Rebecca O'Connell
Rebecca O'Connell

A Look Inside Austin's Cathedral of Junk

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.

How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days' time they are as well as before their illness."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane

What should be worn during takeoff?

Tony Luna:

If you are a frequent flyer, you may often notice that some passengers like to kick off their shoes the moment they've settled down into their seats.

As an ex-flight attendant, I'm here to tell you that it is a dangerous thing to do. Why?

Besides stinking up the whole cabin, footwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information.

During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren't properly covered, you'll have a hard time making your way to safety.

Imagine destroying your bare feet as you run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards. Kind of like John McClane in Die Hard, but worse. Ouch!

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A mere couple of seconds delay during an emergency evacuation can be a matter of life and death, especially in an enclosed environment. Not to mention the entire aircraft will likely be engulfed in panic and chaos.

So, the next time you go on a plane trip, please keep your shoes on during takeoff, even if it is uncomfortable.

You can slip on a pair of bathroom slippers if you really need to let your toes breathe. They're pretty useless in a real emergency evacuation, but at least they're better than going barefoot.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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