"John considered his work an enjoyable pastime rather than a work of art, but he did enjoy people's reaction to his creations."
John Milkovisch, a retired upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, started his project now known as the Beer Can House in 1968 when he began inlaying thousands of marbles, rocks, and metal pieces into concrete and redwood to form unique landscaping features. When the entire front and back yard were completely covered because he "got sick of mowing the grass", he turned to the house itself and began adding aluminum siding - aluminum beer can siding, that is. Over the next 18 years the house disappeared under a cover of flattened beer cans for both practical and decorative reasons. Garlands made of cut beer cans hanging from the roof edges not only made the house sing in the wind, but also lowered the family's energy bills. Ripley's Believe It or Not estimated that over 50,000 cans adorn this monument to recycling.
John considered his work an enjoyable pastime rather than a work of art, but he did enjoy people's reaction to his creations. He once said, "It tickles me to watch people screech to a halt. They get embarrassed. Sometimes they drive around the block a couple of times. Later they come back with a car-load of friends..."
The house and landscape are adorned with many different types of beer that John, himself, drank (though his neighbors and his wife, Mary, were always glad to lend a hand!). Did he prefer one brand to the next? His favorite beer was always "Whatever's on special."
The Early Years
John Milkovisch was born in Houston, TX December 29, 1912 in his parents' small apartment off Washington Avenue. His arrival was no heralded by memorable cosmic events like exploding supernovas or mysterious shimmering lunar rings. In fact, his childhood and most of his adult life we uneventful. There was no indication that this jolly, beer-drinking Houstonian would experience a creative epiphany in his retirement years. But his latent artistic talent, combined with a fervent imagination fused, erupted, and manifested itself in a monumental work of visionary art that rivals any like it in the world. John's Beer Can House has been praised by folk art collectors, museum directors, writers, photographers and film producers around the world. It is one of Houston's most beloved cultural icons. And yet this modest man often said, "I had no idea people would be so interested in beer cans. I wouldn't go around the block to see it."
Within a year of his birth, John's parents, John and Marie, purchased a lot at 319 Malone and began construction on a one-room house where the boy was raised. (John was to reside here until his marriage in 1940.) Young John first attended a "make-shift" school at Washington Ave and Birdsall. From there he went to Roberts School (located in Camp Logan, a World War I emergency military training center located where Memorial Park is today); Stevenson Elementary (5410 Cornish); and left school after attending the 8th grad at George Washington Junior High (now demolished). During his teenage years he earned money as a golf caddie, landscaper and draper.
His father greatly influence the impressionable boy, instilling in him the virtues of good character, giving a day's work for a day's pay, and most important - securing a steady job. The lessons proved invaluable as John was to grow up during the Great Depression. the father suggested his son learn to upholster. John apprenticed at Hoiden Upholstery Shop, a neighborhood business. In 1940 John was offered a job as an upholsterer for the Texas & New Orleans Railroad Company which merged into the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1961. He worked on passenger cars and Pullman sleeping coaches until his retirement in 1976. The ever-industrious John plied his trade at Brook Mays Piano; Myers-Spalti Manufacturing Company (a manufacturer and wholesaler of furniture that offered upholstery services); and his old employer, Hoiden Upholstery, over the years during lay offs and strikes against the rail line.
John and Mary
On May 19, 1940, John marries Mary I. Hite. The newlyweds initially lived in a duplex in the Heights and then in a three-room house at 319 Birdsall. The elder Milkovisch owned a three-bedroom bungalow at 222 Malone which John and Mary rented until deciding to purchase the property in 1942. This modest house would eventually morph into our cherished Beer Can House, but that story will come later. John and Mary lived in the house the remainder of their lives, raising three children - Marcia, Ronald and Guy. While John worked on railroad cards, Mary was employed by Foley's Department Store on Main Street in downtown Houston, working as a beauty advisor in the cosmetics department.
John suffered a severe stroke in 1987 and passed away February 1988. Following cremation, his ashes were scattered at his beloved Beer Can House. In addition to the Beer Can House, he is remembered by a memorial marker in Houston's Woodlawn Garden of Memories (1101 Antoine). Mary continued living in the Beer Can House until moving to an assisted living community in 1997. She died on March 18, 2002 at the age of 86. Mary also has a memorial plaque at Woodlawn.
