A Look Inside Austin's Cathedral of Junk

Rebecca O'Connell
Rebecca O'Connell / Rebecca O'Connell

Tucked away on a residential street in southeast Austin, you can find action figures, broken toilets, bicycle parts, and assorted knick-knacks all woven together to form a looming, strange castle-like structure. Known as the Cathedral of Junk, the massive castle stands a little over 30 feet tall. Its creator, self-proclaimed “Junk King” Vince Hannemann, has been working on it since 1988, much to the chagrin of his neighbors. 

The King stands at the gate of his house with his trusty companion—an Australian cattle dog named Smoky—and lets in visitors. He asks that guests make a reservation and that they park on a side road to keep neighbor agitation at a minimum. A red box sits nearby asking for $10 donations. Once inside, visitors can explore the 60-ton structure, which has an elaborate system of stairs, bridges, and even a slide.

The Cathedral of Junk is a testament to the slogan “keep Austin weird,” which, as Vice puts it, is a sentiment that has lately been reserved for sorority girl bumper stickers. In 2010, the city asked Hannemann to dismantle the cathedral, as it was upsetting the people who live in the neighborhood (if you climb to the top of the structure, you can peek into the neighboring backyards). Austinites take their weird art seriously, and after a bit of a kerfuffle, Hannemann received a building permit and the Cathedral of Junk made a triumphant return. A few hundred volunteers came to help the rebuilding. “It was very motivating to have the public support,” Hannemann said.

Taking a stroll around the structure, you can find plenty of oddities, from strings of AOL CDs to motorcycle helmets on stakes. It has everything—kitchen sink included. In the interior of the building (the foyer, if you will), the massive clumps of junk are color-coded, with items sometimes being painted to match the theme. The green section features a number of different-sized Gumbys, while the pink section predictably boasts a wide selection of Barbie dolls and accessories.

The outside is just as interesting as the inside, and offers guests a number of stairways to higher levels. Thanks to a bit of concrete, the structure is surprisingly sturdy—the city has actually sent engineers to shake the building and look for weak spots. At the top of structure, there is a small bench from which to take in the view.

Despite being made of decaying toys and broken technology, the Cathedral of Junk is actually pretty romantic. Bachelor parties, engagement pictures, and even actual weddings have used the odd attraction as a venue. Nature intermingles with the junk, in what Hannemann refers to as a “critter condo.” You can find children and wildlife alike happily enjoying the architecture. 

Despite creating a junk kingdom, Hannemann is pretty modest about it. "I just did it because it was kinda cool," he told Roadside America. "It's my clubhouse. It's fun. Kids, when they come through, they know what it is." Hannemann fields questions from his seat in the Junk Throne Room. Made from a collection of chains, toys, and even a Jesus statuette, the chair looks a lot like the Iron Throne if Aegon the Conqueror was really into garage sales. As Roadside America describes it, the effect is impressive.

Hannemann told me that he plans to keep building and adding onto his strange structure. As people continue to donate their junk to him, he has more materials to expand. He even has the nose of an airplane, though he refused to reveal where it came from.

“The Cathedral really is a cathedral,” the Junk King told filmmaker Evan Burns. “It has a congregation. It has a life. It serves a public purpose. It really is owned by all these other people too—not just by me. It will go on without me, I’m sure.”

Images courtesy of the author.