Stop everything and go there. Now.
House on the Rock is one of those places that defies description. On first glance, and as you approach the building, it seems like just another architectural treasure in an area that also claims Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin as one of its resident structures. And even as you enter the first building, you’re still under the impression that this is just another one of those places that you can skim through in an hour or so to say that you’ve done it, then check another one off your list. Don’t do that.
House on the Rock is just not an architectural treasure, it’s a cultural keystone that contains such an eclectic collection of components that no one group of adjectives can describe it accurately. Is it quirky? Sure, but not really. Is it complex and interesting? Definitely, but that’s just not it. Is it scary? Oh, most definitely. But what it is can only be described by its given name. It is The House on the Rock.
OPEN THE DOOR
Situated down a long, private driveway just off of U.S. 18, approximately an hour west of Madison, Wisc., sits The Gate House, a clean and simple entry point to the complex. It should be pointed out that The House on the Rock is not just one structure; it’s a series of buildings and walkways that connect together to form a uniform presentation that’s completely shocking and simultaneously unassuming. The Gate House is the first sign that things are not what they seem, because you walk inside and buy tickets to see multiple zones in the house, not just one. And there’s nothing else in this space other than restrooms and a large screen that loops information about the house. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that it was just another home tour.
Exiting The Gate House takes you down a series of walkways that wrap around a Japanese garden complete with Koi fish and bonsai trees. You’re guided into another pathway where you run into the f irst docent of the tour, a gatekeeper that determines where you go next. Going in logical order — Zone 1, then 2 and finally, 3 — you begin at The Original House, the place where Alex Jordan started his masterpiece.
Alex Jordan was born in Madison, Wisc. in 1914, and spent his entire life living in the city. For a while, his life was about bouncing from job to job, not really finding a center for his passions and lifestyle; he made ammunition during World War II and even drove a taxi. The one indulgence he allowed himself was the occasional camping trip to Deer Shelter Rock in nearby Green Springs. It was a 75-foot tall rock located in the woods, perfect for a solitary picnic or night under the stars. On one evening, his tent blew away, leaving him without any shelter. That’s when he decided to make a more permanent structure, and where the House on the Rock first gained its footings. After renting some of the land from a local farmer, he built himself a little studio with a fireplace. With assistance from his parents, he purchased the entire 240-acre property around his new structure so he could have the freedom to do what he wanted. Now he was building his dream home, carrying the materials up that 75- foot tall rock all by himself.
Walking into The Original House, the first thing one wants to do (assuming they’re taller than 5’8 or so), is duck. The ceilings are short, and now carpeted to keep down on random headaches by intrepid tourists. There’s a small kitchen, fireplace with stadium-style seating, and a walkway that goes up and behind to another private space. It seems like a neat little place that has some ’60s aesthetics even though it was built in the ’40s, but that’s really it. You might even question why you spent money on the tour.
After walking out you go up a walkway and into another area, an additional space with similar aesthetics that still shows the evolution of the structure. What you realize as you walk through the twisty hallways and duck under doorways is that you’re heading into what seems to be the main attraction of the show, The Infinity Room.
Built in 1985 and the last of the 14-room home, standing at the entry point to The Infinity Room gives the feeling that the space simply does not end. The cantilevered structure, made of steel and 3,264 glass windows, extends 218 feet out from the building, jutting out like a blade from the belt of a mountain. As you walk to the end, you’ll notice that the room tapers to a point and has a mirror angled precisely at the tip, giving you the impression that the room still continues on even when you know otherwise. There’s a viewing window there that shows you the forest floor, situated a precarious 156 feet below. It is breathtaking.
The rest of the home has several creature comforts, including a mammoth bookcase, pool table and a walkway to the roof to see even more spectacular views. And as you descend the staircase to exit the building, you wonder whether anything could ever top that experience as you saunter back down that first walkway to return to the docent in front of Zone 1. Nothing could ever top that. Nothing.
THINGS GET WEIRD
The docent gives us a slight smile as we hand her our tickets to Zone 2, the next step of the process. “Have you ever been here before?” she asks, and when we respond that we haven’t, that smile gets bigger. “Get ready,” she says, and we walk down towards a paddlewheel waterfall that flanks the door to the next zone. After a deep breath we enter, and that’s when our jaws dropped.
By the time 1960 rolled around, Jordan’s creation had garnered quite a bit of attention. Although he enjoyed visiting museums himself, the goal of House on the Rock was never to be a dusty home for various collections that the public could see. Instead, he wanted the place to reflect his wild imagination in a way that nothing else could. Soon, the masses began wanting in to witness history in the making.