Now, when we scare have time to even note a passing, great epitaphs have become relics of the past. However, John unknowingly wrote one for himself when he said, "They say every man should leave something to be remembered by. At least I accomplished that goal."
In the beginning there was concrete. If John had a grand plan he never disclosed it. When asked about the ongoing transformation he said, "It's just a pastime. Bust sometimes I like awake at night trying to figure out why I do it."
In 1948 the Milkovischs installed a patio cover in the back yard. John constructed a floor under it - creating a shady spot to have a beer after work. John collected marbles, at one time amassing almost 28,000. He purchased approximately 14,000 marbles from a local novelty shop and, over time, transported them home in his father's wheelbarrow. Then he designed a whimsically colorful patio fence that he placed along the rear property line. He took 4-inch wide redwood slats, bored 5/8-inch holes and embedded 40 to 90 cat-eye marbles per slat. Mary grew quite fond of the fence saying, "When the sun would come up in the morning, the light would shine through the holes and the marbles would sparkle in multicolors." Unfortunately, this original fence was destroyed during Hurricane Alicia in 1983. However, John liked the marble technique and used it many more times as the metamorphosis of the property progressed.
A sidewalk connecting patio to the drive was next. Then John turned his attention to the driveway. The front yard, sidewalk area, side yard and back yard followed. Until his retirement from Southern Pacific in 1976, John mainly worked on the grounds and house after work, on weekend and holidays. Then free from his 8-to-5 job, he devoted considerable more time creating his monument. From the start, the Beer Can House was a one-man show. Over the years many people offered assistance as well as ideas. John would listen, quietly nod, and then continue to follow his own vision. John was an early riser, usually awake by 4:30am, ready to get to work. Afternoons were saved from knocking back a few cold ones on the patio with Mary, friends, and neighbors. Dinner was early, around 5:00pm, and he hit the bed around 6:30.
And then there were beer cans. John hated waste so he began to save empty beer cans - for 17 years, according to an interview he gave Joseph F. Lomax in 1983. He and Mary stored the cans in their attic and garage as well as the attic of his mother's home on Malone and Feagan. "While I was building the patio I was drinking the beer. 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.."
John's first efforts with beer cans were rather modest. He strung some together like people string popcorn on thread for Christmas decorations. the he hung the garlands in the trees. He made an arch over the driveway with Budweiser cans but it did not last long. He tried hanging the plastic holders that wrap around the necks of a six-pack from the eaves of the house but shortly brewers changed the formulation of the plastic so it would deteriorate rapidly and no cause environmental problems. It was then he decided to use the tops, bottoms, and pull tabs for the curtains and the flattened cans as aluminum siding.
John never chronicled the "engineering methodology" for the Beer Can House construction. Like every other idea he kept the plan in his head. Mary once said, "...he just started putting them up." After John passed away, Mary was asked to recall what she knew of the process so it could be recorded for posterity. What follows is Mary's word-for-word description:
"John began to image various ways to use the beer can in his designs that would also serve a function. One of the first was to cut the ends off the can with a tile knife, cut them between the label, flatten them and stack them until he had a supply of several hundred. With the flat part of the can he stapled the four corners, using aluminum tacks to make sheets of cans about 2 ft. by 4 ft., which he used to cover the house like aluminum siding. He even covered some of the windows to help cut utility bills. While covering the house, he was accumulating can ends and pull tops. He developed a technique using a straight pin to tie the ends, tops and tabs together. On the pull tabs he would punch a hole on the tongue and using the straight pin, wire them together end to end and hang [them] in long streamers from the eave of the house to give the appearance of a curtain." (Editors' note: Dated photographic evidence indicated that, contrary to Mary's recollection, the curtains were attached to the house prior to it being covered in the sheets of cans.)
"The tops were special, in that he cut the inside from the rim, later wiring the inside to the rim, giving the appearance of a danglim ring. He would also wire them together in long streamers and hang them in various places to resemble a curtain. Some of the tops were also hung in the trees and on fences along the side of the property."
"The bottoms, being more study and solid, required 24 to 20 AWG solid wire to secure end to end. these were hung along the front eaves of the house, which have become the symbol or recognition for the 'Beer Can House.' The ends can also be found in trees and fenced on the property."
For the compete history including information about each of The Beer Can House's various pieces, CLICK HERE