The Big Kahuna: The House on the Rock

In every genre, every category of thing, there are those that stand out from the rest. Music has it’s kings and sports have their legends, and art has it’s masterpieces. Roadside attractions are no different. To my mind there is a clear mother of all roadside attractions, which sets the bar for the others, and that place is the legendary House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

It was the House on the Rock which started everything for me. I was facinated by the story of an eccentric man who built a literal temple to his own eccentricity in the relative middle of nowhere. Finally seeing it was a dream come true which resulted from a strangely routed tour across the midwest when I was tour managing a band, and a breakneck drive across the state in an attempt to make it to the House. We very nearly did not make it before they sold the last tickets for the day. I was almost in tears as we pulled into the parking lot. Some of the reason for this was that it’s very hard to motivate someone to go somewhere when you can’t exactly explain what the place that they have to hurry to get to is. “It’s a strange house a guy built and all of his crazy collections” while it doesn’t sound terrible, doesn’t exactly inspire holding your pee and risking a speeding ticket for a 5 hour drive.

I’m still not exactly sure how to classify the House on the Rock. It’s mostly, like many roadside attractions, the story of a singular person. A brilliant, determined, and extremely and profoundly strange person. It is literally his vision made solid, sometimes out of the rock itself and filled with the things he found beautiful or interesting, quite literally beyond most imagination other than his. I know I just said literally a lot.

That person was Alex Jordan. As the story goes, in the early 1940’s, Alex Jordan was hiking and looking for a pleasant picnic spot when he found the rock outcropping known as Deer Shelter Rock. He began building the house there without any training in engineering or art, and only his building experience helping his father with construction in the (sort of) nearby Madison. As a result the house is built in an extremely bizarre fashion. Instead of building it all at once it was built one room at a time, each one following the last, in sort of a spiral shape.

Each of the 13 rooms has a specific purpose, one as an office, one for playing piano, one for sleeping, one for listening to music and one for reading. The first room built was the Winter Room, which is built directly into the rock, using it to form seating and a cooking area, intended to be a workshop and studio. In the early years, Jordan apparently did most of the construction entirely alone, even carrying rocks from the nearby quarry on his back to the site. He apparently never made any engineering plans or blueprints and built entirely based on the vision in his mind and some rough sketches. The valley wasn’t electrified until 1952, so the early building was done without electricity as well.

Such was his fervor that it hadn’t even occurred to Jordan that the land he was building this strange house upon didn’t actually belong to him, and he didn’t officially lease it from the owners until the following the electrification of the valley, in 1953. He officially purchased all the land the House sits on in 1956. The following year he hired his first employee to help with construction. During this time it was Alex Jordan’s father, Alex Jordan Sr, who was bankrolling his eccentric son’s project, and its thought that is was he who first suggested opening the house to visitors once the strange project began to garner some attention through word of mouth. One would think he had a mind to make back at least some of the money he has invested in the project. The House on the Rock was opened to the public in 1960 and began to do well almost immediately. Construction and additions to the house and the collections in the outbuildings continue to the present day. Alex Jordan passed away in 1989.

The decorating in the house itself is as much a part of the experience as the construction. The rooms, as mentioned, are meant to create moods, and give the first glimpse of the manic collecting yet to come in the outbuildings.

A sort of aside about stained glass: Alex Jordan had a thing for stained glass. Which I appreciate, because so do I. But like most things Alex Jordan liked, he liked it on a level I couldn’t imagine or comprehend. I’m sure Alex Jordan just “liked” anything, he just became obsessed with things. The house is dark and moody, because it has almost no clear glass windows. It makes it feel elegant. Many of the windows were salvaged from midwestern churches in the 1950’s when there was an effort to change older style places of worship into more modern buildings. Some colored class was made specifically for the house to set certain moods. The seasons set was an exact replica, the only one known to exist, of a Tiffany set.

Most of the lighting in the dim house comes from table lamps. This is, apparently, the largest collection of Baur-Cobel stained glass lamps in the world. Because, of course it. Baur-Cobel by the way, was started in the 1970’s to openly copy the glass work of Tiffany, but it turns out they did it rather better, and some collectors consider Baur-Cobel to be more valuable.

In Infinity room was conceived of by Jordan way back in the 40’s when construction on the house was still in very early stages. I’ve also heard that Jordan met and was dismissed by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright and that inspired the building of the house and the Infinity room but their meeting isn’t mentioned in any of the “official” literature of House on the rock or the family. The room was mentioned by Jones in a poem about the house in the 40’s (yes, apparently he wrote poems about the house) describing it as “one long thin room that will hang in space”

This feat of engineering took another 40 years of his life to actually bring to fruition. Completed in 1985, this spindly hallway like room extends 218 feet off of the house over the valley.

It’s 156 feet above the forest floor and the last 140 feet of the room are entirely unsupported, simply dangling in midair. A sort of reverse sunroof in the floor at the end of room offers a dizzying view of the treetops below.

Almost immediately after completion of the house itself Jones began to build outbuildings and gardens. These other buildings acted as gatehouse and other areas for guests to visit at first, and began to house his other collections. To house someone’s collections may not sound like much of anything, but this was a man who took collecting very seriously. As hinted at by the stained glass collecting in the house, he did nothing in moderation. His collections run a wild gamut and include glass paperweights, penny banks, vintage cars, airplanes, model ships, music machines, dolls, antique firearms, and armor. It is, in a word, insane.

