House on the Rock: A Slow Decent Into Madness Disguised as a Tourist Attraction
House on the Rock in Wisconsin is a bizarre, one-of-a-kind shrine to human ingenuity, imagination and obsession.
Photo: Rob Pongsajapan/Creative Commons
What is this insane monstrosity and where did it come from?
The story goes that Alex Jordan, Jr., an aspiring architect, met with Frank Lloyd Wright at his Wisconsin home known as Taliesin to show him plans for a building. After looking at the plans, Wright is said to have told Jordan “I wouldn’t hire you to design a cheese crate or a chicken coop.”
Enraged by Wright’s rejection, Jordan decided to build his own architectural masterpiece down the road from Taliesin to spite him. There is no evidence to support the legitimacy of this story, but it is an inspiring parable to kick off the slow and murky decent into madness as you embark on the journey deep into Jordan’s twisted vision.
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Building House on the Rock
Opened in 1959, the House on the Rock attraction is comprised of a series of strange spaces filled to the brim with rare antiques, as well as creations made entirely by Alex Jordan’s associates. Part of the mystery is whether the exhibits are authentic or intricately detailed reproductions.
In the unauthorized biography House of Alex by Marv Balousek, Jordan associate Bob Searles is quoted as saying “We were creating entertainment. We were not making a historically accurate representation. There was never any need to worry about historical accuracy. We were creating a fun place.”
Balousek, as well as Doug Moe, author of the authorized biography available in the House on the Rock gift shop, both describe Jordan as a shadowy, reclusive figure. His eccentricity is evident, if not overwhelming, in every room of his creation.
Jordan began building the house atop Deer Shelter Rock in 1945. Though he initially tried to keep curious onlookers away, he soon realized he could fund more unusual projects by charging admission for a tour.
He continued to build the house and its collections, seemingly more by whim than by plan. The result is a not a finely curated museum, but rather a maddening series of surreal spaces as inviting as they are eerie and absurd.
The self-guided tour through the complex is divided into three parts, each ticketed separately. Tickets for the Ultimate Experience include all three sections, as well as four tokens for use in the various coin-op machines you will encounter along the way, like The Dying Drunkard.
The Decent Begins
Section 1 of the tour begins in the Alex Jordan Center, where you learn about the construction and history of the project. On display are photos, models and other relics, such as Jordan’s detailed records of each day’s visitors and early additions to his collection.
The information accompanying Jordan’s first dollhouse is testament to his obsessive approach. When he acquired it, he liked it so much he hired a team to do nothing but build more dollhouses. Many of them. All handcrafted and meticulously detailed in a variety of styles. Crown jewels of Europe? He recreated them. Music machines? He constructed rooms full of them.
After getting your ticket punched, a long walkway leads up to the original House and Mill House. It is characterized by dim lighting, low ceilings, dark wood, stone surfaces, recessed spaces and sunken dens covered in shag carpet. Every space is filled with antique oriental sculpture and book shelves full of dusty old tomes.
The dark spaces are warm and comforting. Unless you are claustrophobic, of course. Then you might not have such a great time.
The Infinity Room stretches out from the house unsupported for 218 feet. At the end, a window allows you to peer hundreds of feet down into the trees below. From here, you can feel the floor move beneath you.
Explore the Surreal Streets of Yesterday
Section 2 begins with the Streets of Yesterday, an eerie caricature of early small town America influenced by the techniques devised by Paul Yank for the Streets of Old Milwaukee in the Milwaukee Public Museum.
You stroll down the dark cobblestone street, peering into the windows of homes and shops depicting life in the early 20th century. Wanted posters hang outside the sheriff’s office. Inside, the head of an outlaw sits in a glass jar on the desk amidst antique handcuffs and a pistol.
Collections of old medicine bottles, glass eyes and advertisements for quack medical devices fill the windows of the nearby apothecary. The sign offers “pleasant and effective” worm cakes and arsenic for your complexion.
A taxidermy owl watches from high above in the branches of a large tree.
Esmeralda the coin-op psychic will spring to life, read your cards and spit out your fortune at the drop of a token.
The Whale and the Octopus
Inside the Heritage of the Sea section, display cases full of model ships, Titanic memorabilia and relics of nautical history such as navigational devices and sail rigging wind up and around a 200-foot tall sculpture of a whale fighting an octopus.
At the top you come face to face with the toothy, gaping maw of the thrashing beast. The splintered remains of a rowboat are visible inside its mouth.
World’s Largest Carousel
Touted as the world’s largest indoor carousel, the glittering behemoth in the belly of the House on the Rock is comprised of 20,000 lights and a menagerie of 269 unique, handcrafted animals. It is surrounded floor to ceiling by vintage carousel horses, angels and even the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The Organ Room
From the carousel you descend down the warm throat of a beast into the Organ Room, filled with copper drums, vintage industrial equipment, massive organ pipes and the engine and propeller of a ship.
Numerous other collections are strewn throughout the house, including massive music machines, automatons, circus models, dolls, medieval weaponry, a custom-built steam-powered hearse and much more.
More House on the Rock Photos
Ready for what will quite possibly the weirdest adventure of your life? Plan your trip to House on the Rock here: www.thehouseontherock.com