin Weird,” he says, “but it gets less and less weird every day—the Broken Spoke is surrounded by five-story condos. I saw Bloomhouse in that context—as a purveyor of Austin culture—but its location and private ownership meant that not many people were familiar with it.”
The home is named for its original owner, Dalton Bloom, who designed the dwelling as an architecture student at the University of Texas in the ’70s. Commissioning his contemporary Charles Harker, Bloom wanted to create an extraordinary space that would stand the test of time. For Harker, the project became a philosophical experiment in organic architecture, responding to the sterile environments he was noticing in contemporary homes. The project developed over 11 years, unfolding as Harker continually explored the interaction between man and nature.
Where other potential investors passed on the enormous undertaking of preserving the home, David saw the challenge as part of its appeal. Drawn by how it captures the “psychedelic cowboy phase” of Austin, he was equally intrigued by the home’s inner working. Purchasing the home in 2017, he also inherited a box of Harker’s sketches and notes, weathered with age and oozing with the delicious smell of old paper. The collection outlines Harker’s theory of art and experiments in physics, ranging from architectural treatises to sketch studies of water droplets splashing together. Some excerpts are pure poetry.
“I am against housing as we know it today,” Harker writes in one entry from 1975. Condemning the cookie-cutter trend of suburban housing rather than houses, he hints that the home should be a work of art, but warns that “art which is fully comprehended ceases to function as an art object.”
Tucked behind trees on a sloping hill, the structure appears more sculptural than residential. The woods give way to a curved white dome, reaching upward like an enchanted dollop of concrete meringue—as if dropped there by some fairy-tale giant. A footpath of circular tile leads over a miniature moat where seven toadstool-shaped lights stand sentinel at the front door.
The interior feels just as mythical: Cozy nooks of handcarved cherry wood meet sweeping lines of white stucco for an effect both intimate and vast. Entering feels at once like falling down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland”—mesmerizing and psychedelic— and like joining one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits for tea: snug, charming, warm.
Two winding staircases flank the interior entrance. The first leads upward into a tower, where a built-in daybed acts as the kind of reading nook Rapunzel might envy. The other leads into the heart of the house, looking down into a sunken lounge, where a spiraling fireplace catches the eye. The hypnotic curvature of the hearth spins in the same direction as the tower staircase, striking a visual parallel without creating a direct copy.
“There are repeating themes but no repeating pattern,” says David. “The building is truly organic.”
Even the recurring use of circular tile avoids repetition; each one is handmade and individually grouted into the concrete. For these, Harker drew inspiration from magnified views of the cross section of plant stalks, scattered throughout the home to represent the capillary tubes that transfer water and nutrients between roots and leaves.
This microcosmic devotion to the minutiae continues to fascinate David, who praises Harker’s ability to sculpt the external structure while leaving room for interior precision. For the exterior, Harker constructed a shell framework with metal rebar, carving a hand-sprayed polyurethane foam into the desired shape with an 18-inch pruning saw over a period of seven months. In the final stage, he covered the whole dome with an inch of poured concrete.
“Everything you see, he carved,” David marvels, “knowing that it would be an inch thicker when it was done. This may not seem like a big deal until you see the intricate interior details.”
While his primary goal was to connect man and nature, Harker also wanted to connect people to one another. In the dining area, Harker crafted a nesting cherry table for a convertible breakfast nook beneath an oval window. The main triangular slab slides into custom-built benches to become a banquette, fitting the space with precision and allowing more space for entertaining.
David says that parties in the house are always interesting, since it takes most people half an hour to adjust to their surroundings.
“Every person that comes here, a different part of the building resonates with them,” he says. “Creatives tend to love it, but some people do get really freaked out. I’ve found that it’s usually the black-and-white thinkers of the world that get disoriented.”
The cherry wood theme continues in the kitchen, where exposed shelving looks as though it was sculpted from the tendril roots of a giant tree. The rich wood of built-in cabinetry hides all exterior handles, with no knobs to be found on any door. For the oven, David added a boxed fan for ventilation, covering it with more cherry wood to both modernize and merge with the other fixtures.
Winding into the bedroom, another staircase leads to an enclave that leaves the impression of sleeping in a conch shell. With spiraling stucco overhead, Harker hoped to replicate the acoustics of ocean waves above the bed.
To honor that same attention to detail, David likewise deliberated over each element of the renovation, which took about 18 months. Structurally, his biggest challenge was water— referring both to the calcified, outdated supply lines and to ceiling damage from four decades of Austin humidity. The irony of Harker’s inspiration from the elements of water and earth, says David, is that concrete absorbs water when it comes in contact with earth.
Acting as general contractor, David made several updates himself, but relied on the expertise of highly specialized subcontractors for repairs to the stucco, countertops, plumbing system and ceiling. The aim with each update was to balance modern amenities with the integrity of Harker’s original design. To add handrails to the staircases, for example, David commissioned a local craftsman for hand-forged steel in a Japanese bronze finish. Corresponding to the curves of Harker’s inset cherry wood, the end of each railing comes to a leaflike point— thus meeting a need for safety with an organic aesthetic that brings nature indoors.
For additional furnishings, David and Susan partnered with West Elm to style each room with midcentury-modern pieces that correspond to Harker’s custom table and original designs.
“We wanted to restore it to its former glory,” says David, “but we also had to make it both comfortable and safe to stay here.”
The renovation process demanded both patience and persistence, he concludes, but he and his wife relished the opportunity to synergize their passions and preserve a piece of Austin.
“I see it as saving a piece of history,” David says. “Those of us who care about the culture of this city—all parts of this city—should do what we can to cherish and hold onto that. With every new high-rise, Austin loses a little of its soul.”