Extremely Large and Incredibly Baroque: The House on the Rock

A central location of Neal Gaiman’s novel American Gods is The House on the Rock, a kooky museum where the characters ride a grandiose carousel in order to access another dimension. But you know the House on the Rock is a real place, right? It’s actually only a half hour from my parents’ cabin, west of Madison, Wisconsin. Last week, I visited for only the second time in my life, with some of my favorite people.

This was a group who had been mightily entertained by a simple commuter train ride the week before, so this place nearly blew all our mental gaskets. The phrase that keeps coming back to me every time I try to describe The House on the Rock Museum? It’s just so much.

When you drive up to this world-famous tourist attraction, all you see is a tasteful-looking visitor center and plenty of parking. That’s because most of the bizarre attractions this place is known for are all underground. When you walk in the glass doors, you’ll be in an airy lobby with bathrooms and a ticket counter. The staff will ask you if you want to tour all three sections or just the “highlights.” We found this confusing as we had purchased “The Ultimate Experience” tickets online for $25 per adult and $15 per kid. At the counter, that was the price of the “Highlights Tour,” including only sections 1 and 2.

What’s the difference? I’m still not sure. Once we went into the exhibits, we never saw anyone being blocked from any section. From studying the web site, it looks like Section I is the original house, Section 2 is the entire museum, and Section 3 is the Japanese garden. We skipped Section 3 as we had already seen more than enough after spending like five hours in sections 1 and 2.

The first exhibit you’ll see when you leave the entrance lobby is all about the creator, Alex Jordan. There is a video and then some traditional museum-type displays with a lot of reading. Although it was time consuming, I recommend reading the information in here, because it explains to you just who built this crazy place and how it came to be. Last time I visited, back in 1993, I don’t think this section existed yet (or we skipped it), and I spent my whole visit wondering who on earth would tack on rooms and rooms full of bizarre music machines and coin-operated dioramas and such onto a vintage house tour? This time, I know the answer: Alex Jordan would. The same guy who built the original house.

Here’s the tl;dr: Alex was a creative oddball who found the big rock on a farmer’s property and fell in love with it. Eventually he bought the land and built a Frank Lloyd Wright-style house with super low ceilings and carpeting on the walls. When people started showing up to gawk at it — and at him for hauling construction materials up the tall rock — he started charging money, then used those proceeds to build and build and buy and buy. The more collections he bought, the more people would show up, and the more they would pay. What especially interested me was to learn that Alex and a team of sculpters and craftsmen made a lot of the exhibits, like the self-playing music machines. I went in with the view that this place had been the product of tasteless money lust, and went out with an image of a man who figured out how to support himself by tinkering and creating massive art installations without having to sell his creations or cater to any artistic authorities. Alex Jordan was his own thing.

After the Alex Jordan Center, you enter the house itself. It’s hard to actually get a good feel for how the parts are connected to one another, since the tour takes you on a certain snaking path, but you definitely get the feeling that this is a cool, unusual house. My dad claims he visited here once when it was only the house, and says that he arrived while residents were eating dinner. Since Jordan never really stopped working on the place, I’m guessing the people eating may have been the work crew.

I love colored glass, so naturally my favorite parts of the original house were the stained glass windows and Tiffany lamps.

The kitchen was separate from the rest of the building, which made me wonder if Alex ever stayed there in winter. Seems like it would be a bitch to carry food outside from the kitchen to the rest of the house. There is a grand player piano in the living room, which played “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” during our visit. This was perfect, as it started playing just as we stood at a little balcony looking down on the living room. Naturally, I sang and gestured grandly.

Infinity Room

The highlight of the house is the Infinity Room, a 218-foot glass walkway that extends out over the Wyoming Valley so you can look down on nature from both sides. In the Alex Jordan Center, they talked about how this guy never drew plans and just hammered and sawed based on the pictures in his mind’s eye. Immediately upon hearing that, I started imagining the Infinity Room cracking and tumbling down to the valley floor. Yet, tourists have been tramping its length for decades without incident! Fortunately, I learned the answer to this remarkable lack of plummeting to the valley below in the Alex Jordan Center: For this project, he DID work with a structural engineer, who told Alex he’d have to use steel beams, not just wood and glass, to support it. Phew. Knowing that info, I felt safe to walk right out to the end. Not so much for the lady with a fear of heights who was easing her way out, step by step, only to have her douchebag teenage son jump scare her every few minutes.

