Everyone knows about Atlanta’s famous in-town treehouses, recently named the No. 1 Airbnb space in the world. But what sort of man would build this quirky hideaway in the woods behind his Buckhead house and why? Peter Bahouth has strived to make the world a better place through art, advocacy and environmental restoration for over 30 years, but is only remembered as the guy who built the Atlanta treehouse suite. Discover Peter’s true passions and accomplishments and learn more about the treehouse experience and how it’s changing modern vacation. What are you waiting for? Nature’s calling.
Windows to Other Worlds
A Look at Peter Bahouth's 3D Photography
The first thing you do when you enter Peter Bahouth’s photography studio is look through the four viewfinders along the right wall. It’s common courtesy.
Peter mentioned that he once knew a guy who kept viewfinders stationed in his office for job interviews. Any applicant that came in to interview and didn’t look in the viewfinders didn’t get the job.
“You have to decide and pause to participate in art,” he said in a serious voice.
Needless to say, I lingered at each one of Peter’s viewfinders and was invited to make myself at home on the couch.
The former Greenpeace and Turner Foundation director was dressed like a high school hipster in a blue flannel shirt, blue sneakers and a blue beanie when I met him. He invited me to his photography studio at The Goat Farm where he creates 3D photographic images. Peter’s studio is elegantly disheveled, with slide albums and viewfinders shelved here and there and images of a 1932 comic strip character named Henry displayed proudly. Along one wall is a series of viewfinders containing Peter’s 3D photography and a dog bed for his “medium beige” dog Daisy. The air smells like cigarettes and Peter is happily spouting off photography jargon, handing me slide after slide of his work on a viewfinder while successfully drowning out the club music blasting next door. The man was a revved up locomotive of artistic and environmental opinion and I immediately knew there was more to Peter Bahouth than his famed Airbnb treehouses.
A man who can trumpet on about himself and still come across as charming, Peter’s most prized work of art is a 3D photography exhibit titled “Birth of a Red Planet” that tells the story of an innocent, mute boy named Henry who travels through mind and space in search of a better place. The exhibit was on display two years ago at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery which unexpectedly closed last November.
He offered me at least a dozen slide images to examine – one of them showing a 1970s family at a holiday gathering with a toddler sporting baby blue overalls with a white whale stitched on the front pocket. As I squinted through the lens to glimpse this candid moment of family dysfunction, I felt like I was intruding upon something personal. He revealed that the goofball toddler is him and the feeling of trespassing settled like a weight inside my stomach even though I told him it’s my favorite shot so far.
“Facts change the way people think,” he says holding up each index finger parallel to the other, “art changes the way people feel.”
Whenever Peter goes to a wedding he gifts the bride and groom with a 3D photograph of them captured from a moment in their relationship. Years later, couples still come back to him saying it’s their favorite picture.
“I like to see people make things,” Peter said. “I think it puts us in touch without ourselves, even if it’s fixing your friggin’ dishwasher because if you don’t, you don’t know what’s going on. For 30 years I would go home every day and I couldn’t see anything I had done that day. You might know it, you might have helped do something great, you might have been part of the resistance, but you can’t physically see it.”
Peter worked and traveled for environmental advocacy companies like Greenpeace, the Turner Foundation and the U.S. Climate Action Network for over three decades. After being let go, he now lives and works as an artist and doesn’t like to travel anymore.
“I got tossed. I was pretty much banished for no reason that I can think of just because you run into somebody’s politics. Or you don’t look like what they think you should look like in your position. Well that’s too bad, that’s who I am.”
Peter has the electrifying energy of an overgrown teenager coupled with the pride of a middle-aged man who refuses to let a lifetime of hardships change him.
“I was lucky, I was in a position to see the world and see some of the most beautiful places and also some of the most disturbed and fucked up. I know what that’s like; it taught me a lot. I gave it my all for 30 years and what it comes down to is that it’s the creative things that keep me sustained and I think that I’m entitled to that.”
Peter is married to Katie Barringer, the driving force behind Atlanta’s Cover Books, and his next big ambition is to create stories for the big screen.
A Sisterhood: Mind, Body and Spirit
An Adult Refuge in Nature
There’s a certain romanticism attached with treehouses. In the movies they’re played up as childhood havens with secret knocks and a stash of dirty magazines piled in the corner. In reality, the models are much cruder and probably more cramped but still retain that warm feeling of home and independence.