This made him a bit grumpy, so he decided to charge 50 cents admission, thinking that people would pass it up and go on their way. He was wrong. Instead, it drove people in, making the space a tourist attraction in the process. But while others might sit on this capital and bask in their wealth, Jordan put the funds back into the home so that he could make it bigger, wilder and grander.
Soon, the house was Alex’s only source of income.
Zone 2 starts with The Mill House, and is filled with lots of eclectic merchandise from days gone past. As you stroll down further, you find yourself on a bricked street and suddenly you’re in a period recreation of a nineteenth-century village, complete with street signs, lanterns and storefronts. You have the sensation that you’re descending in the structure, but because there are no open windows at this point, it’s kind of like a Las Vegas casino — you have no concept of time or space, you’re just there.
The details are everywhere in this space, and it ends with a giant train and mechanical music box, where you can deposit one of the tokens that you purchase at The Gate House and strike up the band. This marks the end of this section of the tour and takes you to one of the larger rooms in the space, and one that needs to be seen to be believed.
Walking into this next room, you should keep your head up — or down until you’re in the space fully, so that you can be surprised by the three-story tall whale attacking an octopus that’s sitting in front of you. Seriously, there is a mammoth sculpture that’s longer than the Statue of Liberty is tall, sitting in the middle of the room and painted in painstaking detail. To see it up close, you go up a series of sloping walkways that run up the perimeter of the building and are decorated with various maritime artifacts, including ship models with thousands of tiny parts and diving suits filled by mannequins. It is spectacular and awe inspiring all at once, and this is the room where The House on the Rock placed its claim on my heart. It is amazing.
IT’S ALL A BLUR
Zone 2 is easily the most complex and intricate of the trio, and at the end of the section you’re greeted by a large monster’s mouth that you have to descend to meet yet another docent, hand them a ticket and enter Zone 3. Just when you think you’re done, they pull you back in.
From the whale/octopus struggle forward, the experience becomes more about sights and sounds than remembering a specific sequence of events. You see so much that it becomes difficult to recount the order things happened, and instead you end up explaining the experience the way a preschooler talks about recess.
Work on the house continued, and in 1964, Jordan had a severe heart attack that almost killed him. He was a pilot at the time, but soon the FAA pulled his pilot’s license, cutting off his primary mode of transportation from Madison. He began driving, and in ’72, he almost died in a car accident when he broadsided a horse, breaking Jordan’s neck in the process. Although he survived these ordeals and would continue making progress on the property, his later years would be filled with pain.
Jordan never technically lived at The House on the Rock; he only spent four nights there over the course of his life. Instead, he lived in Madison with Jennie Olson, his companion that he never married, nor had any children with. In 1988, Jordan sold The House on the Rock to Art Donaldson, a collector and businessman who lived in Janesville, Wisc. Jordan remained on the staff as the Artistic Director, continuing to make things until his death in November of 1989. The Donaldson family still owns the property today.
As a final request, Jordan asked that his ashes be distributed over The House on the Rock so that he could always be, “present, but not voting.” In December of 1989, that was done, completing the circle of life for Alex Jordan.
Highlights of the tours include the Tribute to Nostalgia building, which has hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling, a gull-wing Mercedes and a ’63 Lincoln Continental covered in ceramic tiles. A functioning ice cream shop and cafeteria sit in this space, as does a mammoth engine that seems like it could push a locomotive through the planet. This room makes you feel small, and just a few minutes before you were underneath a giant whale.
There’s The Spirit of Aviation, a display with model planes from the beginning of the aviation industry and WWII. The Doll House Building has over 200 dollhouses, each with a ridiculous level of detail. The Circus Building contains miniature circuses made up from over a million pieces. And then there’s The Crown Jewel Collection and Weapons Exhibit, both of which showcase shiny components from their respective eras. But if there is one spot that truly distills what the property means into one component, it’s The Carousel.
Made of over 20,000 lights, 269 handmade carousel animals and 182 chandeliers, this fully functioning turntable of fun is 35 feet tall, 80 feet wide and clocks in at 36 tons, making it the world’s largest of its kind. It took 10 years to plan and build it, and it shows. The Carousel encapsulates everything that House on the Rock is meant to be. It’s fun, exciting, full of lights and has a surprise around every corner.
It’s hard to leave The House on the Rock without feeling like you’ve missed something, because there’s no doubt that you have. There is so much detail, ornamentation and miniaturization in the exhibits that you could never capture it all in your mind, even if you had endless days to wander the hall and focus on the interiors. It’s a reason to come to Madison, yes, but it’s also one to come multiple times.
Should you make it to the Madison area soon, take a day to visit The House on the Rock. Dedicate the entire day to the experience, because if you don’t, you’re guaranteed to miss out on something important or interesting.
And, above all else, bring your camera. No one is ever going to believe what you’ve seen otherwise.
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