House on the Rock
Spring Green, Wisconsin
Giant sea monsters. Demons. At least one severed head. Dozens of full-color statues of bare-breasted young women.
House on the Rock is unlike any other house in the world -- unless you consider a funhouse a house. It was the mad vision of Alex Jordan Jr., a recluse who turned his home into America's largest, strangest indoor sideshow (And later served as a rendezvous for deities in American Gods).
Some believe it was originally built as a spite house to taunt famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived only ten minutes away in his Taliesin home. But no one really knows what motivated Jordan. We're willing to accept his vague explanation that "one thing just sort of led to another."
The House lures unwary Taliesin fans with its bucolic setting and nature-friendly exterior. The first few hundred feet of its self-guided tour seem almost normal: a shamble past dim rooms and big fireplaces lit by stained glass lamps. There's oriental art, low ceilings, and carpeting on everything.
Then you reach the Infinity Room, hundreds of feet long, which tapers to a knife's point 15 stories over a forest floor. That's weird -- and it only gets weirder from there.
The interior of the House is dark; completely cut off from the outside world. And it's huge: a series of vast rooms filled with eerie collections and strange machines. The "Ultimate Experience" tour -- which we recommend -- takes at least three hours of continuous walking: up, down, back, forth, following a serpentine path with no apparent end. We always feel bad seeing the elderly at House on the Rock (who probably think it's just another lovely home tour) because by the sixth stairway or ninth multi-floor ramp they've dropped back or dropped out and we're too busy gawking -- Hey, a display of life-size battling medieval knights! -- to notice the culling.
Much of what's in The House on the Rock looks ancient, but was actually built from the late 1960s to the late 1980s by Jordan and a revolving door of freelance artists (including Dr. Evermor of the Forevertron). Its vast music machines were said to be inspired when Jordan saw the robot Abe Lincoln at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Some instruments are fingered by human dummies, others simply play by themselves, as if performed by ghosts. Visitors each get a handful of free tokens; drop one into a coin box and hear a machine honk out Bolero or Love Theme from The Godfather. Other devices and animated displays suck tokens as well, and token-dispensers are popular stops for those who were fortunate enough to bring cash.
"Heritage of the Sea" is a particularly brain-searing creation at House on the Rock: a four-story blimp-hangar-of-a-room dominated by a 200-foot-long sea monster battling a giant squid. Ship models 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 a genius, an eccentric genius." "And they keep saying he was a poor man." "Well he never had any money in his pocket since he was always buying things."
By the time you reach the self-titled Largest Carousel in History you've about had it, but you have another hour to go. And the things around you have become increasingly strange. The 269 merry-go-round beasts look satanic, like a runaway circus from Hell. Hundreds of topless angels hang from the walls and dangle from the ceiling (Alex Jordan Jr. clearly had a thing for boobies). The only way to exit the room is by walking down the red carpeted throat of a giant demon. We wanted to ask a question of a House on the Rock employee, but her ears were stuffed with plugs. The music machines banged mercilessly.
At this point visitors begin blowing past exhibits that would've dazzled them two hours earlier. Jordan's love of excess had them reeling. Jordan must've thought: Why display 50 fake crowns when I can display 500, or 1,000 creepy dolls when I can display 10,000? Why make one life-size statue of an elephant when I can make 15 and stack them in a pyramid three stories high? House on the Rock could easily be split into a dozen satisfying attractions, with enough left over for a half-dozen more.
After another pass beneath bare-breasted angels, eyes weary, you finally emerge outdoors and hobble up the ramp to the gift shop. It does not sell "I Survived the House on the Rock" t-shirts, but it ought to.
House on the Rock defies easy description, which is why everyone should visit it. Despite the globe-trotting veneer of its collection, Jordan hated to travel and never left the country. He died in 1989, at age 75; the House continues under different management, but Jordan still seems its spiritual caretaker. He was reportedly a giant of a man who had one girlfriend for 50 years and she inherited most of his fortune -- but who knows what to believe with this guy?