Humans have been curious about what their neighbors' homes have looked like ever since the first Neanderthals wondered about the interior of the cave next door. Luckily for the inquisitive among us, there are home tours now covering every type of residence, from the historic home to the modern home to the estate home. But what about the really quirky ones, the ones designed or landscaped in unusual or unexpected ways?
Husband and wife David J. Neff and Chelle Neff were intrigued one night while out walking their dogs in their Austin neighborhood when they noticed a house that looked like the Alamo. Not content to only see it from the outside, Chelle says she wanted in.
“I thought there must be a Keep Austin Weird Homes tour where you can go in and see those houses,” she told Travel + Leisure. “David went home and researched it and he could not find anything on a weird homes tour. So we created our own.”
She says she was bored of all of the other home tours where every house starts to look the same by the end, so on their Austin Weird Home Tour, now in its fifth year, “you get to speak to every home owner and every house is really different.”
David agrees. “We’re not putting [the owner] in a hotel for the night; we want them to be there,” he said. “Weird to us was always a positive, and never a negative. There’s been a zeitgeist about weird the last 20 years in Austin. And we’re uncovering this as a positive in other cities now, too. We want to preserve and protect what’s unique and odd in these magical places.”
After the Austin tour took off, with roughly 10 houses on the tour each year, carefully curated to strike the right balance between kooky, odd, unexpected and whimsical, the Neffs decided to add Houston to the mix in 2016, and New Orleans followed in 2017.
This summer, they’ve added Portland and Detroit. And David says they will include San Francisco in 2019 which will be like, “shooting fish in a barrel in terms of finding homes and finding people. And I think the year after that, we would go to New York and figure out the strategy of dividing that city up.”
Even with all of these tours, they still have their day jobs, originally thinking the tour would just be a fun passion project. By day, David is an author and digital strategy consultant, and Chelle owns and operates two Urban Betty hair salons in Austin.
“We just thought it would be a fun thing to do in Austin once a year,” said Chelle. “It has its own momentum now, and we don’t want to get in the way.”
So just how weird are these homes? In New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood is the lavish and vivid home of an ordained Vodou priestess and artist with her assortment of alters, mermaid shrines, and giant geckos.
Houston boasts a ‘Hippo’ home with a collection of over 2,000 hippopotamus’ including a red hippo car.
And on the Austin tour on April 21, ticket holders can visit a flowing, undulating ‘mushroom’ house, called the Bloomhouse, sculpted by designer Charles Harker which ‘grew’ out of the forest in harmony with the natural landscape.
David and Chelle worry about how the cost of living effects the artists in their city as many of the homeowners on the tour are working artists and property taxes and the cost of living has skyrocketed in Austin in recent years. So they decided that in each city they host a tour in, they’ll donate 10 percent of proceeds to local, affordable-housing nonprofits.
It’s clear a Weird Homes empire is in the works with their recently launched book, “Weird Homes: The People and Places That Keep Austin Strangely Wonderful,” and there’s no doubt there will be more coffee table books with each expansion into another city. The Neffs say their intent with the book is for readers to find something that will inspire design creativity in their own home.
Chelle jokes that creating the Weird Homes Tours has certainly influenced her own décor and that she is now more inspired to think outside of the decorating box. She’s gone from collecting interesting skulls for their home to collecting baby doll heads and putting them under glass domes after she saw one of the Austin artists creating habitats for the doll heads in birdcages.
“We are also huge Halloween fanatics and I feel like I leave 5 percent of our Halloween décor out more and more every year and I want to see it year round,” she said. “We are on the path of having a weird home in the next few years.”