According to the AJC, Alex showed up with all this glassware one day for the ladies’ room wall, and the workers were like whaaaaat? But it really works!

After the house, it was time for the main reason we’d come: What feels like miles of exhibits of weird random stuff. In the Mill House, we admired creepy dolls, a wall of beautiful glassware displayed in the ladies’ room, and suits of armor. Then came the Streets of Yesterday, which reminded us of the Milwaukee Public Museum, with little offices and homes you could peep into, from the old-timey dentist’s office (NOPE) to a carriage house containing a steam-powered car (a poster next to it pointed out you wouldn’t have to worry about finding one of those scarce gas station places driving this baby).

This was called something like Death of a Drunkard

Scattered throughout all the exhibits are boxes you can put tokens into to see a little entertainment. The favorite type of the group I was with were definitely what I called dioramas, which I guess are more commonly known as coin-operated automatons, the kind of thing we’ve also seen at the Musée Mécanique in SF. Most of these seemed to have a morbid air. There was a drunkard dying in bed, and then, yikes! A skeleton pops out of his closet. The other type of coin-op machine are self-playing musical instruments. We carried many tokens and patiently watched many, many of these machines — sometimes more than once.

Ms. Esmerelda was a favorite. Whoever painted her face did almost too good a job.

After the Streets of Yesterday, my memories of the tour are a bit of a jumble. There’s so much. Way back in 1993, when my brother and I were touring this place with my parents, we came up with an idea for a Twilight Zone episode where you’re walking through a museum like this, with old timey exhibits, when gradually, the exhibits highlight later and later eras, until you are looking at exhibits about modern life, but still displayed as historical. Then, you start seeing exhibits about what must be the future. Have you been in here for years? This exhibit could go on forever, with you trapped inside for eternity, or pershaps you eventually come upon the very last room, where the apocalypse is perpetually erupting around you. Good, eh?

I think that the museum is purposely arranged to get weirder and weirder, the deeper you go. You start out with some run-of-the-mill stuff like antique guns arranged in cases, but by the end, you’re looking at a naked lady mannequin with a unicorn head. I am not exaggerating! Here she is:

I guess you could call this a deconstructed carousel?

The rooms that made the biggest impression on me were

— The Red Room, where at first you just notice a fancy self-playing orchestra. But then you might notice that carriage being pulled through the air by a tiger and a lion, and then you might notice the looks on those animals’ faces, as if they are fleeing from horror. Finally, you glance up, and notice that the ceiling is full of recessed areas where statues of saints hover to look down on you, each of their heads crowned with spiky metal haloes. Yeah. That room is cool.

— The carousel. Of course! The famous carousel. Except, you can’t even believe how different each of the animals is, because Alex bought tons of old ones from all over the world and worked with his team to combine and repaint them into new novel beasts.

— The doll carousel. Oh my god. How about another merry-go-round, but this one has dolls riding on the animals? And some of the dolls stare blankly out at you with the most teenage hostile stares ever embedded in their little china faces? Yes, really. I loved this to pieces.

— So. Many. Other. Things.

By the time you exit the House on the Rock, you may feel dazed, overstimulated, hungry, headachy, or completely insane. This is normal!

After a quick stop at the gift shop, where I snagged a Christmas ornament shaped like the famous mushroom lamp and a refrigerator magnet, we visited the Wisconsin River to allow nature to cleanse out our eyes and brains for a bit. Still, as I closed my eyes to sleep that night, I still saw the spinning carousel and heard the cacophany of multiple self-playing bands competing with one another as tourists from Wisconsin, Europe and Asia streamed through the halls.

Will I go again? Are you kidding? I literally cannot wait.

House on the Rock Tips:

Get there early. They say it takes at least two hours to go through. I think we spent five.

Don’t leave until it’s over. I saw a couple almost walk out after viewing only the house. The staff set them straight.

Bring a water bottle. They have some water coolers where you can refill it.

Buy plenty of tokens. If you have any left over, you can use them toward purchases in the gift shop.

Don’t worry about getting hungry. There’s a small restaurant and ice cream shop in the middle.

Try to stay with your group. Much of the place doesn’t have any cell phone coverage, so if you accidentally get separated like we did multiple times, it can be hard to catch up with each other.

Don’t dress too warmly, at least in summer. It wasn’t stifling inside, but it also wasn’t as cool as today’s standard office AC temp.

Don’t try to look at every single thing. It’s just too much. Look at what your eye is drawn to, and accept that if you want to take in every last display, you’ll probably need to come back.

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