Visiting the House on the Rock, a Museum About Everything and Nothing
The House on the Rock is messy and confusing and ugly and beautiful and everything a museum should be.
The door to the House on the Rock's organ room. All photos by the author
My favorite place in the entire world is the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Few people I encounter have heard of the attraction. Even people I've met from Wisconsin have been unfamiliar with it. Perhaps its obscurity is due in some part to the fact that the attraction is nearly impossible to describe. Its Wikipedia entry calls it "a complex of architecturally unique rooms, streets, gardens, and shops." When asked in an interview to describe the house, Alex Jordan, who created it, simply said: "It is what it is." Which is to say, the House on the Rock probably isn't massively popular because no one knows exactly what it is.
The most concise way I can describe it is this: Imagine you took all the buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, deconstructed them, and randomly attached the parts to a generic office park. Then imagine you took the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, mixed that with the contents of every thrift store in America, and spread it all throughout the Frank Lloyd Wright/office-park structure, with no curation or explanatory text. Then throw a 200-foot-tall model of a sea monster in there, too.
Perhaps another reason that the attraction isn't all that well-known is that the man who built the house was, by all accounts, a gigantic asshole. And not the kind of asshole like Walt Disney or Steve Jobs or Mr. Burns, where people love their output so much their assholishness becomes an endearing part of their legacy. Alex Jordan was just the regular kind of asshole, hated by all.
Before building the House on the Rock, the most notable thing Jordan did was go to prison for extortion, after attempting to blackmail a man he'd secretly photographed having sex as part of a honey-trap scam.
There is, in fact, a book called House of Alex devoted entirely to how much of a dick Jordan was. The book describes a time he told a female visitor she wasn't allowed into the House on the Rock because she was too fat. And a time he attempted to push someone's car into a lake because this person had parked in his spot without permission. And a time he yelled at his employees for missing work when they came to visit him in the hospital after he'd had a heart attack.
Jordan began construction of the house in the early 40s on top of a 60-foot-tall sandstone column he'd discovered while attempting to find somewhere to have a countryside picnic.
He had no formal architectural or design training, so he and the friends and helpers who built the house with him worked without plans or blueprints. According to the House on the Rock's official guide, all the building materials and furniture (including two pianos) had to be carried or hoisted up to the top of the rock by hand until an electric hoist was installed in 1952.
Jordan opened the house to the public around 1960, at the insistence of his father, who had been bankrolling the project and wanted to see some return on his investment. At the time, the house was just a house. A whimsical one, perched atop a cliff, but still something you would recognize as a house.
It's been expanded a lot since then, into a sprawling complex of rooms that seem to have been both designed and placed at random. An indoor reproduction of a Victorian main street leads into a maritime museum. A room containing the world's largest carousel (with 269 animals and 20,000 lights) leads into a room based on Dante's Divine Comedy. A room dominated by a multi-story Mikado-themed music machine sits next to a room made to look like the bedroom of a steampunk brothel's madam.
Perhaps the most impressive room in the house is the "Infinity Room," a long glass room that sticks out 250 feet from the rock. Half of the room is completely unsupported, hanging over the edge of the cliff, feeling like it's on the verge of plummeting like the RV lab in Jurassic Park 2.
Each room in the house is filled with a massive amount of stuff. Jordan claimed that all of the money that the attraction made went straight back into expanding his collections.
There's no real theme to the stuff in there—Jordan added whatever he thought of, taking inspiration from various sources. Dotted around the house, you'll see dollhouses (the world's largest collection of them, in fact), Titanic memorabilia, puppets, model trains, glassware, Venetian masks, billboards, ivory, silverware, shells, furs, tankards... Far too many things to list here, really. Wandering through those collections is a bit like being Jennifer Lopez in The Cell: Jordan's every whim and interest seems to be indulged, and being in the house is like being inside his brain.
Almost nothing in the attraction's vast collections is labeled. Things used to have explanatory text, but Jordan was forced to remove all of the signage in the 70s after it came to light that many things in the house were fake or forged, and his descriptions—which claimed the house was filled with rare treasures—were bullshit.
The fake stuff is still on display, mingling with the real stuff. As such, it's impossible to know what you're looking at as you explore the house, and whether it's new or old or real or fake. Some stuff is obviously custom made just to appear fantastical, like the cannonball-powered clock, or the two-story Rube Goldberg machine. Other stuff, like a prosthetic leg with a hidden gun compartment, less so.
Alex Jordan died in 1989 at the age of 75. The attraction is, for the most part, the same now as it was when he passed away. Shortly before he died, he described the house as "everything I ever loved." His ashes were spread across the grounds from a low-flying plane.
The labyrinth of stuff he left behind is messy and confusing and ugly and beautiful. But it paints a far more complete picture of a person than any biography or curated museum could, because we, as humans, contain a bunch of stuff that just doesn't make sense.