Farewell to the Cathedral of Junk

City rules and city art clash, art comes off worse

The Cathedral of Junk as it once was
The Cathedral of Junk as it once was (Photo by Jack Anderson)

What happens when city regulations and an artistic vision clash? In the case of the Cathedral of Junk, artistic vision and the Austin cultural skyline lose. Yesterday Vince Hanneman, the artist behind the cathedral, announced he is tearing it down.

The cathedral had been slowly growing/accreting new parts in Hanneman's back yard since 1988, becoming a genuine piece of roadside Americana and even being featured on a postcard issued by the city. However, earlier this year Hanneman found himself on the wrong side of the city's Public Assembly Code Enforcement unit, which had major concerns about the safety of the structure and wanted Hanneman to pull the structure back out of the easement. There were also concerns about how accessible the structure could be to the public,

There had been serious efforts by Hanneman, council and city staff to try to come to some accommodation. However, on June 15 Hanneman released this statement, announcing his decision and thanking everyone that had tried to help:

Your efforts have helped soothe my bruised heart. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to tell you that our efforts have been in vain. The City has made me alter the Cathedral so much that little of its original charm is left. They are still wanting a building permit for what is left. Therefore, I will be continuing to dismantle what remains. Also, visitors will be turned away. Thank you everyone. It's a sad day for me, but much more so for Austin and, by proxy, the world.
Micah King, who had been organizing support through the Save the Cathedral of Junk Facebook group, issued his own statement:
This is a sad day for Austin's cultural and artistic identity. The things we love so much about Austin – creativity, experimentation and the Do It Yourself movement – are threatened by changes in our city that fail to reflect what makes Austin so special to begin with. The Cathedral of Junk's demise is a symptom of several issues that we, as Austinites, must address.
King warned that, to avoid another closure, "Our laws should [be] flexible enough to allow for unique solutions to unique challenges." Council had actually been working on a resolution that would have allowed the reduced cathedral to stay in place, and the decision completely blindsided Solid Waste Services, which had another inspection filed for later this week.

This is not the only recent incident in which local coding regulations and artistic expression have become social flashpoints. In 2008, the PACE unit was criticized for its closure of the Enchanted Forest, then the United States Art Authority (hosting Texas author Joe R. Lansdale June 16) got caught up in red tape about the certificate of occupancy. Then there was the long, weird debate about whether Ralph the Cactus Planter was art or a junked car. Last year, there was great debate over whether a mural was art or graffiti.

This latest incident is already causing some serious soul-searching as to how Austin is supposed to create a regulatory and enforcement paradigm that gives artists the leeway they want without throwing health and safety regulations out of the window.

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Cathedral of Junk, City Government, Enchanted Forest, Vince Hanneman

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