House On The Rock
Spring Green, Wisconsin
The House On The Rock is the world's most bizarre and vast collection of stuff -- everything from scrimshaw and medieval armor to carousel horses and mechanical music machines -- and all of it may be fake. Or all of it may be real.
For many years, the story went that Alex Jordan, Jr wanted to teach Frank Lloyd Wright a thing or two about architecture.
Jordan's dad, a budding architect, had been dismissed at Wright's Taliesin home, near Spring Green, with the declaration, "I wouldn't hire you to design a cheese crate or a chicken coop." Soon after, the senior Jordan chose a pinnacle rock south of Taliesin to build a parody of Wright's fancy-pants architecture, a strange "Japanese house." The ceilings were dangerously low and the structure seemed to cling precariously to the odd contours of the rock.
The House On The Rock opened to the public in 1959.
These days, the F. L. Wright diss/revenge story is discredited, research by the current attraction owners attributing the oft-repeated tale to Alex Jr's lifelong pal Sid Boyum (both would have been too young for the Wright encounter as described, and both are dead now). Apparently Sid, a photographer, cartoonist and sculptor, but also winner of a local "World's Champion Liar" title, wanted his friend to be more like P.T. Barnum. Visit House on the Rock today, and it's clear he succeeded.
Alex Jordan Jr took over the project from his dad in the 1940s and over the next half century he built out a massive one-of-a-kind tourist attraction, far beyond the Japanese house on the pinnacle.
Big pseudo-oriental serpent planters greet you at the entrance and line the drive. Fake palm fronds lend shade to areas around the House.
The main attraction experience is divided into three self-guided tours -- it used to be one extended slog, but saner heads prevailed and have made it more manageable for the non-marathon athletes.
The original house is a claustrophobic shamble through darkened dens and hallways lit by Tiffany lamps. An automated band plays Bolero, the first of some thirty-five music machines on the route. There's oriental art, low ceilings, big fireplaces, and carpeting on everything. Was this place designed to be the ultimate bachelor's love nest?
Your climb to the top of the House begins. The music machines in the House play incessant make-out music: Harbor Lights, Hungarian Rhapsody and Love Theme from The Godfather.
Once you get out of the House the fun really begins. The Streets of Yesterday building is an indoor recreation of some murky Victorian era. Here, coin-operated music machines abound. Robotic fingers and invisible lips start at the drop of a token. We wonder -- are those magnificent instruments really being played, or is this a tape?
Next is "Heritage Of The Sea." This three-level blimp hangar-of-a- room is dominated by a 200-foot long sea monster battling a giant squid. Ship replicas and other flotsam line the ramp that climbs to the top of the chamber. People grip the railing, fixing their sights on the exit, far above.
Jordan's creations rivet visitors. "It must've cost him a million dollars." "No, no, he was an genius, an eccentric genius." "And they keep saying he was a poor man." "Well he never had any in his pocket since he was always buying things."
The next room has a display of Santa Claus items. And there's a rest area!
The Carousel Room wakes you up with a cacophony of music. The 239 carousel beasts, collected from around the world, are half-human and demonic looking; a runaway circus from Hell. Hundreds of topless mannequin angels hang from the walls and rotate overhead. The room contains 182 chandeliers. Exit via an open dragon mouth, and walk down its red shag-carpeted throat. More music machines suck tokens from the surviving oldsters, giving them an excuse to stop.
Next is the Organ Room, crisscrossed by catwalks and affording all possible camcorder angles of the huge theater organs, giant copper vats, and immense red glass chandeliers. After this, another exit point/grill/gift store/arts village store, with another hour advertised ahead of you. People may have been here for days. Some are dizzy. "Haven't we seen this before?" "Your grandma's gotta sit down."
We stagger to the Cannon Room. Camcorders have exhausted their batteries. Too bad, because this complex is dominated by the world's largest cannon, a weapon so absurdly large that the room had to be constructed around it. The Doll Room and Circus Room are a weary blur; we finally hobble to the welcoming glow of the gift shop.
Despite the globe-trotting aura of the collection, Jordan hated to travel and never left the country. He died in 1989, at age 75. The House continues under new management, smartly adding to the collection each year. But Jordan still seems the spiritual caretaker of HOR. A guide tells us that he had one girlfriend for 45 years who inherited most of his fortune, but who knows what to believe with this guy? He was 6'4", weighed over 200 lbs., and liked the coziness of the House On The Rock. It had to be a make-out pad.
Aug. 2012: This story was edited from an earlier visit; exhibits and tour sections may have changed.