Don’t be misled by the name — the Cathedral of Junk is not just a pile of rubbish. But it is a true cathedral, as well as a gigantic sculpture made up of just about every kind of found object you could possibly think of: tools, dolls, toys, car parts, toilets, building materials, signs, baskets, tires, bells, mannequins, beads… The list goes on (and on, and on).
Despite the fact that “cathedral” is right there in the name, the last thing I expected when my kids and I visited was to feel actually spiritually moved. But there was a very spiritual feeling to the place, noticeable as soon as we walked into the open, airy front “room” of the gigantic sculpture. The resonant tones of wind chimes greet you as you walk in, and your gaze is immediately drawn upward to where the sloping walls arch up and then give way to the sky.
Located in the back yard of the artist who created it, the Cathedral of Junk is a living sculpture — meaning it is always in flux as its creator, owner and curator, Vince, adds new features and edits others out. On the sunny, breezy morning that we visited, Vince was busy pouring concrete to make a new set of steps in a certain area behind the slide. By the time we left, he was pressing metal items into the setting concrete to create shapes that will stay there as long as the steps do.
If you read Yelp and other reviews of this must-see Austin site, you may get the impression that Vince is brusque or prickly, but I found him very kind, welcoming and accommodating. To visit the Cathedral, you must call ahead to make an appointment (512-299-7413). I called about 9:30 on the morning of the day when I hoped to visit. Vince picked up quickly, and was very friendly as he invited me to come at 11 AM that same day. He informed me of the requested $10/group donation and gave me instructions about parking — the Cathedral is located in a quiet residential neighborhood just south of Hwy 290 off S. 1st Street; there is street parking only, and you must take care not to block off neighbors’ mailboxes or driveways. On busy days, it’s best to park around the corner, on St. Elmo.
I’d read in various write-ups and reviews of the Cathedral that some people like to bring their own contributions to the sculpture. When I asked Vince how he felt about this, he seemed a little put off by the idea. If someone wants to bring an item to add, he prefers to be asked first — “Not every item is appropriate for the sculpture,” he said. He also said sometimes people bring their trash to add to the sculpture “and think that’s cool.” (He obviously doesn’t agree.) So if you have the (understandable) urge to contribute to the sculpture or leave a small token behind, it’s best to ask Vince first — and know that he may decline your offer. After all, it isn’t a community sculpture — it’s his creation.
There are no bathrooms on site, so plan for that. The path to the back of the house, where the Cathedral is located, is wheelchair-accessible, as is a good portion of the Cathedral itself. There are areas with stairs that lead up to second- and third-story levels. These are pretty cool — climb a strange, winding little staircase that is a work of art itself, and soon you’re up among the treetops with a bird’s view over the back yards of the neighborhood.
There are odd little seats and benches woven here and there into the sculpture, some of which feel steady and secure, but not all of them! My four-year-old daughter has Down syndrome, so she’s a little less balanced than other kids her age. She was able to get up all the steps on her own, but needed help getting back down. My two-year-old son scrambled all over everything. I loved not having to worry about the kids touching or breaking things, and appreciated that Vince didn’t seem worried, either.
As you can tell, I took lots of photos, but I found myself resisting using the camera. Some of the best and most surprising elements of the Cathedral are the little tableaux built throughout the sculpture. Photographs don’t do the place justice, and looking at the Cathedral through your phone or camera lens is far less preferable than just looking at it directly, so you can take in all the little details.
Vince said people sometimes bring picnics to enjoy in his back yard, but note that whatever you bring in, you must take out. (And don’t bring alcohol!) Since the Cathedral is outdoors and open to the elements, it’s best to go when it isn’t raining — and preferably when it’s sunny! I found that the sunlight added a lot to the spiritual, breezy feeling inside the cathedral. Another of my favorite elements was the surprising little messages here and there — words in concrete reminding you to “look at the stars, look how they shine for you,” or to “wish us well upon a star.” These added to the spiritual feeling, for me.
Vince might get 11,000–14,000 visitors in a year. Since the cathedral is located at his private property, he tries to limit it to 200–300 visitors a day, and he’s not always available to show people around — hence calling ahead to make an appointment to visit.
I recommend combining your trip with lunch at Casa Maria around the corner, on St. Elmo at S. 1st. They make their own tortillas and have a panaderia, too!