The Salt
6:05 pm
Wed July 31, 2013

For The Love Of Beer: How Empty Cans Made A House A Home

Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 6:34 pm

At first, all John Milkovisch wanted in 1968 was a covered patio where he could drink his beer at the end of the day. But a bigger idea was brewing. For years, he had been saving his empty beer cans.

"While I was building the patio I was drinking the beer," he said in an interview in 1983. "I knew I was going to do something with them aluminum cans because that was what I was looking for ... but I didn't know what I was going to do." (Milkovisch died in 1988.)

Over time, Milkovisch's love of beer and work with his hands — he was an upholsterer — fused into one project. In his retirement, he covered his entire home with beer cans — all different parts, in various shapes and functions. It's estimated that more than 50,000 cans were used.

The Houston home is now dubbed the Beer Can House and is run by a local arts organization.

Ruben Guevara, head of restoration and preservation for the house, says what catches the attention of passersby most are the strands of can tops that hang outside the home.

The garlands are anywhere from 2 to 10 feet long, he tells Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered. The aluminum "just dances when the wind blows. And it makes this song, like this wind chime that never stops."

In some ways, it was a community project — Milkovisch and his wife needed help with the drinking, after all.

"It was a six-pack a day, him and his wife and friends and anybody who was passing by, wanted to stop by and hang out," Guevara says.

But the vision was all Milkovisch's. He worked on the house as long as his health allowed. Mary Milkovisch, his wife, lived in the house until 1996. She died in 2002.

So after all that drinking, what was Milkovisch's favorite brand? "Whatever was on sale," Guevara says. "All beer was great. He enjoyed it all."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A summertime story now about the intersection of beer drinking, adaptive reuse and folk art. Back in 1968 when aluminum recycling was just getting started, a Houston man took it up on his own in earnest.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

He started covering his property and then his whole house with his empty beer cans, some 50,000 of them. Today, that home is preserved by a local arts organization.

And to help us tell the story of the Houston Beer House, we're joined by Ruben Guevara. He's head of restoration and preservation of the Beer Can House. Mr. Guevara, welcome to the program.

RUBEN GUEVARA: Well, thank you so much for having us.

BLOCK: And you are outside the Beer Can House right now. I wonder if you could walk us around and tell us what you see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALUMINUM CHIMES)

GUEVARA: Well, the most striking element of the Beer Can House is actually right there in the front when you walk in - that's what causes all the traffic here sometimes - it's these garlands. These, anywhere from two foot to 10-foot strands of garlands that are beautiful. They're strands - they're like a sea of aluminum that just dances when the wind blows. And it makes a song like the wind chime that never stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALUMINUM CHIMES)

BLOCK: Beer can wind chimes.

GUEVARA: Yes. Beer can wind chimes. You know, some people have described them like earrings, you know, like these long strands of earrings that are just, you know, strung together.

BLOCK: And then the walls of the house itself.

GUEVARA: The walls, they're clad in the beer cans, you know, just the flattened out beer cans, you know. They're all sorts of, you know, different brands. It's just all aluminum, all the way around from top to bottom.

BLOCK: What brands do you see as you walk around the house?

GUEVARA: I see Fall Staff. I see Texas Pride. There's Budweiser. There's Buckhorn, you know. There's Blue Ribbon, you know, there's all sorts of - Miller High Life, you know, it's just all sorts of beers, you know, that he just - cans that he collected, cans that he drank, you know, him and his wife.

BLOCK: Well, tell us about the man behind the house and how this house came to be.

GUEVARA: You know, John Milkovisch was a pretty simple guy. He was very good with his hands. He bought this house. For about 17 years, he did nothing with it. But something clicked in 1968 when he bought this patio. You know, he decorated the bottom of the patio with these, you know, these marbles and these colorful blocks of cement and it ended up being a beer can house, a folk art site.

BLOCK: But he didn't see it that way, I gather. He just saw it as something fun to do.

GUEVARA: Yes, it was something fun to do, a pastime, you know. John liked two things, working with his hands and drinking beer.

BLOCK: Innovative use of beer cans, clearly, a lot of beer cans that did not end up in a landfill.

GUEVARA: Exactly, you know, he collected beer cans for about 17 years. He stored them in his garage, in his mom's garage. He didn't know why, you know, but he knew he needed to save them because he was going to use them, but he didn't know for what at the time until this came to mind. It just happened, you know, just all of a sudden.

BLOCK: That's a whole lot of beer right there.

GUEVARA: Oh, yeah. You know, it was a six-pack a day, him and his wife, and friends and anybody who was passing by willing to stop by and hang out with him.

BLOCK: And did he have a favorite brand?

GUEVARA: Yes. It was whatever was on sale.

BLOCK: I see. He was a frugal man.

GUEVARA: Yes. Yes, he was. You know, all beer was great. He enjoyed it all.

BLOCK: Mr. Guevara, is this the kind of house where people driving by will just stop and do a double take? If they don't know it's there, they'll just have to stop and try to figure out what's going on.

GUEVARA: They screech to a halt sometimes, you know. And they do a double and triple take and then they come and drive around and go around again and again. This house is in between all these condos, these new condos and all of a sudden there's a break in this line of condos and then, boom, you have a beer can house, you know, a house clad with aluminum everywhere and it draws the eye so quick and people just are amazed by it.

BLOCK: Any complaints from the neighbors about those beer top wind chimes?

GUEVARA: You know, it's funny, you know, people sometimes, you know, when they first come to the neighborhood, they're not - they don't know, you know. Maybe the first time they visited there was no wind and it was quiet, but when the wind goes, this house sings. And, you know, people have sometimes, you know, come up and said how can you lower the volume. I don't know, you know.

Tell me how to control the wind and I'll tell you how to, you know, I can turn down the volume. You know, it's nature taking place here and it's beautiful.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Guevara, thanks for talking to us about the Houston Beer Can House. We appreciate it.

GUEVARA: Well, you're very welcome.

BLOCK: That's Ruben Guevara, he's head of restoration and preservation of the Houston Beer Can House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.