Peter Bahouth admitted that his confidence and sense of control stemmed back to when he was kid with his first treehouse, “I was eight years old and I had a board in a tree but when I was up there that was my fucking sanctuary. That taught me the meaning of the word ‘sovereign.’”
Built 16 years ago, Peter’s infamous Airbnb treehouses lie nestled in patch of vegetation in the middle of an upscale Buckhead neighborhood. There are three in total situated off to the side of Peter’s glass house, all with a name and aura rooted in well-being: Mind, Body and Spirit. For the last three years, they’ve served as a snug Airbnb vacation suite for newlyweds, weary travelers and those looking to escape cubicle life.
“The fact that you’re kind of in this place where you’re actually in the woods, just you and there’s this comfortable place to sleep that just rolls out over a little creek. Why not?’” Peter boomed while throwing up his hands.
A lot of sources have stated that Peter is a certified architect but he furiously denies this claiming the only thing you don’t need architectural experience to build is a treehouse. He worked with Nick Hobbs and Hobbs’ building company to construct the treehouse suite; a project that took six months to plan, six weeks to build and seven trees to work with.
“Most people when they build something, they level it and they put in a foundation,” Peter said. “You don’t do that with trees. I had a builder who really got it, Nick Hobbs and his group. You know when a project is going well because the planets line up … You can’t force a treehouse.”
To put this idea into perspective, Peter recounted a time not long after the treehouses were completed that the Atlanta Botanical Gardens issued a treehouse building competition. Peter and Nick entered and fashioned a “treehouse for a tree” out of a selection of materials that could be carried in a cardboard box. Meanwhile, the largest construction company and largest architecture firm in the city were tasked with creating a treehouse at the front entrance to the gardens. They were equipped with cherry pickers and a crew of 12 people but quickly gave up after only two weeks of work. They just couldn’t go with what the tree was telling them to do.
So great is Peter’s admiration for trees that the first thing he does when he shows visitors around the treehouses is introduce them to “the old man.”
“He’s a 165 year-old Southern shortleaf pine that’s at the end of the last treehouse,” Peter said, “It’s a magnificent tree and he definitely watches over the place. They look up at this beautiful tree that goes straight up with no branches, and they get a little better feel for it and they understand that they’re in a place that has a feel and a personality to it.”
The third treehouse, Spirit, consists of an open wooden platform built around the trunk of “the old man” where people can rest in a hammock, throw darts at a makeshift wooden dartboard or simply talk and gaze up at the leafy canopy of trees. Looking up at the majesty of “the old man” gets stiff-necked people who have been hunched over in a car driving all day to open up and understand that they are safe in the embrace of the woods.
The other treehouses are glass-and-wood enclosed and decorated with thrift-store furniture and antique knick-knacks to reflect their names: Mind and Body. Mind is set up like a rustic reading room you might find in a vintage summer cabin. There’s a squashy outdoor couch covered with a red blanket and a gray trunk topped with a vase full of dried hydrangeas. A cabinet is mounted in the corner stocked with turtle shells, old bird’s nests, brown apothecary jars and even a tiger paw mold while a nearby desk is coated with dirt, leaves and dried candlewax. Honey mustard curtains lead to a small balcony with two wooden folding chairs overlooking a peaceful creek. It’s clear that this space is meant to foster a desire for learning and quiet reflection.
The main treehouse, Body, is laid out in the complete opposite fashion. An open, blue-and-white room, this treehouse can easily be mistaken for the inside of a beach house. Two jars of seashells sit atop a glass-covered table among some slabs of pinkish-white coral that open up like cherry blossoms. The wind holds conversations with the open glass windows, one of which takes up an entire wall. But the best part is the roll-out full-sized bed that extends directly outdoors onto a wooden balcony. The mattress is creamy and cushiony and I was able to savor a few moments of meditation lying on it. I was trying to decipher some of the bird language above when a blue jay flew into the room and startled me. In any other place, this bird would be unwelcome, but here it feels like it’s just arrived home and I’m the uninvited guest trying to blend in.
Body is meant to be completely open to nature but in times of heat, humidity or rain, the windows and doors are closed and the bed rolls back into the room.
Even though the treehouses are only a few hundred yards away from other Buckhead homes, their presence integrates so fluidly into the trees that it’s hard to tell where the treehouses stop and nature begins.
