Magical. Spiritual. Peaceful. A secret haven in the middle of chaos. These are words guests use to describe their stay at Peter Bahouth’s Airbnb treehouse in Atlanta. Peter and his wife Katie have the #1 wished-for Airbnb in the world, a home sharing network with more than 4 million listings worldwide. These listings include opulent penthouses, quirky houseboats and well-appointed mansions in the most exotic locations in the world. But this humble treehouse with no fancy amenities, unless you count the Christmas tree lights strewn on the exterior, has won this coveted spot. More than 150,000 people have his treehouse on their wish lists, and it has been featured on the “Today” show, “Tree Masters,” on Bravo and in Architectural Digest, Money magazine and the Boston Herald.
What’s so special about it? Lucky for me, I live five minutes away from Peter and he was generous enough to take me on a tour, introduce me to the Old Man and share a few stories of transformative experiences guests have had.
Mind, Body, Spirit: A Treehouse in Three Parts
Looking for a creative outlet, Peter decided to build the treehouse on a lot adjacent to his intown Atlanta home 18 years ago. Working without blueprints, he designed a three-part tree house anchored by seven trees on the wooded lot with a creek running through it.
“Once I started to think about types of spaces, I thought in threes, then those spaces became Mind, Body and Spirit,” he said. “The Mind is the living room where you can come and talk about anything you want to, the Body is the bedroom and the Spirit is the platform where the Old Man is. The location of the trees had a lot to do with the building of it.”
Construction of the bedroom, the middle space, started with a window he found on the street a block away. He located similar windows and those became the walls of the bedroom. As construction continued, he was continually surprised how well it came together with his found pieces.
“When we added the headers in the living room, I found the ceiling was much taller and bigger than I thought,” he said. “Then the next day I found this big window that fit almost perfectly, with just ¼” difference. Things like that happened all the time. People use the word magic, but things worked out really well in creating this.”
He claims the trees look better now than they ever did and is amazed how well the treehouse has held up. “The fact that these seven trees have been like this for 18 years with all the different directions they move and have stayed stable is amazing,” he said.
Other pieces have special meaning to Peter. When he was growing up, his mother would take him with her when she went antiquing. On one trip, she salvaged 80-year-old windows with real butterflies between the panes from a shrine in Syracuse, New York. When Peter was building the treehouse, she gave him those windows and they form a wall in the living room. Peter lost his mother this year at the age of 97.
He also found old restaurant doors and a corner cabinet that fit perfectly in the corner of the living room. “It’s like these pieces needed to be here,” he said. “Things like that happen all the time.”
For several years, the treehouse was largely unused. At one point, a neighbor wanted them taken down. Fortunately, Peter kept his treehouse, and then one day, saw something about people renting out their properties with a company called Airbnb, which was founded in 2008 in San Francisco. He wondered if anyone would want to stay in his treehouse. He joined Airbnb about three years ago and was shocked to find out last year that it was the #1 wished-for Airbnb in the world. His simple Airbnb treehouse.
When guests arrive, they start with a tour from Peter, who leads them up the steps and across two rope bridges to first pay homage to the Old Man, a 165-year-old southern shortleaf pine. Circled by a wooden bench, he is the towering anchor of the Spirit platform.
Peter has great respect for the Old Man and claims to have learned many lessons from him and the treehouses as a whole. “In a gentle way, he has taught me things about being graceful, flexible, generous and respectful to your elders. I don’t think of myself as a gracious person. I’m from the North and I’m down here in the South, but I have these southern treehouses that are generous and quiet and nice,” he said laughing. “I may write a book, ‘Things I Learned from My Treehouses.’”
He claims people thinks he is crazy when he tells this story, but it holds a key to his relationship with the treehouses.
“I used to joke about turning the Old Man into a table. Then one day this huge tree came down right near that space and missed my treehouse by about two inches. That’s what I call a real-life shot across the bow, right? The Old Man was saying, ‘I’ve been here 165 years and you want to be a jerk about it?’ Whatever that whole exchange was, I’m going to respect him. I’ve learned my lesson. I was being a jerk and the treehouse corrected my behavior – he said don’t be disrespectful.”
So every visit to the treehouse starts with an introduction to the Old Man. “Another reason I bring people here is I want them to look up. We are always looking down – at our phones or computers. They look up and then they usually give him a hug. I want them to know he watches over the place.”
Since he has been doing those introductions Peter has had no problems with the treehouse or the woods. Another tree did fall on another occasion, but it went the other way and provided a seating area in the woods, with a perfect view of the treehouses. The trees even weathered a recent tropical storm in Atlanta with violent storms and high winds that took down trees all over the city.
Back across the rope bridge is the bedroom, which Peter upgraded with an excellent bed (with Parachute sheets). In the beginning, he just had an air mattress, then realized his guests really wanted a good night’s sleep in the trees. The best part? The bed rolls partially out so guests can literally sleep with the stars in their eyes. Guests love staying here during storms, enjoying the intimate feel and the sound of the rain pounding on the tin roof.
