Since 1989, Vince Hanneman has been collecting throwaway items. It began with four hubcaps, and then came a shopping cart. Soon he had amassed enough junk to build a tower, followed by an arch and then a small room. Today, his “Cathedral of Junk” stands at a height of 33 feet tall and contains 60 tons of trash, including 800 bicycles.
Though the growth has attracted a great deal of positive attention from the art community, its stature and popularity does not bode well with city officials. A month ago, city officials, in response to a safety complaint, threatened to shut the cathedral down completely. Officials gave the cathedral until the end of April to comply with city building codes, or else risk large fines and permanent closure.
The question on Hanneman’s mind was, “How do you make an art form comply with city building codes?” The answer would not be an easy one.
In the past month, Hanneman has met with inspectors, engineers and architects to help bring the cathedral up to code. In the process, Hanneman and volunteer supporters of the cathedral removed nearly four tons of junk to allow for a five-foot space between the cathedral and the property line. The balcony was also demolished and visitors no longer have access to upper levels of the cathedral.
During the process, Vince has been forced to turn away all visitors. “They put a red sign in my yard telling them the cathedral is dangerous,” Hanneman declared. He also pointed out that no one has ever been hurt while visiting the cathedral. Despite his convictions, Hanneman hopes that his efforts will be enough to allow the city to approve of reopening the cathedral.
If the city does decide to close the Cathedral of Junk, it will be losing a valuable asset to its “Keep Austin Weird” community. It has been the setting of weddings and theater productions. The cathedral was also featured in the movie “Spy Kids 3” and a Bank of America commercial. Children from all over the world visit and light up with wonder when they see Hanneman’s cathedral because it is the back yard fort they wish was in their own backyard.
At the center of the public’s need for an eclectic landmark is one man’s dream. “What is at stake is more than just an Austin landmark, this is Vince’s life work,” exclaimed Bob Ratliff who, along with being a staunch supporter of the cathedral, has also contributed a new tower to the structure. “With all the changes to the cathedral,” Mr. Ratliff states, “the city has made an artist compromise his work.”
In a statement on the Cathedral of Junk fan page, supporters are urged to write to the mayor and city council. If enough people speak out, Vince is hoping that the city will take notice of how important the cathedral is to Austin. At the close of this month, Vince will have his answer and, hopefully, it is that he can keep sharing his artwork with Austin.
For the latest updates on the Cathedral of Junk, become a fan of the Cathedral of Junk Facebook page.Words and photos by Maggie Lieser