By Mary K. Schaffer
Vince Hannemann is the Junk King.
The ruler and collector of the Cathedral of Junk, a tottering “clubhouse” in South Austin, has curated a curious collection of broken and forgotten objects. Flickering televisions, tattered student IDs, bent Barbie dolls, burnt metal, a plastic toilet and even a prosthetic leg pop out of the heaps of unidentifiable junk as visitors wend their way through the Cathedral, working their way up to the tiny loft at the very top.
Completely hidden from Hannemann’s front yard, the Cathedral transports visitors to long-forgotten days when they used to own the rotary phone now peeking out from behind a pair of crutches or the clock hidden behind broken glass. The Cathedral, complete with throne room, crafts trash and memories into hidden treasures.
Hannemann started building backyard sculptures when he was a kid. His Cathedral, composed of over 60 tons of junk, is a natural progression of his childhood interests. “Didn’t you ever make a clubhouse when you were a kid? I made treehouses, but I used junk because it’s a lot cheaper,” Hannemann says. “That’s what I do here.”
The Cathedral, which Hannemann began building in 1988, contains three levels and multiple rooms, with discernible categories of junk outlining the entire structure. Whole sections of the Cathedral are devoted to skis, glass bottles, telephones, televisions, tires and figurines. Odd objects without partners are placed anywhere there is room, Hannemann says. “Of course there’s a rhyme or reason as to where I put things,” he says, a touch defensively. “Everything has a place.”
In 2010, Hannemann doubted if his Cathedral would still have a place in Austin’s weird scene. For seven months, the Junk King fought for his “clubhouse” to remain standing in his backyard after the city of Austin demanded he get a building permit. “I didn’t know I was building a building. I just thought it was yard art,” Hannemann says.
To comply with city regulations, he tore down 40 tons of junk, scaling the clubhouse down so he was not building right up to his neighbors’ property lines. After the first engineer assigned to test the Cathedral’s infrastructure and weight capacity quit the job, Hannemann doubted he would get a building permit without the engineer’s letter of approval. He then decided to subdivide the Cathedral, grouping it into smaller structures. That decision, however, actually helped save it. “During the media coverage of my ordeal with the city, all the public heard was, ‘Cathedral to be demolished,’” Hannemann says. “There was a public outcry and support.”
Hannemann’s plight was even featured in the Wall Street Journal in an April 2010 article. “My knuckles and Obama’s face were on the same page,” Hannemann says. “That was pretty cool.”
After the public outcry, Hannemann says, another engineer finally signed off on the letter of approval, finding no weak spots, and the Cathedral received its building permit. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, emotionally,” Hannemann says. “But the city just put another feather in my cap. They actually made me more famous.”
Because he operates in a residential neighborhood, Hannemann is not allowed to charge an admission fee to the estimated 10, 000 visitors he receives a year. “Charging admission doesn’t agree with the vibe of the Cathedral of Junk,” Hannemann admits. “I don’t like going to a museum for $10 where I can’t even touch the art. You can interact with what you see here.”
Hannemann doesn’t always welcome interaction with the junk, however: “Ten-year-old boys are the worst. They love to move stuff around. Touch it, but don’t move it. The little girls are just as hard to deal with when they see ‘Justin Bieber was here’ written in there. They don’t believe whatever I say about him.”
Hanneman has crafted a new world in his backyard, right in the middle of weird Austin. In the junk world, treasure hides in every crevice, long-forgotten memories resurface and history lies around every corner.
The Cathedral of Junk is located at 4422 Lareina Dr., south of Ben White Blvd. It is open 365 days a year, from dawn till dusk. Hannemann asks that people call him at (512) 299-7413 to make an appointment to visit.