One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Cathedral

By Mary K. Schaffer December 5, 2012

Vince Hannemann is the Junk King.

The ruler and collector of the Cathedral of Junk has curated a curious collection of broken and forgotten objects. Flickering televisions, tattered IDs, bent Barbie dolls, 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.

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.”

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. 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, an 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 said.

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.”

Hanneman’s hand-crafted new world, right in middle of weird Austin, is a place for people to reach out and touch old junk, especially if it’s old junk they used to have. It’s a junk palace in which treasure hides in every crevice, long-forgotten memories resurface and history lies around every corner. “People wander down memory lane here,” Hannemann says. “They find an old iron they used to have or an old telephone they remember. It’s a special place.”

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