The House on the Rock, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, is a mecca for anyone who appreciates fantastical roadside and tourist attractions. I remember first learning about it from Roadside America, and then hearing about it from friends. Once you’ve seen the muffler men, you’ve shopped at South of the Border, you’ve toured Graceland, and you’ve seen the outsider art displays that make the American dream real, you have to make the pilgrimage to the House on the Rock. If you start with it, everything else — no matter how remarkable — will pale in comparison.
True to its name, the House on the Rock, is a house perched high atop a chimney of rock in a forest in southwestern Wisconsin. It’s much more than a house, though — it’s also gardens, museums, massive sculptures, music halls, an amusement park (look but don’t ride), a restaurant (feel free to eat), all on or next to a massive rock. The house began in 1945 by Alex Jordan as a personal retreat (perhaps amplified by a desire to challenge to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin estate), which grew to become a tourist attraction in 1961, and then grew more, and evolved, and morphed into the magnificence that exits today.
The House a fantastic dream, told over the course of one man’s life, manifested into reality. It’s a cabin that became a Lewis Carroll novel. It’s Disneyland if Walt built it with his own hands.
The feeling that you’re somewhere different begins with the drive to the House. Starting in Madison, Wisconsin, I traveled from urban to suburban, to rural farmland, and finally woodland areas. The journey is no simple trip — it’s like traveling through different eras of human civilization. Turning off route 23, and up House on the Rock Road, farmland abruptly transitions to wilderness — even the types of trees change. Deciduous trees are joined by evergreens, and form a tunnel-like canopy, amplifying the sensation that you are entering another world. Along the way massive vase-shaped planters appear, each inhabited by flowering plants and guarded by dragons.
The parking lot itself is a transitional space: macadam tilted ever so slightly because it was poured and flattened atop a hill, flanked on the right by a grove of evergreen trees with visible black trunks, thrusting from a blanket of fallen, rust-orange pine needles. Massive dragon flower pots punctuate the lot. It doesn’t feel normal, but it also doesn’t feel wrong.
The gateway to the House on the Rock is a relatively-normal building where you can buy tickets, and freshen up. There you’ll purchase your pass, and receive tokens to operate various exhibits inside the House. There are hints that you’re about to experience something fantastical — like a stream that runs through the lobby, and the maritime artifact collection in the men’s room. Nothing amazing — only hints.
There are two types of passes: 1) for parts 1 & 2 of the House, and 2) “The Ultimate Experience” for parts 1, 2 & 3. Depending on how late in the day you purchase your pass, you’ll receive a warning that you should consider not getting the Ultimate Experience because the House is just that huge. And it turns out that it is that huge, so you will have to hustle to get through all three areas of the House. Even though I was short on time, I chose the Ultimate Experience, because I didn’t want to miss a thing. YOLO.
Tokens you’ll receive to operate many of the automated musical machines inside the House:
The Original House and Infinity Room
Walkways through gardens lead to the Original House — now is your time to cleanse your mental palate for what you’re about to see and hear.
Have you ever seen a movie or cartoon where the protagonists are shrunken down and injected into a human body? Walking through the original House is like a walk through the mind of creator Alex Jordan. It’s dimly lit; it’s warm; there are many organic twists, bends, folds & pockets; many blood reds and visceral browns; it has a unique smell; and art, sculpture & music form moments of a dream.
Alex’s thought-process is preserved in the alcoves, walkways, and stairways. The architecture, in most places, embraces the shape of its rock foundation. The house surrenders, in some places, to rocks which literally just from the floor, and in other places, the House spirals away from the rock to escape it. We see what Alex adored and valued in life: knowledge in the form a library of books; ornate art and sculpture from Asia; complicated, mechanical, robotic musical instruments; the warmth of light from Tiffany lamps, and red & brown velvet furnishings; the comfort of a cozy alcove. It might be the ultimate “man cave”.
The House has a distinct smell, in some areas. Kind of like an attic, or the inside of a wall. A sort of sweet n’ sour odor of aging cellulose fibers. Nothing repellant, but it’s definitely a presence. I collect old things: books, mid-century LP records & lamps — they all come with their unique bouquet of odors — so I can relate.
I got lost three times… a testament to the hypnotic experience of walking inside someone’s dream. Maybe I didn’t want to leave?
Books, Tiffany lamps, art from Asia, brown woods:
One of the dozens of robotic musical bands, a wooden dragon, red velvet, and a rock jutting from the floor:
The Original House leads to the Infinity Room, a glass and steel structure that juts out 218 feet away from the Original House and rock foundation, and over the valley below. It was completed in 1985, 40 years after the Original House began construction. Near the end, you can look down at the valley through a window in the floor. This attraction will be avoided by those with a fear of heights.
Alex was not a prude, so it’s fair to speculate that the Infinity Room might represent a phallus. Or simply another extension of his dreams made real. Or it might just be an amazing way to give tourists a spectacular view of the forest and rock he loved.
This tribute to the House on the Rock continues in part 2 and part 3.
Link: The House on the Rock website.
Location: 5754 Wisconsin 23, Spring Green, WI