Landmark artwork gains legal permit

Anna Fata

After a seven-month battle, the Austin landmark known as the Cathedral of Junk received proper building permits to remain open to the public.

The Cathedral of Junk is a 33-foot, fort-like structure made up of scrap metals, bicycles, action figures and other miscellaneous items. The site, which receives about 10,000 visitors a year, has been on display in the backyard of artist Vince Hannemann’s South Austin apartment for 21 years.

Hannemann, who displays the permits on his front door, said the thought of losing so much of the structure was emotionally challenging.

“This is easily more traumatic than either of my divorces,” he said. “This is my baby.”

In March, the city of Austin, acting on a complaint, told Hannemann that he needed city permits to continue displaying his work on his property.

Under city guidelines, the Cathedral cannot operate like a business because it is in a residential zone. Hannemann has never charged visitors an entrance fee, although he accepts donations. He has allowed people to have their weddings and birthday parties at the site, but he does not solicit visitors. The city’s guidelines also restrict him from posting hours in which the Cathedral is open for visitors.

The city is most concerned with the safety of the visitors while in the structure and its proximity to Hannemann’s neighbor’s fence, said Melissa Martinez, a division manager for Austin’s Code Compliance Department.

“If they don’t follow through with items that need to be collected, there are potential fines and they could end up in court,” Martinez said.

When the city named the space unsafe, Austinites were unable to visit the site and Hannemann worked with engineers and lawyers to ensure the site complied with all safety and legal procedures.

“Somewhere along the line, and I’m not exactly sure where, I crossed the line from yard art into a building,” Hannemann said.

To comply with city codes for the building permit, volunteers had to deconstruct more than 30 tons of the structure, said Micah King, director of the Save the Cathedral campaign.

“With the Cathedral of Junk saved, I hope that the legal space for artists to keep Austin weird is also saved,” he said.