Occasionally you experience something that defies explanation, an experience so surreal, so otherworldly, that you walk away from it with a single vaguely formed question repeating in your mind. What the hell? Alex Jordan’s House on the Rock is such an experience. I’ve thought about visiting ever since my friend, Temper, described it to me in 1996. I read Neil Gaiman‘s novel, American Gods, in 2002 and Gaiman uses the House on the Rock as a setting for one of the many memorable scenes in that story — if you haven’t read American Gods, stop reading this drivel and correct your oversight. I’m serious. It’s that good. Go on. I’ll wait.
Okay, you’ve finished the book. Good. See, I told you. Now do you understand why I wanted to go visit? What I can’t explain is why it took me eighteen years to finally act on my desire. It’s not that far away– 200 miles northwest of Chicago. This past Labor Day weekend, we finally went to celebrate Whirl’s birthday. Princess, Farmboy, Whirl and I planned a long weekend in Madison with a tour of the house as the main event.
I’ll write more about our tour of the house a little later. The trip’s undercard deserves some attention, too.
On the way out of town we stopped in Antioch, Illinois. This is Farmboy’s hometown. His mom still lives in the house where he grew up. As we passed through town, Farmboy guided us through his childhood: his high school, his first job, the shaky island out in the middle of the lake that served as a bar. Whirl sublimely summarized the visit: “Look! We’re watching Farmboy’s origin story!”
We drove much of the trip on two-lane highways through the cornfields of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, eventually stopping for lunch in Delavan, Wisconsin. Lunch was nothing spectacular, and sadly it was only after we’d moved on that curiosity caused me to look for information about the town. That’s when I learned about the circuses. At its height between 1847 and 1894, Delavan served as the winter home to 26 circus companies. P.T. Barnum‘s “Greatest Show on Earth” was founded in Delavan in 1874. There’s a life-size sculpture of a giraffe downtown, an elephant buried in the middle of the lake, and a graveyard with circus-themed markers.
Saturday afternoon we spent at Capitol Square and the Taste of Madison. And after some various negotiations ended up walking down Williamson Street to the Weary Traveler Freehouse for dinner. At this point, the name certainly fit us and the dinner was delicious.
When we arrived back at the hotel that evening, we formulated a plan for Sunday. We agreed upon a departure time that would get us to the House on the Rock shortly after opening. Farmboy estimated five to six hours to tour the house, leaving us with sufficient time to make the drive to New Glarus to visit the brewery and maybe see some of the Wilhelm Tell Festival. While we didn’t make it to the festival, we did enjoy some delicious beer at the brewery. When I walked out onto the courtyard I was immediately struck with a sense of familiarity. It wasn’t the same and I don’t mean to compare one to the other, but there was enough similar– the trip, the architecture, the sunshine, the beer– that as I stepped into the New Glarus beer garden, memories of my spontaneous visit to Kloster Andechs flooded back to me. Similarly to how the Benedictines of Andechs limit their distribution, the brewers at New Glarus do not distribute outside the state of Wisconsin. I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to learn we loaded up with sufficient supplies before departing.
I’ll cease with the preludes and incidental attractions and get on with the main event: the House on the Rock. The House on the Rock is a complex of architecturally unique rooms, galleries, streetscapes, and gardens originally designed by Alex Jordan. It opened as an attraction in 1960. Jordon continued to develop and expand the attraction for nearly thirty years. In 1988, one year before his death, Jordan sold the House to Art and Karen Donaldson. Since that time, the Donaldson family has maintained and further developed it, adding new collections and exhibits.
For a number of reasons, Alex Jordan and his house invite comparison to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin estate just down the road. One creation myth for the House on the Rock describes Jordan as a student dismissed from the Taliesin school and the house as architectural parody of Wright’s distinctive style. The myth is just that, a myth. It never happened. But it’s a good story. Maybe that’s what’s important.
While the House on the Rock does seem to refer to Wright’s Prairie School aesthetic of horizontal lines, environmental integration, and craftsmanship, the majority is a maze of tacky rooms and macabre galleries. Highlights include the World’s largest indoor carousel (You knew that already from reading the novel, I know. Just checking.). There are rooms full of musical instruments that play automatically, a 200 foot model of a whale fighting a squid, a reconstruction of a 20th century main street, Japanese gardens, antique doll collections, airplanes, clocks, accordions and elaborate firearms. Instead of Wright’s restraint, the house is a monument to disorganization and mania. When we emerged mid-afternoon, I described my experience as a hellride from Roger Zelazny‘s Amber chronicles. It wasn’t until I cracked open my paperback copy of American Gods upon my return home that I noticed Gaiman’s dedication. It reads: “For absent friends – Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny and all points in between.”
The house felt like a visit inside of dreamscape. Collections are dusty, erratically lit, haphazardly organized, and often without label. Shadow has no need for curators. Some items are real antiques, but many more are elaborate replicas or fantasies created from whole cloth by Jordan and his successors. It is impossible to tell what is real from what is ephemeral. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that was the point all along. I do not want to call it a museum; I didn’t learn anything. Instead I experienced everything: fear, awe, psychosis, disassociation, wonder.