The House on the Rock: A Madman’s Paradise
October 26, 2013
I’m starting to feel a bit insane. Room after room of odder and odder knicks and knacks has started to get to me. The doll carousel was definitely the breaking point. It felt like past visitors’ souls had been captured and were now doomed to circle, mind numbing circus music playing for eternity, their vacant glass eyes forever staring outwards.
The House on the Rock is a madman’s paradise and had been a must-see stop on my dream tour USA ever since I read “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman. The brain child of Alex Jordan, this roadside attraction is the nearest thing to Bioshock I’ve ever experienced in real life. The awkward architecture meets old timey hoarder claustrophobia aesthetic creates an experience unlike any other.
The first section is Jordan’s original house. A strange confluence of surprisingly low-ceilinged rooms considering the man’s height. Each is relaxed and sprawling, with red shag carpets on every surface that is not the “rock’s” natural surface. The short museum about the architect’s life consistently reminds the visitor that Jordan built with little to no planning, designing aspects of his building on the fly and tearing down to rebuild whenever something didn’t work. This shows as room layout makes little sense. Though there are small oasis of beauty in the strange collage of rooms. Regardless they all would make a wonderful home for any hippy drug den.
The most unique room in the house is the “Infinity Room,” a 60″ foot long needle of a room cantilevered out over the forest. The room is designed in such a fashion that it appears to go on forever with a window in the floor near the terminus to show the trees below. Quite a marvel amongst the madness.
The second section then truly begins your adventure down the rabbit hole. Jordan devoted much of his time after “completing” the house proper to creating an elaborate indoor recreation of a 1920s street (remember when I said Bioshock?) complete with shops, fire station, and more all with broad windows showcasing the wares inside, mannequins and all.
This act is then trumped by a series of ever more complex music automata, now largely out of tune and or in disrepair, that play famous snippets of music for a few quarters (tokens). Electric bellows blow trumpets, robotic arms bow violin, automatic sticks beat time on drums, etc. These are all quite impressive, if only in their grandeur if not their performance. Sadly, many of the instruments are clearly no longer functional and their sound is replaced with a cheap synthetic recording leaving largely only the percussion instruments, requiring no tuning or other upkeep, to demonstrate Jordan’s original madhat vision. One can only imagine the maintenance cost of such absurd creations. Yet in spite of this clear frugality there was something beautiful in watching a robotic violin go through its decades old instructions with no strings to sound it’s efforts.
This section terminates with one of the entire attraction’s main draws: the “World’s Largest Carousel.” Containing no quotidian horses, this mental merry go round showcases just a fraction of the uncountable carousel creatures Jordan collected, restored, and created which cover the walls as well. This too is accompanied by another massive automated music machine. The exit, in the shape of devils mouth, leads to the final and perhaps most crackpot part of the tour.
The labyrinthine and final section of this stop is an endless display of Jordan’s many odd collections. Each large room contains a bizarre diorama accompanied by its related relics. For instance one room contains a 30 foot scene of a giant squid in mortal combat with a whale, wrapped around by nautical paraphernalia. In another a life size elephant pyramid is surrounded by circus miniatures arranged into sophisticated scenes. And in yet another, numerous organs share space with absurdly large pieces of machinery.
It all just boggles the mind. How did it all get to this remote Wisconsin destination? Who paid for it all? What could this junk possibly be worth? It’s as if every museum in the world threw all its leftover bits and bobs into a lunatics toy box. And you can’t help but think all of these things would be quite valuable if it weren’t for the sheer quantity on display here and their ridiculous presentation.
All in all I was most assuredly not disappointed by the House on the Rock. If anything I wasn’t quite prepared for how truly mad it was. It’s now obvious to me why Gaiman chose to set part of his celebrated book here; the place is so strange it can’t help but feel magical. Perhaps that was Jordan’s idea all along. If he built it big enough and weird enough, how could anyone resist?
Just know going in, you will be surprised. You may want to just leave.
After seeing the house I drove down to Iowa and camped a cold night in a state park. I cooked a simple meal of rice and beans on my stove and was thankful for my snug sleeping bag as the temperature got down into the 20s or 30s.
Now on to Nebraska and an old friend.