WTF with a Foundation: The House on the Rock

February 24, 2019 — It’s called the House on the Rock, and it’s in Wisconsin. It’s the absolute worst name for the place (House on the Rock, I mean. Wisconsin’s fine, I guess). The House on the Rock sounds like the name of a house of mere architectural interest, like a Frank Lloyd Wright roof-holder. No, the House on the Rock is a portal to the bizarre and the wondrous at a scale I have never seen. That’s probably why Neil Gaiman used it as a pivotal backdrop in his book American Gods.

The House on the Rock does sound like a fictional place. Room-sized music boxes. A monster as long as the Statue of Liberty is tall. A room that extends into infinity. All crammed inside a building that you can’t really get a good look at from the outside.

When we arrived in Spring Green, I had no idea what to expect. I had done research, but that research, much like the paragraphs above, didn’t tell me anything sensical.

Outside, it was just your average entrance to your average roadside tourist attraction. But then we went inside. I spent the next few hours so overwhelmed that I didn’t know what I was looking at or where I was in the building (or in the universe) or what was happening next or how I was ever going to explain this to any other human being. Even the pictures in this article only serve to further discombobulate.

Let me back up to how the House on the Rock got here. Maybe that’s an easier path.

It started out as a house. Just a house. On a rock. In 1945, Alex Jordan, Jr., of whom not much is known, built a Japanese-style house 450 feet above the ground on Deer Shelter Rock. And then he stuffed it full of art and artifacts and mechanical wonders. He then opened it to the public to keep financing his obsessions, which he played and puttered with until his death in 1989 at age 75.

But the House on the Rock doesn’t feel like what’s left over when a creator dies. It feels alive. Like your inside of something that is absolutely oblivious to you.

Its warren of rooms doesn’t seem to be laid out in any cognizable pattern. There are no windows to orient yourself with. It feels like its own world. The only time I remember seeing the outside was in the Infinity Room. This is a long optical illusion of a room surrounded by glass that looks like it extends forever. But even the reality of the room, that it extends 218 feet without support directly below it, is boggling. A glass-covered hole in the floor revealed the tops of trees beneath my feet. Tops of trees. Beneath my feet. If this was the only attraction in the House on the Rock, I’d still go.

The place is riddled with collections. Musical instruments and model airplanes and armor and miniatures and cultural artifacts and mechanical devices. At one point you’re surrounded by angels. Then you’re in a circus. At another you walking through a giant demon’s face down a red hallway. Even Jordan’s original living spaces of the house are odd, with rocks jutting out from the walls and trees growing up through the floor.

Elsewhere in the House is the world’s largest indoor carousel. It’s 35 feet tall, 80 feet wide, and weighs over 36 tons. It was built from scratch, with 20,000 lights, 183 chandeliers, and 269 animals pulled from carousels across the world. I imagine Jordan standing in the middle of the House like some kind of wizard Noah calling out to the four corners and watching the wooden and fiberglass creatures fly, creep, run, and swim through the world to converge on him and take their place skewered on the rotating contraption. My kids are always dragging me to carousels, but this was the first time I ever felt the magic of these animal wheels firsthand.

And then suddenly you’re inside a giant music box. A full orchestra of life-sized mechanical characters line the room, at the center of which is an elaborate coach led by elephants. Everything moves and the music is deafening, and the effect is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

And then suddenly you’re walking down the brick pathways of an entire downtown squeezed into a single room—the Streets of Yesterday.

And then suddenly you’re face-to-fin with a monster. This was the highlight for me. A giant, multi-story, toothy whale with a boat in its mouth fights with an octopus. A walkway wends its way around the giant tableau, lined with model ships and other nautical treasures, although I gazed at the leviathans the entire time. Really, it deserves its own photo essay.

Writing about the House on the Rock is an unfair exercise, even to such as I who have spent a decade chronicling the odd. Neil Gaiman himself admitted to toning the place down in his book because it was too unbelievable to write about as is.

And I still don’t believe it, even though I’ve been in there.