Fashioned for felines

Times Staff Writer

Bob Walker and Frances Mooney know they live a bit, well, differently.

Most people don’t paint their houses purple on the outside, or use 42 colors on the inside. Most of us aren’t minor international celebrities. And most of us don’t live with 11 cats, or own places devoted as much to their needs as to ours.

But if you are one of the millions who have heard about the Cats’ House, created by this married couple in a neighborhood of off-white tract homes above San Diego’s Mission Bay, you just might aspire to be a bit different too.

Maybe you wouldn’t go so far as to build 140 feet of walkways seven feet overhead, based on Walker’s theory that “cats love to look down on us.” Or create a felines-only clubhouse, whose entrance is surrounded by mouse effigies hanging upside-down in brass cages. Or adopt nearly a dozen cats, plus one “token dog.”


Even Walker and Mooney admit that they like going to extremes.

“We’ve been called everything, but one of our favorite terms is ‘eccentric,’ ” Mooney says in her living room. “You know you’ve really accomplished something when a British TV show is coming all the way here and calling you eccentric.”

As Mooney speaks, sitting in an easy chair under a canopy of Christmas tree lights, an audience of four, maybe five, cats gathers. Several are distracted, nodding off or grooming themselves. Still, it feels as if there are a thousand eyes -- OK, maybe just 22 -- watching every move in the house.

It’s apropos, considering the media spotlight under which Walker, Mooney and Co. have operated since their first book, “The Cats’ House,” appeared in 1996. The modest, 92-page book, written and photographed by Walker, went on to draw the attention of at least 75 television crews and dozens of publications worldwide. When the couple had an open house and book signing in 1996, 900 people showed up on their block.

“Lots of people have e-mailed and sent us photos of how they’ve done their own catwalks,” Walker says. “That’s kind of amazing. We’ve had more than our 15 minutes.”

The success led to six more books, a line of postcards at Target, product design work for a couple of pet food companies and a smattering of endorsements. It also landed the couple a spot in Chris Smith’s “Home Movie,” a documentary about five unusual houses that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and came out in August on DVD.

Before the fame, though, Walker and Mooney had a problem familiar to many homeowners: what to do with a floor plan that didn’t suit their needs. In 1986, the Chinese Year of the Tiger, the couple had moved to Mooney’s childhood home. It’s a 1,500-square-foot tract house, built in the mid-1950s, that would have a spectacular view of Mission Bay “if you were a giraffe standing on the roof,” Walker is fond of saying.


They wanted to separate the living room from the dining room by means of a leaded glass window, suspended by a beam across the room. In addition, they hoped to solve the problem of the cats’ sharpening their claws on the furniture, so the couple incorporated a floor-to-ceiling scratching post, wound with 395 feet of pink-dyed sisal rope.

It was a mostly brilliant solution for all involved, especially the cats, who would chase one another up the post and along the horizontal beam -- then come to a screeching halt. After a while, Walker remembered how his uncle had suspended track for a train set high above the floor, and inspiration struck: a cat track running around the house.

Using 2-by-6 planks of kiln-dried Douglas fir, Walker fashioned a catwalk that runs not only from room to room but also through openings -- shaped like mouse holes, a cat’s head, flames and the sun -- that he cut in the walls. One neon-lighted section zigzags through the hallway, depicting the river Styx; on the ceiling, Mooney has glued five sizes of rhinestones to represent constellations. To help some of the older cats descend, Walker created a curved, 23-step staircase in the TV room and a carpeted ramp in the bedroom.

With more space overhead, the couple could also give in to the urge to adopt more cats. Their current clan -- Bernard, Jimmy, Jerry, Frank, Louise, Molly, Elliott, Gus, Charlotte, Stella and Eddie -- ranges in age from 14 years to 2. All are indoor cats; Sasha, the Siberian husky, leads a primarily outdoor life.

Of course, keeping things tidy is a chore. The presence of fur is unmistakable, though not any more so than in most one- or two-cat households; the odor from the seven litter boxes is also noticeable, but an ocean breeze freshens things up. It’s Walker’s job to vacuum the floors and clean the boxes, because his wife has asthma.

It might seem as if taking care of this many animals could be a full-time job, if not a monetarily rewarding one. Though the house has brought them fame, Walker and Mooney haven’t exactly made a fortune from it.


Before Walker became known as “BobCat,” he helped found what is now San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts in the ‘70s. He and Mooney also owned a San Diego photography gallery that showed the work of artists such as Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Imogen Cunningham and Suda House. But in 1994, they closed shop and began running a picture-framing business at home in two feline-free rooms that, on this day, alpha-cat Frank is determined to find a way into.

“You can’t come in here,” Walker says, shooing him away with a foot. “This is where we earn our kibble.”

Soon, the cat-free zones of the house will expand, as Walker looks to move more behind the camera; he’ll need the space for studio work. And, instead of taking pictures of just his own cats, he’s hoping to go to other people’s homes to make portraits of them and their pets.

Though Mooney is the quieter of the two, her presence is colorful, quite literally. Walk up the driveway and you’ll notice that it’s covered with drips and drabs Mooney created by flinging paint off the stirrers. Her channeling of Jackson Pollock was actually a way to camouflage the cracks in the concrete. The house itself, however, is hard to miss.

“I think having been here since 1961 gives me extra points to do stuff like paint the house purple,” Mooney says of the permissiveness of her neighbors. “If I’d been a stranger coming in and doing that, there probably would have been a problem.”

Inside, she has employed so many colors that she has a room-by-room chart to remember which paint to use for touch-up work. Some paints were bought in Mexico, because the deep pigments weren’t available in U.S. stores.


For years, the couple collected pre-Columbian folk art and were particularly obsessed with Day of the Dead figures from Mexico. The river Styx walkway, for example, flows from a re-creation of the ancient Aztec Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan to the flames of hell, surrounded by skeletons. Above, constellations represent the souls of the followers of Quetzalcoatl, Aztec god of the arts and culture.

In the last few years, however, the couple have given away much of their folk art, instead going consciously for “kitty kitsch”: a lion’s head from MGM Studios, a giant Japanese “lucky cat” and a wall-hanging made of nearly 60,000 sequins hand-sewn by Mooney. In the kitchen, they even redid the floors by covering them with cutout cat photos and then shellacking the surface.

Many of the items are presents from acquaintances and fans.

“Friends give you things once they know you’re a weirdo,” Walker says. “So we just take them and proudly display them.”

Doing so in a house full of cats requires a few tricks, because whatever isn’t tied down becomes a plaything. So the couple have bolted lamps onto tables, affixed tchotchkes with Quakehold and held pillows in place with Velcro.

Inventiveness is in no short supply around the Cats’ House. Walker’s next book project will probably be about cat contraptions he’s devising, Rube Goldberg-style. After that, there could be a book of unusual dog photographs. And he’s in the process of designing a 12-cat feeder that will keep bigger cats from eating smaller cats’ food.

“A feeder for 12 cats?” Mooney asks, half-jokingly. “Does that mean we can get another cat?”