There’s an old saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Two spots I recently visited in Texas take that statement even further to a level of artistry.
I began my Texas jaunt in Houston’s West End where in the midst of 1930’s style bungalows and condo developments sits a glistening, silvery house that’s covered in as many as 50,000 beer cans. The first sight of the Beer Can House can make drivers stop their cars in the middle of Malone Street or drive back around the block several times.
The home at 222 Malone began as the humble abode of John Milkovisch and his family in the ‘40s. Milkovisch, an upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, began collecting beer cans while he was covering the yard in concrete with inlaid marbles and stones. He apparently grew tired of mowing the grass. Once the yard was complete, he began a 20-year project that put his growing beer can collection to good use on the house.
“He didn’t believe in throwing anything away. He was way ahead of his time in that respect,” says Stephen Bridges, who handles PR for the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, which now owns and operates tours at the Beer Can House.
As Milkovisch began affixing sheets of flattened aluminum beer cans to his house, it coincided with a drop in his air conditioning bills. Not to be wasteful of any part of the cans, he found a use for the tops, creating what Bridges calls “pop top garlands.” These still line the house today and can be heard clanking together in the breeze (not that there was much of one on the hot July day when I visited). In addition to the aesthetic purpose of these, the garlands were also functional, serving as a sun blocker to Milkovisch and his wife when they sat on the front porch, probably sipping beer.
“He mainly would have beer in the evening times. This is back in the day when you would stand out on your driveway, on your front porch and your neighbors would come by and you’d talk and have a beer with your friends,” Bridges says.
Milkovisch passed away in 1988 and his wife soon followed. The house was later purchased by the Orange Center and renovated earlier this year. It’s now a popular tourist destination. Once the novelty of the house begins to wear off, the creation actually can get you thinking about the everyday waste we create.
Even though the house is now thought of as piece of folk art, Milkovisch “didn’t consider himself an artist. He just loved making things,” Bridges says. “He would tell people he would lie awake at night and think of all the things he had to do with the house and people always asked him, ‘Why’d you do it?’ And he just said he just had to.”
Another very public display of folk art sits about 160 miles west in Austin at the Cathedral of Junk. Its owner/creator, Vincent Hannemann, says he and Milkovisch must have shared some DNA at some point given their ability to turn trash into community treasure.
The Cathedral of Junk sits behind Hannemann’s yellow house in a very typical Austin neighborhood. The estimated 60 tons of junk he’s collected since 1989 stretch above the rooftops of nearby houses.
“It just started with a few hubcaps along the fence and kind of grew from there,” Hannemann says from a spot in the shade behind the cathedral.
Walking through the cathedral’s passageways and up its staircases, it’s astounding at the sheer amount and variations of discarded things here. Hannemann says there are about 800 bikes within the cathedral, in addition to the old TVs, phones, wires, CDs and just about anything else you can think of. Over the years, neighbors have often brought their trash to Hannemann, knowing he would put it to use somehow.
“You could only do something like this in America. I had somebody from some South American country. I don’t know if it was Paraguay or where it was and he said you know you could never do this in my country because you would never find any of this stuff. All of this stuff would be repurposed somehow in some probably more practical way,” Hannemann says.
It’s an interesting observation, especially as Hannemann leads a tour into the cathedral, pointing out commemorative bricks from the ‘50s that now make up a staircase to another level where a view shows decorative garlands of old CDs above seats from a car. At so many instances on the tour, what initially seemed to be an odd project is actually quite beautiful. The blue bottles sitting in an old bed spring make for a wonderful ceiling in an entryway.
The Austin community is in agreement. They’ve come to love what Hannemann has created and many people even use the space for parties or weddings. “It really is a cathedral in that it is a public work of art. People give me the pieces. They use it for their events and what not. And I can see it going beyond my lifetime and being a part of the community.”