Maybe its not entirely wise to disclose this, but it’s important in explanation. Because we did arrive at the House on the Rock so late in the day, the staff refused to issue us tickets for anything beyond the House and it’s gardens. As a result there are actually large sections of the House on the Rock that I didn’t get to see, like a faithful recreation of a nineteenth century town called Mainstreet USA and the Nautical building which contains  many model ships and a somewhat famous giant leviathan of a sea creature hanging from the ceiling. While it would be impossible to actually experience all of House on the Rock in one try anyway, full disclosure my tour of the outbuildings is incomplete. The only reason we were able to see the outbuildings at all was that we walked into the back doors of them while other visitors were leaving. Normally of course, I advocate for absolute respect of any attraction and the amazing people who run and maintain these labors of love and wouldn’t encourage breaking any rules in any way. However, every now and again in life, you can admit defeat when you’re a few feet away from a dream come true, or you can crack a few eggs. I think that’s how the expression goes.

It is impossible not to feel overwhelmed among the collections at the House on the Rock even if you’re not going through them sort of backwards with limited time and not really supposed to be there. The rooms are dark and the buildings are warehouse- like. They are extremely loud from music machines playing everywhere you go. Everything feels red. There is nowhere to rest your eyes from the constant sensory assault.

 

The carousel room is two stories high, loud from the animatronic band playing the carousel music, includes the carousel itself, ceilings hung with flying angels, and a wall of carousel horses.

In case you were wondering where the “big things” were going to come into this whole thing, the carousel room at House on the Rock is home to the largest carousel in the world. Its difficult to even get a grip on a it’s scale even in the room with it. It measures 80 feet across and 35 feet tall. Not a single animal on it is anything as arcane as a plain old horse. It includes 269 animals of which there are 53 centaurs, 3 water buffalo, 36 peacocks, 3 dolphins, zebras, rabbits, and a unicorn.

All of the actual carousel horses are on the wall of the room. More than 200 of them, mostly reclaimed from small circuses that once toured the midwest.

Speaking of the circus, the outbuildings also include the circus building. Like many people in this day and age I think, I have mixed feelings about the circus. So many aspects of it were inherently exploitative and some outright evil. Even so, I went to one as a child. My memories of it are extremely fond. It was magical to a child for whom the implication of captured performing animals and the display of people who were different than me had never occurred to. I rode an elephant there. I was thrilled. As an adult I think about that elephant often with guilt.

Despite my misgivings about the circus, I feel extremely nostalgic about them. I mourn the death of the traveling circus which made the background for stories like Something Wicked This Way Comes and formed a common childhood experience for generations of Americans and people across the world’s I see the magic in them along with the evil, maybe like Alex Jordan did. I know they represent a huge piece of American history.

The circus here of course circumvents many of the ethical dilemmas of a real circus, but maintains a great deal of its wonder. It is still riotous with color and sound. Some of this is the size and scale of the circus scenes. The finale of the circus building is a life sized pyramid of elephants covered in 50 life sized mannequins. It is jaw dropping, and not one elephant was harmed.

Some of this is their quantity. The circus building houses the world’s largest collection of miniature circuses as well.

Some of it is the sounds. The circus building is given its soundtrack by a full animatronic orchestra.

Certainly for Alex Jordan, one worlds largest collection could never be enough. The House also houses one of the Worlds largest collection of doll houses and small vignette displays. Evidence of Jordan’s love for dolls can be found in nearly every room and building of the house, but it reaches fever pitch in the doll carousel room.

The doll carousel room includes not one, but two carousels populated entirely with dolls. The dolls are large and small, dressed lovingly in hundreds of different dresses and hairstyles and all look as though you could reach out and play with them.

 

 But WAIT. Theres more things Alex collected better than anyone else. Baranger motion machines were popular from the 1920’s through the 1950’s mainly as displays in windows of jewelry shops. Honestly I “get” this collection more than I get the dolls because I love these clever little things. Each motion shows an individual scene, some are popular fairy tales, some are biblical stories, some are simply wonderful fantasy images like spacemen or wagon trains or almost anything else you can imagine. They all do some kind of simple motion and contain places like wires and hooks and ledges to display jewelry.

A jewelry store would typically have one of these window displays at a time and possibly change them out over the course of the year to attract customers. This is OF COURSE, the most complete collection of baranger motions in the entire world. Maybe in the world of the house on the rock this is nothing to write home about because they are simply displayed in feet and feet of walls in the circus rooms. As though there wasn’t enough to look at.

The collections go on. There are galleries to walk through showcasing antique weapons and suits of old armor. I apparently took no photos of this part, which in all reality may have seemed a good deal more interesting had it not had to follow up buildings of circuses and dolls.  Cannons and machines of war are scattered randomly around the House on the Rock. There is a gallery of Oriental art.

 

It’s telling perhaps that Alex Jordan is spoken of with such reverence. I’ve discussed before the difference between mental illness and genius and how hard it is to tell. I wonder if it’s always even a necessity to line to draw. There’s clear obsession here, the whole place is practically a testament to compulsion. But framed in this way, as a wonderland of someone else’s feverish mind, is doesn’t feel frightening or malevolent. It doesn’t feel like the work of a tormented man. It feels like the work of an inspired one.

Whatever the hero of the story of the House on the Rock experienced the day of that fateful picnic seventy-something years ago, and it was something, does it matter what? In civilization before now would we have cared to classify someone who built something incredible in the middle of nowhere as “crazy”? Or would they have been something else? Touched by something, a conduit for something perhaps?

House on the Rock is the best study of this phenomenon that I know of. Maybe because of Alex’s immense resources, rare among those having an uncontrollable urge to build something strange somewhere. Maybe because what he did is so unique in it’s blending of beautiful and undeniably strange. Maybe because of the balance of manic collecting and meticulous display, non sensical building processes and harmonious design. Alex Jordan ultimately figured something out about the balance of things, and one feels if they just linger at the House long enough, they might just understand it.

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