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Hit the Road with Chet Garner

One Weird Wonder

Austin’s Cathedral of Junk is an unfolding work of … art?

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. If that’s true, I was standing atop one of the most valuable treasure heaps in all of Texas. But rather than a pile of gold bullion or Fabergé eggs, this treasure trove consisted of busted TVs, at least one prosthetic leg and about 60 tons of accumulated stuff. It’s definitely not the sort of “treasure” that sells at fancy auctions. But for artist Vince Hannemann, this is indeed a priceless work of art.

I was in Hannemann’s South Austin backyard, atop his infamous Cathedral of Junk, a 30-foot tower consisting of multiple rooms and countless layers of—for lack of a better word—junk. License plates, wheelchairs and action figures formed into one massive structure that Hannemann started building in the late 1980s using pieces of his own trash.

As it took shape, neighbors started bringing him boxes of refuse that he puzzled and wired into the ever-expanding mass. Over three decades, the pile of trash became something more. It became a cathedral.

As he gave me a tour, Hannemann pointed out some of his favorite items that came with their own mysterious origin stories. One was a dented and burned timecard punch clock. “Did somebody get fired, smash the clock and then set the building on fire?” he wonders.

At first, the cathedral’s haphazard form seemed like chaos, but as I walked the grounds, I slowly noticed that every room, wall and panel had a theme. Sometimes the junk was organized by color, other times by its decade of creation. Before long, the junk transformed into a work of art before my eyes. It’s a creation too glorious for any gallery and more appropriately exhibited in an Austin backyard.