When people talk about how weird Austin is, they’re probably not talking about the shiny new high-rises downtown, the invasion of tech (and the requisite accompanying tech bros), or, you know, brunch. They’re talking about places like the Cathedral of Junk and people like Vince Hanneman.
The History of the Cathedral
Creator and curator Vince Hanneman began building the Cathedral of Junk in his backyard in 1989, purely as a passion project. Today, it’s an ever-evolving community sculpture of sorts, stuffed to the brim with tons of junk—over 60 tons of it, in fact. Old televisions, bicycles, pipes, and other scrap parts are artfully piled together in a towering structure with secret rooms, stairways, a tower, and even a “throne room.” Peaceful wind chimes tinkle in the breeze, and sunbeams peek in through the “ceiling.” Think of it as a kids’ clubhouse, but for adults.
The Cathedral is beloved by many, although not all: A few years ago, some neighbors complained to the city that it was a public safety concern (in reality, they just thought it was an eyesore), and though several official complaints were filed, the Cathedral was ultimately deemed structurally safe—although not before Hanneman was forced to remove over 50 tons of materials, before obtaining final approval from an engineer. He also had to demolish his “pyramid of TVs,” which has since been replaced with a smaller “zen garden of TVs” (which is exactly what it sounds like).
In a city that isn’t short on weirdness, the Cathedral of Junk is truly one of Austin’s most offbeat attractions.
What to See
There’s a lot to take in at the Cathedral, especially if you’re visiting for the first time. From the outside, the structure appears to be quite small, but once you’re inside, the space somehow magically expands, giving way to multiple levels, passageways, and vaulted ceilings. Be sure to give yourself ample time (at least an hour or so) to explore; the Cathedral is incredibly visually stunning, with lots of small details that you might miss if you just zip through in a few minutes. And, be sure to climb up to the second and third floors to see the views of the treetops below.
How to Get There
A private residence, the Cathedral of Junk is located in a quiet residential neighborhood in south Austin. To get there, take Highway 290 to the Highway 71 (Ben White Blvd E.) exit, then take 71 west to the Congress Avenue exit. From there, head south a couple of blocks and turn right on St. Elmo Road W., then take the second left onto Lareina Drive.
Visiting Hours, Fees, and Parking
Although the Cathedral is open often, there aren’t regular hours, and you do have to call ahead to make an appointment (512-299-7413). Hanneman is happy to give tours upon request, and you can rent the space for birthday parties, weddings, or other events. There’s no fee to get in, but the Cathedral does take donations (as of 2020, the requested donation for groups is $10 and $5 for individuals; kids get in free). There’s usually plenty of street parking, but if it’s a hectic day, you can park around the corner on St. Elmo.
Tips for First-Time Visitors
- Don’t just show up and expect to be able to get in; call ahead to make an appointment (and definitely request a tour ahead of time if this is something you want to do; Hanneman doesn’t automatically give tours to everyone that comes through).
- Plan to spend at least an hour looking around.
- It’s best to wear closed-toe shoes, as there are lots of sharp, spiky objects around.
- Sometimes, visitors can bring their own contributions to the Cathedral—but if you want to do this, you’ll need to contact Hanneman first for approval.
- Kids are welcome, but make sure that you keep an eye on them. (Some of the stairs are a little uneven, and the structure is fairly maze-like.)
- There are no bathrooms on-site, so be prepared for that.
- You can bring food and drinks in (no alcohol), but be sure to take everything out.
- Don’t forget to sign your name alongside all the thousands of other visitors who’ve been to the Cathedral at the end of your tour.