The Austin Chronicle

Don't Touch My Junk!

By Richard Whittaker, December 3, 2010, News

So, is the Cathedral of Junk open for business as usual?

Depends whom you ask – and how they define business as usual.

For the last nine months, the future of the three-story art structure constructed by Vince "The Junk King" Hannemann in his South Austin backyard has been in doubt after the city's Public Assembly Code Enforcement unit reported structural and safety issues. After lengthy negotiations and renovations, the Save the Cathedral of Junk group announced on Oct. 23 that "the City of Austin granted the Cathedral of Junk a building permit, ending this months long saga." This was confirmed by a Nov. 16 statement by the city of Austin's Planning and Development Review Department. It seemed to resolve an issue that had triggered an outpouring of popular support for Hannemann: The local arts and music communities organized fundraisers, volunteers helped bring the cathedral into code, attorneys at Brown McCarroll provided pro bono advice, and even the Texas Civil Rights Project got involved. Back in June, Hannemann told all of his supporters, "Your efforts have helped soothe my bruised heart."

When the Chronicle reported the details of the agreement (see "Chapel of Junk?," Nov. 19), it seems that Hannemann felt rebruised. In a letter sent Nov. 21, he wrote: "[Y]ou got it wrong. ... [T]here were never any 'serious health and safety issues.' ... There were never any 'structural problems.' There was an easement issue." He also objected to our reporting that the agreement was dependent on "the condition that he limits public access." He wrote, "[T]he final agreement does not prevent me from opening to tourists."

Is that what the city thinks? Not according to a Nov. 16 statement issued by staff to clarify exactly what was in the agreement. According to City Planning and Development Review Department spokesperson Sylvia Arzola: "There was word out in the community that we had issued the building permit, and he could continue as he had always operated. We just wanted to clarify that, yes, we had issued the building permit, but there were conditions."

So does the agreement allow Hannemann to open to tourists? "No, he cannot have tours," Arzola said. The city's Nov. 16 statement said he "must not advertise the structure as an event venue or public/tourist attraction, and must stop promoting the site on websites." The full agreement spells out that Hannemann is allowed "ten guest vehicle trips a day or 30-guest vehicle trips a week." That will mean far fewer visitors than the 10,000 a year Hannemann originally claimed. Since the cathedral is in his backyard, Arzola said, "It's to be treated like any other residence." As for hosting weddings and parties, she said that's allowed with the correct permits, "but not every single weekend, like he was before."

This is just the latest chapter in the back-and-forth between City Hall and Hannemann that began with the initial March 10 visit by city inspection officer Steve Farmer. In his report, Farmer found multiple violations, not least that the three-story structure had no building permit or certificate of occupancy and that it stretched into the property's 5-foot easement. Farmer also found "extension cords were buried and led back to the house and were plugged into a exterior outlet," as well as two out-of-code cement staircases and a ladder used to access the structure's upper levels. Hannemann has made the structural changes demanded by the city, and, Arzola said, "We told him, 'You can keep it there as long as you can prove that it's structurally sound.'"

So was the cathedral ever really in danger? The city repeatedly said it just wanted Han­ne­mann to comply with all relevant codes, while Hanneman denied that he ever planned to demolish it. However, on June 15, the Save the Cathedral of Junk Facebook group announced that Hannemann had "decided to completely dismantle [the cathedral] and move on to other projects." At the time, Han­neman said: "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."

In his Nov. 21 letter, Hannemann wrote that he "briefly agreed to get a demolition permit when [Public Assembly Code Enforcement] asked for it. When City Hall heard about that, they found a way to work with me." However, according to the city report, there was no permit talk until June 16 – the day after his threat to dismantle the cathedral. Farmer reported then that Hanne­mann "said he was going to finish tearing it down and modify it to smaller sculptures." Obtaining the permit, Farmer wrote, "would give him more time and the expertise at [Development Assistance Center] to assist him."

That wasn't the first time there's been confusion about whether the cathedral was ever doomed. On March 26, The Daily Texan reported that Hannemann told the Texan, "It's gotten out there that the city is about to bulldoze the cathedral, but that's not the story." So why would the media think the city was going to send the bulldozers in? Maybe because of a March 24 press release from Hannemann and the Save the Junk group titled "Austin Cultural Landmark Threaten­ed with Bulldozing by the City of Austin."

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