The House on the Rock

It was in the summer of 2010 when we decided it was time to again go to Wisconsin to see Kirstin’s aunts and uncles. It would be four days in the car, and three days in the Dairy State. One day would be spent at the family reunion on Uncle Steve’s farm. Another day would be spent in La Crosse, where Kirstin’s dad, Grandpa John, would show them where he used to swim and eat ice cream and go to school when he was their age. That left a third day to site-see in southern Wisconsin. As we spoke with family and hotel clerks, several possibilities presented themselves: there was Little Norway, the Madison Zoo, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house Taliesen, and then there was something that kept being mentioned by relatives and front-desk clerks called The House on the Rock.

A quick visit to the website showed us that it was the home of the late Alex Jordan, who had amassed a fantastic collection of … collections, more than 200 acres of gardens and attractions that would inspire us and leave us in awe. A call confirmed that they were indeed open on the Fourth of July, and we were off.

We started off a merry party of six, the five us plus Kirstin’s dad. The price was a little steep —a hundred dollars for all of us — but hey, we were on vacation, and it promised to be an afternoon we’d not soon forget. In that, we were as right as we’d ever be about anything.

At the main entrance, festooned with dragon sculptures, we turned off the road and wound our way through a half-mile of woods punctuated with huge urns crawling with sculpted lizards and dragons. Parked, we made our way across the ample lot to the visitor center where they ran my credit card and we were pointed to the start of the tour, a museum about The House on the Rock. Yeah, yeah, whatever, I thought. I didn’t pay to see pictures of stuff. I paid to see stuff! Bring on the stuff!

Soon enough we were directed to Tour 1 of 3, which was Mr. Jordan’s house itself.

We first passed through a room where numerous instruments — player pianos and violins and cellos affixed with little pneumatic devices — were playing Ravel’s Bolero by themselves. A little creepy, but the boys always dug the haunted house thing. Turns out self-playing instruments would be a MAJOR theme throughout our afternoon. I wondered how many years the ghostly ensemble had been continuously playing Bolero, and how close the man who was taking tickets right outside that room had come to taking his own life.

We exited that room, and for five minutes climbed a covered boardwalk rising higher and higher as the hill sloped away underfoot. At last we reached a low door that seemed to open into the rock face. Once through the door, the Wisconsin breeze gave way to a dank, vague funkiness, trapped by a low ceiling and, everywhere you looked, red shag carpeting, on the floor, yes, but also on every wall. And with it, all of the most dated elements of Sixties and Seventies mod decor. It reminded one of a cross between a steak house and a Jungle Room den. Literally a man cave. The most impressive engineering achievement was the so-called Infinity Room, a sliver of a room that stuck out, seemingly unsupported, over the forest, walled by 3,000 small windows.

Throughout most of Mr. Jordan’s residence, I carried Ian in my arms, setting him down occasionally to rest my middle-aged back. We wound our way around and around the uneven floors, low ceilings, red-carpeted walls with their dated amber light fixtures until we reached the top deck, where a bare plywood roof gave a nice vista of the surrounding hilltops and forest.

Hmm, we thought. Interesting enough, but not really worth $100 and a forty-minute drive out of our way. And where’s that carousel we saw on the website? There must be more somewhere.

We made our way back down the catwalk and after a few wrong turns and queries found ourselves heading into a large hangar-like building for Tour 2. Inside, the uneven brick floor theme was carried forward, and we started down a walkway that reminded one of a cross between a theme park and a haunted house. On either side of us were faux store fronts each holding enormous collections of random items: now an antique fire truck and a life-size porcelain Dalmatian, now an Old West saloon with a hitching post and trough out front; and scattered randomly, actual trees that had been “preserved” by encasing their trunks in concrete; their dead leaves, coated in a generous layer of dust, still clung to dusty stems from branches that were not encased. As a tree enthusiast, this mainly struck me as creepy and not necessarily any better than just cutting them down.

At the end of the walkway was an enormous calliope — 20 feet high and 30 feet long, that, for a token, played a five-minute song using mechanical devices of all kinds, mallets playing on differently sized glass bottles and carboys, cymbals and tambourines and whistles.

Okay, we thought, now we’re getting somewhere. That’s really something.

By now, coming up on an hour or so of walking and climbing, the kids were starting to show early signs of fatigue – increasing frequency of drink requests, questions about how much longer, if we were going back to the hotel soon, of course, hanging on rails and, if our party paused for more than a two-count, sitting down on any surface that wasn’t occupied by a mannequin with a self-playing violin. Many times have I heard the story of my own family’s trip, taken when I was six, to Washington, D.C., and the most oft-repeated episode, when the State Department docent invited guests to look behind them at the intricately woven carpet featuring the American bald eagle. Of course the only thing spread-eagle on the floor was me, sprawled on the carpet in utter exhaustion from walking through, over, and around national treasures that were of interest mostly to adults, teenagers at best.

No matter, with a manufactured spring in my step, I led the troops onward and upward into the next exhibit hall, determined to squeeze every penny’s worth from this strange compound in the middle of the Wisconsin wilderness.