Peter’s treehouses do not allow families with children under 16 to stay; a rule proven to entice Atlantans who want a break from their 12-story apartment building, kids or are looking for a romantic getaway. According to Peter, the rest of the Airbnb travelers who come to visit are people from another state who specifically came to Atlanta to stay in his treehouses.
“I get people who go ‘this is the perfect place to propose to my girlfriend’ or ‘we just met four months ago, this would be a great place to surprise her’ or ‘we’re coming for our 30th wedding anniversary,’” Peter said.
Peter and his wife Katie registered as a host on Airbnb in July, 2013 after reading an article by Airbnb staff about the greater demand for treehouses in the travel and tourism industry. At first, Peter wasn’t so sure about having strangers sleep in his backyard; he didn’t want to feel like he was reverting back to living with roommates. It didn’t help that the first couple who came to stay at the treehouses appeared to not to have enjoyed their visit.
“They were pretty stoic,” Peter recalled, “But when they left, I went up and they had bought a guestbook for us and in the guestbook they wrote ‘coming to the treehouse was a very special thing that really helped us.’ They were a couple who had raised children from his previous marriage and he had lost them in a custody battle … The day they left Atlanta, they stayed in the treehouses because they didn’t want to go home. They had to go somewhere else because it was too hard for them. When I read that I went ‘That’s so beautiful. I can live with that.’”
Not long afterwards, a wife brought her husband, an Iraq war veteran who had night terrors, to stay at the treehouses. The next morning she confided in Peter that it was the first time she had woken up before him in three years.
“I’ve realized that whatever people don’t want following them up those steps doesn’t go up there,” Peter remarked.
You would think that mosquitos would be a problem but if you scour Peter’s Airbnb review page, you won’t find any evidence to back that up. The real wild card is rain. According to Peter, Atlanta had one of the worst thunderstorms last spring when a couple was out in the treehouses, nestled right in the thick of it.
“People don’t know this but when they rent the treehouses they get our whole downstairs which has a bedroom in it and a bathroom. We never get anybody sleeping down there but I said to Katie, ‘Tonight’s the night. They got to come in. It’s like hell out there!’ They didn’t come in. The next morning I saw them and told them I was surprised and he goes ‘Well for ten minutes we thought about coming in and then we just let it go.’”
Like every hotel or Airbnb, there have been rude and wacky guests too. Peter recalled one high-maintenance hip-hop artist from L.A. who stayed in the treehouses and gave him a hard time. The woman arrived over an hour late and pulled Peter away from a lifelong friend’s birthday party in order to be “properly greeted.” She also insisted that her hairdresser stay in the treehouse suite with her. Peter did mention that this “primadonna” spoke to him and his wife the next morning in a new light, claiming she underwent a total transformation and really got in touch with nature. Still, she was not invited back.
Peter left me alone to pour over two leather-bound guest books that comprise notes and drawings from all of the Airbnb treehouse visitors. It seems like everyone from Canada to Hollywood – including Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck – have traveled hundreds of miles to grace the treehouse steps. Some notes are from mothers and daughters or a group of friends, but most are from happy couples, young and old. Writers and artists praised the secluded treehouses saying they had never gotten more work done in a day before. You can practically hear girlfriends laughing and crying after their boyfriends’ unexpected proposals in their hastily scrawled messages. A lot of people claimed they felt like ewoks from Star Wars or elves from Lord of the Rings while living up in the treehouses which I thought was strange. Peter’s treehouses don’t feel like the set of a Hollywood science fiction movie. They are real and tangible and if anything, help people come back down to earth and savor how great reality can be.
Last January, Airbnb released a list of the top rental spaces people put on their wishlist and Peter’s $350-a-night treehouses coveted the number one spot. Peter found this out when a friend congratulated him through an email. Airbnb did not contact him. Pretty soon everyone was sharing his treehouses on social media and Peter’s sanctuary went viral. However, the cost to stay in his treehouses was not raised.
“When it came out number one I started reading comments. People love the treehouses; it’s on social media all the time. I used to laugh at things ‘going viral’ until this went viral,” Peter chuckled.
Trailing behind on that list were an igloo, a yurt, a lighthouse, a cave and an island – not exactly Hilton Head. At first, these unconventional places may seem like odd choices on an Airbnb wishlist, but when you think about the experience you’re getting it’s really not hard to grasp. For instance, when you stay in a hotel, there’s going to be the same room right above you, below you and on either side of you. People have been turning to Airbnb to look for not only a cheaper rental space, but also a unique vacation experience outside of traditional yuppy tourism.
