Bizarre. Ostentatious. Macabre. These may be just a few of the words that come to mind while exploring the maze-like halls and rooms of Spring Green, Wisconsin’s The House on the Rock Attraction. The brainchild of designer Alex Jordan, Jr., House on the Rock was originally opened to the public in 1959, although it would continue to be developed and expanded for decades to come.
The House itself is very reminiscent of something that famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed, making frequent use of exposed stonework, Asian themes, low ceilings, and angular construction. Jordan and his father were rather enamored of Wright’s work, in fact, although some rumors claim that the house was built to spite Wright after he rejected the elder Jordan’s aspirations to pursue architecture.
Japanese gardens and covered walkways offer periodic contrast to what is largely an indoor experience, and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside are possible at several points as well, most notably from the Infinity Room, an engineering wonder that extends high above the treetops for over 200 horizontal feet without underlying supports.
The rest of the complex centers around buildings designed to house Jordan’s extensive, eclectic collections – everything from dolls and doll houses to antique mechanical musical instruments. While many of these collections are impressive enough on their own, what makes House on the Rock truly unique is the way in which they are displayed or presented. Visitors won’t find sterile museum-style display cases in brightly-lit galleries; rooms are typically shadowy and lavishly decorated to accent what is being featured.
Streets of Yesterday offers a reconstruction of a fictional 19th century street, complete with storefronts (used to display various collections), street lamps, cobblestones, and more. The Heritage of the Sea features a massive multi-story model of sea creatures in battle, and The Carousel Room delights the senses with what has been billed as the world’s largest indoor carousel.
The Organ Room is a veritable wonderland filled with strange, steampunkish machinery, mannequins, stairs that spiral upward toward dazzling umbrellas of colored lights, and winding, twisting pathways and ramps that lead to and fro. While many of the items in the House’s collections are real antiques, many others are carefully-designed replicas or recreations designed to stir the imagination and enhance the perpetually fun, whimsical atmosphere.
I really had no expectations regarding House on the Rock when I stopped there on the way back from a business trip a month or so ago. The attraction had been recommended to me by several friends, and I knew that it featured a large indoor carousel as well as a number of unusual collections. Several different self-guided tour options were offered, allowing visitors to see as much (or as little) as they would like: I opted for the “Ultimate Experience,” which included all areas open to the public.
The layout of the attraction allows one to be brought into Mr. Jordan’s world rather gradually; the Visitor’s Center and Alex Jordan, Jr. Center offer glimpses of what is to come, but do not plunge visitors headfirst into completely unfamiliar terrain. The main residence is a fascinating piece of architecture, but it wasn’t until I had reached the Mill House that I found myself completely captivated by the place.
The vision and originality that pervades House on the Rock is undeniable. Love it or hate it, Mr. Jordan clearly knew what he wanted to achieve, and was unapologetic in doing so. I think there’s a very powerful creative or artistic lesson to be learned from that. Had he simply followed tradition and presented his collections simply as collections, rather than using them to create something far grander and more imaginative, I doubt Jordan’s work would have been nearly as effective as it is. Instead, he created something very personal, and the result is even more inspiring and energizing.
I like to think of House on the Rock as an experience, rather than a place, because it is so much more than its component objects and buildings. It evokes a reaction, and although it may not affect each visitor in the same way, I think that was Jordan’s overall goal.
I found my mind wandering back to it during the rest of my drive home and afterward, and my only regret is that I wasn’t able to spend more time learning about its creator when I visited the Alex Jordan, Jr. Center. Perhaps next time: I think The House on the Rock Attraction has definitely earned a return trip.