Up a ramp and through another doorway, we entered an enormous room with a sixty-foot ceiling that held in its center a colossal, three-story sculpture of an octopus locked in battle with a terrible whale, which, not to be confined to zoological truth, had the size and shape of a blue whale but the teeth of a sperm whale, toothy mouth agape revealing a crushed canoe inside. The walkway rose slowly around the perimeter of the room so the sculpture could be admired from all sides and at various heights, and along the wall was case after case after case of model ships, enormous intricately rigged models of whaling ships and battleships and submarines. Now we’re really getting somewhere! As a boy their age, I could have happily explored this room for three months.

Of the boys, Ian, the youngest, proved to me most game at this point, probably because he was being carried half the time. The battle of leviathans provided a slight uptick in Andrew’s interest and energy. Cameron, whom I thought would get the biggest charge out of it, refused to look at what he stubbornly referred to as “the dolphin,” and clung to his mother, looking only at the display cases all the way up the three floors of catwalk.

Spending the next 15 minutes climbing toward the hangar’s ceiling, we then entered a neighboring room of equal dimensions in which we promenaded past life-sized dollhouses, Jordan’s custom-built cars, and a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine. By now it was getting on toward suppertime, and Kirstin and I knew instinctively that a behavioral time bomb was ticking. Plus we had been warned numerous times by staff that Tour 3 could only be entered until 5 o’clock. Yes, it was time to pick up the pace. We soldiered wearily past the temptations of a pizzeria and through a tunnel leading to Tour 3.

Words fail utterly to capture the scale of what we saw next, but I’ll try. As soon as we entered Tour 3, we were greeted by the long-promised carousel. But it was not just any carousel. It was an ENORMOUS carousel, so big you couldn’t see the far side of it. A nearby plaque appraised its worth at more than $4 million. It held probably 100 circus chimera, the bodies of horses and the heads of eagles, elephants, tigers, and so on.

The brochure called Alex Jordan a visionary. It was about this time that I decided I would call him the craziest son of a bitch that ever drew breath. The enormous room that held the carousel held dozens, maybe hundreds, of other carousel animals fastened to the ceiling. We exited the room through the huge mouth of a devilish ape and soon emerged into an even more cavernous room.

More trees encased in concrete, more red shag carpet, steel catwalks routing people up and down, under and over and around the most bizarre assortment. An enormous bronze cannon. Strings of copper kettledrums hanging from the ceiling. Printing presses. Bellow organs. Giant steam engines. A three-story-tall clock off a tower. The pop culture reference point for how we were feeling by now had become clear: we were moving through a real-life Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, minus the chocolate, and with Willie Wonka a crazy Wisconsin mogul who had died in 1989 and was now ghoulishly laughing at us from beyond the grave.

At this point, I remember beginning to laugh uncontrollably as I stared at Kirstin and her dad for their reactions. “What is this place?!” we guffawed. “What’s happening?!”

When that burst of incredulity had worn off, we had decided we were done. It was a fascinating regional attraction, we had gotten our money’s worth, and we were ready for our next destination. The boys were hungry and beyond exhausted and we were close behind them. Fortunately the walkway led us right into a café.

Unfortunately, the café was closing down and even though they were still routing people into it, they wouldn’t sell us anything, and routed us right back out into Tour 3. I now was carrying The Destroyer of Worlds on my shoulders as we entered the dollhouse wing. There, like rats through a maze, we were routed past dozens, maybe a hundred, dollhouses. It might well have been the most extensive and valuable collection of dollhouses and dolls in the world, and we didn’t give a flying crap. By this time I was outright fast-walking, careful not to hit the head of the Destroyer of Worlds on a beam or a doorway. At one point, we saw a bottleneck shaping up ahead of us due to a lady in a wheelchair, and we actually broke into a run to get around her.

Through the dollhouses, we were sure we must be near the exit, when we stepped through a doorway and were greeted by a sign reading “CIRCUS LAND.” Within, to a continuous soundtrack crazy circus music, we filed past model tent after model tent filled with hundreds to thousands of dolls watching the freeze-frame action. Through more doors we came upon two more carousels, each two or three stories — who’s counting anymore? — and featuring half-size characters. Up another ramp and through another doorway Mr. Jordan took Circus Land into a huge finish, a two-story gilded wagon loaded with mannequins dressed in band uniforms, in the corner, a three-tiered pyramid of life-size elephants with 1970 J.C. Penney surplus mannequins riding on their heads and trunks. And in another corner, a 100-piece J.C. Penney surplus mannequin orchestra holding self-playing instruments.

For a moment I flashed on the scene from Gandhi, when the Martin Sheen character shouts into the telephone to transmit his news story on passive resistance at the salt mine. “And still they came STOP! Wave after wave STOP! No amount of violence or force used by the empire dissuading them from their mission STOP!”

We trudged up another ramp getting closer and closer to the ceiling toward an unassuming door with a standard Exit sign over it. I pushed the bar, it opened, and there it was, daylight, the out of doors. And just like that, after three hours, it was over.

Except for the gift shop.

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