His mother christened it the Cathedral of Junk and its congregation has grown steadily in the last few years.
They come in a steady stream — in singles and small groups. The cathedral has become a shrine for the curious and a venue for weddings, bachelor parties, school field trips and Girl Scout gatherings. The archbishop of the cathedral, Vince Hannemann, welcomes all and asks only that you believe in keeping Austin weird (the Texas capital’s unofficial motto) and that you make an appointment.
“Just let everyone know they can’t just show up,” Hannemann emphasized as he ushered us through the aisles and up, down and around this 32-foot-high structure. “They have to call first.”
We did — and the cathedral was the first stop on our recent visit to Austin.
We perused and cruised slowly in an attempt to take it all in — an impossibility, really. So much detail; so little time. This monument contains thousands of parts, pieces and whole items — shiny and dull — whose death sentences have been commuted in order to serve new purposes.
There are Barbie dolls, bicycle rims, CDs, rubber duckies, a toilet, dial telephones, circuit boards, tennis rackets, plastic dishes, broken pottery, streets signs, hubcaps, and perhaps fittingly, a large plastic Virgin Mary lawn ornament.
Climbing to the top of the cathedral, visitors will see wired or tied together or embedded in cement a comb, pliers, horseshoes, pottery pieces, scattered shells, a flashy-colored fish, glass soda bottles, a tiny wrench and a heart-shaped cookie cutter.
Perhaps more amazing is that the cathedral survived last night’s fierce rainstorm and the area’s reported 3,000 lightning strikes. Is it not a miracle that the pyramid of crutches at the cathedral’s peak was not fried or that this entire tabernacle of treasures did not go up in flames?
Back in 2010, life in this Austin backyard was not so tranquil. Neighbors who didn’t agree with Hannemann’s definition of art called the city of Austin to complain that the cathedral was too big and the pilgrims were too numerous. There followed attempts to dismantle the cathedral with regulations, inspections and permits. Seven years ago this month,
Hannemann’s saga made it into the Wall Street Journal.
“I shared the front page with Barack Obama,” he told us.
The city forced him to remove a portion of his yard art — about 40 tons worth.
How much is left?
“Based on the area (of the part that was removed), I’d estimate that the cathedral may weigh upwards of 200-plus tons, but that’s only a guess.”
In the end, the city’s engineer wasn’t interested in how much his yard art weighed, but “only how much weight it could hold,” Hannemann said. “He tested it by hauling up 400 gallons of water and it didn’t collapse so he was satisfied … and he signed off and that was that.
Everything I’ve done since 2010 is within the (city’s) parameters. After six years of restoration, I consider the cathedral 99 percent done. There are a few final touches left, but nothing major. I’ve transitioned to small sculptures.”
Not everyone thinks the cathedral should remain static.
“I’ve noticed that people don’t want me to be finished,” Hannemann explained. “They want more floors and rooms. Always more. Plus they feel free to tell me how I can run this place better. I should hire someone … set hours … charge more … have T-shirts and bumper stickers … a Facebook thing. I should have an I-spy book … get a grant or pursue art funding. People have their expectations and I’ve had to learn to incorporate them in my work and at the same time ignore them and listen to my inner muse. It’s an interesting balancing act, but after 28 years, I think I’m getting it.”
If you’re in Austin, stop by to see the Cathedral of Junk, but call first: (512) 299-7413.
Donations accepted. For more photos, visit www.facebook.com/elouiseondash.