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South Austin “cathedral” cited for code violations

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Since South Austin resident Vince Hannemann started assembling his Cathedral of Junk in 1988, the now-60-ton, multi-tiered edifice made of donated cast-offs and brick-a-brack has become something of an Austin institution and tourist destination. Discarded bed frames, cans, car parts, wires, televisions, laundry baskets, etc., are molded into an edifice that shoots some three stories into the air, complete with vaulted ceilings and ornate hallways in the backyard of Hannemann’s house on Lareina Drive. It has become a city landmark: half museum — free and open to visitors from dawn until dusk — and half off-beat social space. Over the years, the Cathedral has been the site of weddings, bachelor parties, and school field trips.


Now it looks the like the Cathedral could be in danger of demolition for violating city code.


According to Ron Potts, assistant division manager for code compliance, on March 9 the city received a complaint from a citizen who had been at an event at the Cathedral and who feared the building was not safe. On March 10, the city sent an investigator to the cathedral site; the investigator reported back that he found a three-level structure with electrical and extension cords built into it. Hannemann had no building permits or electrical permits for the wiring and no certificate of occupancy, which proves that a fire inspection has been done and that it’s safe for a building to be occupied.


“The whole structure is basically illegal,” Potts told In Fact Daily, “so we determined that he would basically have to start from ground zero to get this legal.”


Potts said he looked at pictures from the investigation and could see where the inspector’s concerns were. “One of the stairways was an aluminum-looking ladder,” he said. “That’s not to code. Buildings have to have stairwells with banisters for people to hold onto. There were extension cords that were underground, coming out of the ground, or going through walls. In a building or a house, your wiring has to be in a protected environment to where it’s not rubbing against wood or metal or the wiring isn’t exposed and you have a fire or electrocution on metal.”


Potts also noted the structure’s hallways, which he called “tunnels” and which, he said, “could collapse under strong winds.”


The city notified Hannemann by mail on March 15 that he had seven days to take action to move toward being compliant or his electricity would be shut off and the structure would be bulldozed. Hannemann told In Fact Daily that the deadline has since been extended to March 31 and that he is now in the process of making changes to the cathedral and applying for permits and a certificate of occupancy.


“It involves a lot,” he said, “including moving the Cathedral four or five feet back from the fence line. We also have to get a survey of the property and get an architect to draw up a plan of what we’re trying to get a permit for.”


Hannemann is upset, though, and says that he can’t understand why the city is worried about the Cathedral now, after it has been around for more than 20 years. “Maybe they’ve been lazy,” he said. “They’re just as responsible for this being here as me. It didn’t sneak up over night. They knew it was here before. They didn’t warn me about anything or tell me I might have a problem.”


Potts, however, said that code compliance is a complaint-driven process and that the reason the issue was being raised now is because of the citizen complaint. “I’ve been here since 1979 and I’ve never heard of it,” Potts said. “As for code compliance, we don’t go out looking,”


Starting tomorrow, the compliance department will look to make sure that Hannemann is in the process of applying for building and electrical permits. In the meantime, Potts said, the building cannot be occupied because the city isn’t sure it’s safe.


“There are no engineer studies saying it’s solid,” he said. “There’s no electrical study, and there’s a lot of wires and a lot of metal and we want to make sure no one will get electrocuted.”


If Hannemann receives the building and electrical permits, he can then apply for a certificate of occupancy, which requires the fire department to come out to make sure the building has smoke detectors and lit exits and side exits, according to city code.


Even then, though, the Cathedral probably still won’t be available for weddings and events, as it has been in the past. For that, Potts said, Hannemann will have to go through the zoning process and get approval from City Council to rezone the property, which is in a residential neighborhood.


As for Hannemann, he says he is okay with bringing the Cathedral up to code, but he worries that the character of the structure will be lost as a result.


“I have no problem so far with what they want me to do,” he said, “like moving it back from the setback. We’re moving it and we’re redoing it. The electrical setup — they didn’t like that and that’s fine too. So we removed that and that’s not an issue any more.


“But whether they’re going to permit it to be some semblance of what was here before, and not just a token little something, that’s another question.”

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