Feb. 26, 2008, 5:47PM
Pop a top, again
Beer Can House - restored to its original condition - is ready for a round of spectators
By JEANNIE KEVER
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Call John Milkovisch a man ahead of his time.
No one talked about recycling or reducing their carbon footprint back when Milkovisch started covering his house with beer cans in the 1960s. And folk art was something you might find in Appalachia or Latin America, not a working-class neighborhood near Memorial Park.
Today, Milkovisch's creation is celebrated as one of those quirky, only-in-Houston experiences unknown to many natives but a draw for tourists from all over the world. Its $202,000 renovation will be unveiled Friday at a party billed as the Beer Can Opener, and it reopens to the public next month.
But what, exactly, is the Beer Can House?
It's so many different things to so many people,'' said Stephen Bridges, who works for the Orange Show Foundation for Visionary Art, which owns the Beer Can House and has overseen its renovation. "To some people, they instantly recognize it as a piece of folk art. To others, it's just a house covered in beer cans.''
And that's OK.
The Beer Can House is, after all, an homage to individual vision, although Milkovisch, who died in 1988, might have preferred to call it an homage to Texas Pride and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Or a way to avoid painting the house.
Decide for yourself. People will be able to see it up close when the house reopens March 8, one of the few remaining bungalows in a neighborhood now filled with expensive, three-story townhouses. Docents will be on hand between noon and 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, showcasing what more than 40,000 beer cans and other whimsical additions can do for a house. (The house will be open by appointment, as well, and available for rental to groups of 25 or fewer.)
There are garlands made of pull tabs, the tops and bottoms of beer cans and cutouts from the sides of cans, all hanging from the eaves. That shaded the house from the harsh Houston sun, reducing Milkovisch's electric bills. The small yard is covered in concrete slabs, dotted with glass marbles. Just a way to get out of mowing the lawn, he insisted.
The mailbox and fences are covered with cans, and wooden sculptures are studded with metal letters — AMEN, reads the top of a wooden ladder — and elaborate cutouts.
"John Milkovisch never thought of himself as an artist," said Julie Birsinger, project manager for the Beer Can House. He was, instead, an upholsterer and a beer drinker.
But Birsinger describes his work as "very intricate. Very well thought out. Very well executed."
The inside was the domain of Milkovisch's wife, Mary, and it remains closed to the public. There's nothing much to see in there, anyway.
"She made him keep the beer cans outside," Birsinger said. "The outside of the house is where the action is."
The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art bought the Beer Can House in late 2001 for $200,000, ensuring its future even as time began to take a toll. The cans were fading and some of the wooden support structures were crumbling.
Birsinger had to figure out how to renovate a house covered in beer cans, which isn't the sort of thing taught in art-restoration courses. Her goal was to restore the work to its original condition and to replace any artistic elements that couldn't be repaired.
The sunlight that once twinkled off the glass and metal is now in short supply as towering townhomes loom over the house, so new lighting will be added to recapture some of the ambience. Originally, the Orange Show had hoped to buy an adjacent lot for parking space; that didn't work out, so parking remains at a premium throughout the neighborhood.
As for the house's signature décor, many of the cans were in good enough condition to be rehung after cleaning — a good thing since Birsinger couldn't run to the corner store for a six-pack when she needed new materials.
Beer cans have changed. Some brands are no longer produced. Other labels have been redesigned, detachable pull tabs are history and modern cans aren't even made of the same material as cans from decades past.
No problem, thanks to members of the Brewery Collectibles Clubs of America, who responded to a call for vintage cans from the 1960s and 1970s.
Volunteers from the neighborhood and all over the country offered help, and a small crew of University of Houston students was hired to handle the final work.
Paul Ehrig, 20 and a sophomore architecture student, applied after hearing about the opportunity from a professor.
"I thought it was kinda strange," he admits. "Why would he put beer cans on a house? I've lived in Houston all my life, and I've never heard of the Beer Can House."
But as he worked, Ehrig began to notice the guest book, signed by visitors from Japan, Australia, Iceland and all over the United States. And he began to really look at what Milkovisch had done.
"Since I've been here, I've noticed all the detail on the house," he said. "I think it's a pretty cool place."
So did Barbara and Howard Plimack of New York City, who stopped by recently. They were in town to see their son, David Plimack, and his family, but they wanted to do a little sightseeing, too.
Barbara Plimack had read about the Beer Can House, and she was determined to see it.
"Ooooh," she crooned as they stood in front of the house. "All these things are so neat."
Birsinger apologetically explained that the site wasn't yet open to the public, but Plimack didn't care.
"This is good," she said. "It's closer than we've ever
BEER CAN OPENER
Houston's beloved Beer Can House will soon reopen to the public after an extensive renovation.
• When: 7 p.m. Friday
• Where: Kicks Indoor Soccer, 611 Shepherd. Guests will be ferried to the Beer Can House in art cars.
• Tickets: $125, online through www.beercanhouse.org or www.orangeshow.org . Or call 888-695-0888.
• To benefit: Annual operating expenses for the Beer Can House.
• The renovation: Will cost about $202,000, with support from the Brown Foundation, Houston Endowment, the Cullen Foundation and Silver Eagle Distributors. In-kind support provided by SpawMaxwell Co. and Gregory/Henry Landscape Design.
The Beer Can House, 222 Malone, isn't Houston's only example of funky art. Many are included as part of the Orange Show's periodic Eye Opener tours.
• The Orange Show Monument : 2401 Munger, an outdoor tribute by the late Jeff McKissack to his favorite fruit, the orange.
• The ArtCar Museum: 140 Heights, featuring art cars and other artworks.
• The Flower Man: Sampson and Francis, Cleveland Turner's colorful cacophony of folk art at his Third Ward home-turned-museum.
• Presidential Park & Gardens: Coming soon to Texas 288, south of FM 518. Giant presidential busts by larger-than-life sculptor David Adickes have already begun arriving on flatbed trucks.
• Mount Rush Hour: Four of Adickes' sculptures are on display at the corner of Bingham and Elder, visible to morning commuters into downtown from Interstate 10.
• Quan Am sculpture: 10002 Synott, a 72-foot-tall tribute to Quan Am, the female Buddhist deity exemplifying compassion and mercy for the distressed.
• Forbidden Gardens: 23500 Franz. Forty-acre, open-air museum replicates scenes from China's history, including an intricate model of Beijing's Forbidden City. www.forbidden-gardens.com .
See all articles...
Visible by: Everyone (public).
Attribution + non Commercial + no derivative
Feb. 26, 2008, 5:47PM