“People love storms out here – it’s like a ride at Six Flags. I once had a couple scheduled to come here when big storms were predicted and the wife called and asked about rescheduling. I told her to talk it over with her husband and we could change the date if she wanted. They decided to come and the storms were so bad, I was scared inside my house and called to invite them in. They said no, and had a wonderful experience. The wife said she felt exhilarated, like she had jumped out of an airplane.”
The living room is comfortably furnished with couches and chairs, and a clear roof for a view of the trees. Two iron chairs are angled towards the woods for a cozy seating area. There is no electricity or TV and cell phones don’t work so well. “It’s an analog kind of place,” Peter said. “People tell me whatever they don’t want to come up the steps doesn’t come up the steps. They leave it behind. Maybe they need time off from the children, maybe from stress at work. They nap, they rest, they draw. And when they leave they sometimes look different. It’s a great thing to see.”
Peter says people book stays here to get engaged, celebrate a birthday or anniversary or recover from illness and the effect of stress. “My treehouse is a personal experience for people. Those are the kind of people I want here. I want people who understand what the experience will be. It’s not an accommodation – it’s an experience.”
Many of them share those experiences by writing long missives in his leather-bound guest books on the coffee table in the living room, some drawing pictures and writing poems.
Other guests have written blog posts about their transformative stays there. One recent guest claimed that the universe conspired to bring her to that treehouse. She wrote, “The time in-between was the most magical and healing time I’ve experienced in many years. The nest you’ve created with trust, vision, earth-love and the discerning eye of a man raised antiquing with his mother at flea markets held us safely in its pockets.”
One woman came to grieve a loss and had a memorable experience, because as Peter says, “Things happen out here.” She called to book a stay and he asked her about herself. She said she had lost her husband 4.5 years ago and he told her this was a good place for her to come.
She was out in the hammock by herself when an owl came and perched just a few feet from her. She sent a photo to Peter, who told her that was a significant event as he had never seen an owl that close to the treehouse in his 18 years living there. When she left she wrote in the guest book that it was the first time she had felt at peace since her husband’s death, and she was ready to go home and talk with her children about what happened.
Another time he had a woman who set up a stay as a surprise to her sister, who had loved treehouses when they were growing up. “When they got out of the car, the woman explained the surprise and her sister started crying and they started hugging. I think I was crying too. They both had big smiles on their faces. It was so sweet. That’s why I work as hard as I do. I don’t think I would have felt comfortable having people out here if it wasn’t for the people themselves. I get a lot of joy out of seeing people enjoy themselves.”
On Being an Airbnb Treehouse Host
Peter handles all the parts of booking himself, saying it takes him about an hour a day just to answer emails. Under Airbnb hosting rules, he has to answer every email within 24 hours. Contact with each guest is important to him, and he wants them to know what the experience will be like. He feels an obligation to do things right for them and he takes that personally, making sure the rooms are clean and there are fresh cut flowers in the treehouse.
“If they ask me about electricity and if we have a TV, I have to make sure they understand what the treehouse is about,” he says. “This place is really important to me and it’s not like an apartment I own across town. They have been a sustaining thing to me and helped me out when I most needed it, almost as if they knew. I am respectful to them and my guests.”
He wants to give his guests a good experience and if they aren’t happy he offers their money back, refusing to engage in arguments online if someone complains in a review. It’s rare but it happens, like the time a guy complained because he got milk for his coffee rather than cream. “I don’t want be an angry, upset Airbnb host,” he said. “It’s not worth it for the psychic pain and drama.”
The #1 designation came as a surprise to Peter. “I don’t think it’s the most beautiful treehouse or the best Airbnb,” he said. “The title is secluded, intown treehouse and that appeals to people. We all want to live on a farm in Central Park, right? People want to be in nature, but not drive three hours to get there. Atlanta is built in a forest – it’s beautiful. Here they can stay in the trees and still go to a good restaurant if they want to. You couldn’t do this in New York.”
Most of his guests are from Atlanta, which surprised him, but he figures maybe they live in an apartment or just need a getaway. The next highest number of visitors come from Florida, but he also gets them from Great Britain and Australia. He had one couple drive down from Toronto just to stay there, a distance of over 700 miles, which he jokes puts a lot of pressure on him to provide a good experience.
Other people ask him how their Airbnb can be #1. He heard from one guy who told him he was gunning for him as he wanted to be #1. “I said that’s okay, but I think you have a flawed strategy – you don’t try to be #1. It’s one of those things where I did something I felt good about and people responded to it. I don’t think you can try to meet what people want.”
He believes people are drawn to it because it’s authentic and sincere. “So few people get an opportunity to just camp out like we did as kids. We grew up and don’t want to be in a pup tent any longer. We want to be in a great bed with the trees. Here people can hear frogs and birds when they wake up.”
He has hosted weddings and parties there, including wrap parties for some of the Hunger Games movies. Yes, celebrities have stayed here, including his friend Woody Harrelson and Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad,” but Peter says the best and highest use for it is as a getaway for couples.
