Cathedral of Junk
The Cathedral of Junk stands quietly in the backyard of a small house on a suburban street on the south side of Austin. Unlike other busybody constructions that we've visited -- the Forevertron, the Garden of Eden, the Orange Show -- this one blends with its neighborhood. From the street, it's invisible.
The man who built it, Vince Hannemann, is similarly unassuming. He didn't build the Cathedral to get attention. Although he's been dubbed a "yardist" by the local art community, he's a very down-to-earth guy who harbors no illusions about the significance of his creation. "I just did it because it was kinda cool," he tells us. "It's my clubhouse. It's fun. Kids, when they come through, they know what it is."
Vince began building the Cathedral in 1988, when he was in his mid-twenties. He's added to it steadily ever since, and he estimates that it now contains over 60 tons of junk. "People ask me all the time, 'What made you want to do this?' Like it had some sort of profound meaning. I just did it because I liked it. And when I stop liking it I'll take it down."
Wrapped in years of subtropical Texas vegetation, the Cathedral is a hollow framework of improvised trusses, around and within which Vince has wired and packed all manner of mass-production cast-offs: lawnmower wheels, car bumpers, kitchen utensils, ladders, cables, bottles, circuit boards, bicycle parts, brick-a-brack, and a lot of stuff that is frankly unidentifiable.
Illuminated beer signs, clocks, and other electric do-dads still operate, powered by unseen cables and outlets hidden within the shadowy silvery-green. Walk through the Cathedral's passages, and one is eerily reminded of scenes from the film Aliens, where half-organic walls are built of humans waiting to be sucked dry.
The Cathedral is, in fact, assembled mostly from stuff that people bring to Vince, which makes charting its overall growth somewhat problematic. "You can't tell people what to bring," Vince notes. But he is fussy and, he admits, "my tastes change. Lots of things don't fit in."
The Cathedral seems small, at least from the outside, which is understandable given the small size of Vince's back yard. Once you enter, however, it magically expands. Perhaps it's the stairways and multiple levels, or the vaulted ceilings, or the observation platforms, or the "Throne Room," whose chair, made of god-knows-what, sits at the Cathedral's heart and on which Vince sits and answers our annoying questions. Whatever the reason, the effect is impressive.
Vince tells us of a "moment of decision" that he faced in 2000. "I wanted to regain control over it," he confesses. "You know, 'I have a life! I have a life! I'm sick of this. I just wanna get out of here.' But, no. I have no control. I couldn't tear it down."
"I tried," Vince continues. "I tore down the three-story tower in the back."But he then used the junk from the tower to build more rooms. "I decided to go less World Trade Center and more Frank Lloyd Wright."
"I was deluded," he laughs. "I was just stressed out."
The yuppies in the townhome complex behind Vince's yard wouldn't mind if Vince tore down his Cathedral. They've complained to the city, and the city has sent engineers -- several over the years -- who shake and study Vince's creation, trying to find its weak spots, but it has none.
"This is built to withstand Texas storms," Vince notes with satisfaction.
The only part of the Cathedral that Vince has had to demolish was his "Pyramid of TVs" -- 200 in all. "One guy told me, 'This isn't a pyramid, this is only a pile.' I said, 'Well, what kind of pile expert are you? Aren't we just a kind of pile?" The engineer was not swayed by Vince's metaphysical argument, and the pyramid came down. Its remains are now the smaller "zen garden of TVs," some of which still flicker fitfully.
Vince, who has a day job, is happy to show visitors his creation when he's around. The Cathedral has hosted weddings, CD debut parties, bachelor parties, and is a popular destination for tour groups of schoolkids and senior citizens.
"Some people recognize junk that they used to have. Women, mostly," Vince tells us. "A few people get overwhelmed and have to leave. Sometimes people get weird. Some people cry. Women again. They just get overcome or something, I dunno."
Unlike medieval cathedrals, whose construction often spanned several generations, the Cathedral of Junk will be finished well within Vince Hannemann's lifetime, if he has anything to say about it. "Oh, no. I'm not doing this for the rest of my life. I want to retire to the back porch. I want to putter."