However, Peter is not the first person to offer the intimacy of a night spent in a treehouse. Treehouse Point in Fall City, Washington is a collection of nine treehouses used for hosting events and romantic overnight retreats. The term ‘treehouse’ should be used lightly here seeing as most are not very far off the ground and some offer double-decker living accommodations, electricity, indoor plumbing and fireplaces. Basically, this is glamping resort for people who don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of nature.
At the other end of the spectrum is a 35 year-old hostel in Brunswick, Georgia called The Hostel in the Forest which features nine treehouses built and sustained by volunteers. These modest tree homes are only $25 per person per night and the volunteer staff provides vegetarian family-style meals. However, because this is a hostel, visitors are required to do daily chores like sweeping the deck, cleaning the kitchen or feeding the chickens and ducks. While there is nothing wrong with this, people looking to not lift a finger or interact with a community are definitely not going fit in.
Peter’s in-town Atlanta treehouses are somewhere in the middle of these places; providing both an open window to nature and comfortable solitude. When asked why he thinks his treehouses are so popular, Peter responded, “It’s an above average place to stay and being above average these days is really above average. Because most things aren’t above average; most things are homogenized, pasteurized and franchised.”
Contrary to popular belief though, Peter assured me that his treehouses don’t strike a chord with everyone. People have backlashed him online and in person about the living space and amenities.
“Being number one also brings out the haters and you can’t be worried about that,” he shrugged. “People go ‘that’s not the best treehouse I’ve ever seen’ or ‘that’s not number one.’ Well, we’re not trying to be the best Airbnb. We don’t say we’re the best treehouse. All it said was that people who have seen images put this on their wishlist more than any other place. It’s not people that go there and vote it number one, we don’t have the most reviews or anything and we’re not the biggest money-earner. People simply see it and go ‘I like that idea of simply sleeping in these trees over a creek rather than being in a hotel.’ Of course they do!”
There have also been people who have quibbled about the price and question whether the experience is worth the investment.
“People say ‘I don’t want to spend $350 a night’ and that’s fine! Don’t come! But if people are going to come and stay in these treehouses that I feel very much attached to, then this is what makes it worth it to me. I’m not trying to pay the stockholders off. I’m just trying to get by,” Peter explained.
But why are treehouses of all places taking off in travel and vacation industries? A possible explanation could be that treehouses help to muster up some of that surreal childlike magic impenetrable against the 9-5 work week. A demographic dubbed the “Peter Pan Market” by the New Yorker consists of adults looking for socially-acceptable ways to destress by playing like a kid again. Entrepreneurs and organizations have already targeted this market with ideas like adult summer camps, an adult pre-school program and adult coloring books. Is it possible that their next move will involve travel and tourism moguls by promoting a chain of treehouses for restless adults?
Peter Bahouth doesn’t think so.
“It’s not about the childhood thing it’s about the sovereignty thing. I don’t feel like a little child again. When I’m reading the Sunday Times out there [in the treehouses], I don’t feel like a five year-old, I feel like an adult reading the Times out in a really nice, comfortable place.”
Peter is also dumbfounded about why any adult would want to be a kid again, “I know little kids in my neighborhood, they don’t know nothing! They don’t know how to do anything. They don’t even race slot cars; they just race on their phone. They don’t even know what Greenpeace is. It’s amazing.”
What’s truly amazing though is that out of all of Peter’s accomplishments – environmentalist, Greenpeace CEO, husband, artist, photographer – it’s the treehouses that people remember him for.
“It began to occur to me that for all the things I’ve done in my life, at my age, I was pretty specifically told that the best thing I ever did in my life was to build a treehouse. That’s a pretty shocking thing to hear. It’s what people know me for,” Peter admitted.
But considering his wide range of life experience, boisterous nature and passion for artistic exploration, there really is no one better to understand the way of the trees and the needs of humanity.
“When you go to a museum do you feel happy? Do you feel like you learned something? If you’re that kind of person then you understand that doing something creative can really be rewarding. Even if it’s just a hobby, I don’t care if people collect stamps up [up in the treehouses]. They’re doing what they enjoy and I think that’s cool.”
In that case, maybe all these bedraggled travelers need is a safe haven they can slip away into to realize what’s important to them. They could be searching for a stronghold above the endless wave of paperwork, deadlines and breakroom parties; or just a cozy place to snuggle up to a loved one or color in a coloring book. Either way, Peter won’t judge.