The Owner of the Airbnb Treehouse
Like his treehouses, Peter is an original – a cliché but feels appropriate here. I’ve lived in this neighborhood since the early 1980s, and Peter has been here close to 20 years. I first heard of Peter on Halloween years ago when my children were small. With houses close together and tons of young children, our neighborhood is a mecca on Halloween, the streets filled with anxious, scurrying children followed by their joking, relaxed parents laughing and sipping from red solo cups between admonishments for them to be careful and say thank-you.
Peter’s house immediately gained a reputation as he was giving away glow sticks. This was back in the day before those were distributed at every minor wedding and other celebration. Many of the kids hadn’t seen them before and were thrilled to receive the glowing bits of plastic. Peter was glow sticks before glow sticks were cool.
Since then I’ve seen him around at events and occasionally would run into him in the neighborhood and the grocery store. Here’s what you would know about any encounter with Peter – he would always greet you with enthusiasm and he would be involved in something interesting.
From Syracuse, New York, Peter practiced law then became an environmental activist for 30 years. He was Executive Director of Greenpeace and of the Ted Turner Foundation. It was his environmental work that led to his friendships with people like Woody Harrelson, who has visited and stayed in his treehouse.
He says he left every job the same way, “fired with enthusiasm.” At the time he left his last job, he felt the treehouses looked after him, providing him with an opportunity for income to support his work as an artist.
Peter is a self-taught artist, and his medium is stereoscopic three-dimensional photography. That’s a process developed in the 1830s and involves looking through a viewer he designed to see an image that “creates the illusion of traveling through time to a place. The image becomes your entire visual context, one showing someone or something as it exists in physical space. Pausing to look into the viewer is a physical interaction by the observer that mimics the frozen moment of the photograph itself. The observer and the subject are both stopped in time, one in the present, the other frozen between past and future.”
Peter has exhibited his work around the country. I recently encountered his art at Skyland Trail, a psychiatric treatment facility in Atlanta, a place where I imagine looking at the world in a different manner is a good thing.
By this point, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn his home is unique as well, standing in contrast to the 1940s and 50s modified bungalows and ranch houses. His house is modern, designed and built by an architect, open and inviting with huge panes of glass. On a recent visit he asked us in, inviting us to taste a new flavor of milk he had found in his typical enthusiastic manner. I pointed to a giant flag he has hanging in his kitchen and said, “Wow, Peter, I love that! I see it only has 48 stars – so that’s quite old.”
“Yeah, we never should have let Alaska and Hawaii in. They really f**ed up our flag,” he said. That’s Peter.
The Neighborhood: Springlake in Atlanta
The treehouse is in a neighborhood in northwest Atlanta called Springlake, kind of a subset of both the upscale neighborhood of Buckhead to the north and the newer, trendier area known as Westside to the south. Springlake has a golf course, several parks, an excellent elementary school and tree-lined, curving streets with sidewalks.
Like the rest of Atlanta, there’s no grid system for the winding, hilly streets here. Unlike the rest of Atlanta, which boasts over 100 streets with the name Peachtree in them, this area has none. Peter’s street and a nearby one may be named after presidents (McKinley and Wilson), while others are named after the mills that used to cross the flowing creeks – Howell Mill Road, Moores Mill Road. It’s a friendly, fairly safe neighborhood with the main issue being items stolen out of cars. We tell people not to leave anything valuable in your car.
Another Lesson From the Old Man?
It was tough setting up my interview with Peter because the treehouse is constantly booked, one of us was traveling or the weather wasn’t nice. After weeks of looking for a window, we finally had a beautiful fall afternoon and my husband and I walked over to the treehouse. About 10 minutes after we started, it happened. The leaf blowers noisily cranked up, spoiling any chance of videotaping and causing a 45-minute delay. I’m not going out on a limb here (ha!) to say these blowers are the bane of Peter’s existence, although his guests are understanding.
Later I thought about Peter saying the Old Man had taught him some things. About being gracious and extending hospitality. I think the leaf blowers were the Old Man’s way of getting us to slow down and to fully experience the treehouse ourselves. Perhaps he was thinking, as we say in the South, “Bless your heart. You’re way too busy and trying to get everything done for your video. Why don’t you sit a spell?” So, we did. Thanks for the lesson, Old Man.
* Peter refers to the treehouse in the plural, as it does have three parts. I use the singular term for this article.
411 on Staying Here in the Airbnb Treehouse
See the complete listing for the secluded intown treehouse here.
- A two-night minimum is required. Reservations book far in advance, with some people waiting more than a year to come. Peter keeps some open dates and releases them later. He doesn’t want everyone to wait years to come. “When people find an open date and can come, it’s like there were meant to be here.”
- The treehouse is closed from November to March. There is no heat or air conditioning, although Peter can provide a fan.
- There is no bathroom in the treehouse, however guests have access to a bathroom, a mini fridge and a place to store luggage in Peter’s home.
- Peter provides coffee in the morning by leaving it outside for guests. Several restaurants and a grocery store are within walking distance. Many guests prefer to order in from an online delivery service
- Candles are allowed, but Peter appoints one of the guests as the fire marshal whose job it is to make sure all candles are extinguished and strings of lights are unplugged when guests leave.
- For more treehouses, visit 5 Places to Sleep in the Trees