In a remote patch of Wisconsin, a mysterious midcentury architect turned his favorite wilderness retreat into one of the country’s most curious collections of kitsch.
At 5:55 p.m., a brunette woman with a walkie-talkie informed me that the picture I was taking—of a dummy Abraham Lincoln playing the clarinet in an animatronic eighty-piece orchestra—would have to be my last for the day. It was now almost closing time and I had somehow misplaced the past eight hours wandering around the cluttered, overwhelming ode to nostalgia that is the House on the Rock.
Located in rural Spring Green, Wisconsin, just down the street from Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer home and studio, the house is the brainchild of self-trained architect Alex Jordan, who purchased land on the Deer Shelter Rock formation in 1956. Jordan incorporated the rock’s contour into the base of the large house he constructed near the edge of the cliff, adding asymmetrical rows of canted windows looking out over the valley. He proceeded to fill the place with his extensive collections of kitsch, Americana, dolls, carousels, music machines, and more, and soon afterwards opened it to the public. Half a century later, the House on the Rock bills itself as an “attraction” that allows visitors into Jordan’s mind. Apparently, Alex Jordan’s mind is that of an entrepreneurial hoarder.
Born in Madison, a 45-minute drive away, Jordan came across the scenic rock formation on a picnic trip and was taken by the view of Wisconsin valleys and farmland. A college dropout, he had once shown interest in flying planes, but due to a heart condition had to give up his hobby. Jordan’s parents, who owned a home for women that Jordan and his father helped construct, assisted their unemployed son in purchasing the land so he could build himself a weekend country house. When his architecturally unique house drew visitors to the property, he realized he could charge admission. Without any other occupation, Jordan, who never married or fathered children, spent the rest of his life adding to the House on the Rock property and continuing to collect oddities that would intrigue sightseers from around the country. He took a “more is more” approach, tallying up tarnished collectible penny banks, reproductions of gothic and samurai armor, stained glass salvaged from churches, ornate replicas of the crown jewels, while slowly adding on wings to the building so he could pack it all in.
A year before he died in 1989, Jordan sold the House on the Rock to Art Donaldson, a fellow collector and successful businessman who started out as a billboard salesman. Donaldson continues to operate the House as a tourist pit stop and most of the quirky, off-the-wall exhibits remain as Jordan left them, with only one room established since his death. Major attractions range from the “World’s Largest Carousel” to a 200-foot blue plastic “sea creature” that resembles a whale with giant fangs.
Inside, the house itself is not so spectacular; rooms are dimly lit and the air is musty. But guests are taken aback by the vastness of stuff in every room. There is never just one of anything in a display case; there are always as many as possible. Original, weathered, black Burma-Shave shaving cream billboards from a famous 20th-century ad campaign hang on a wall. Six signs in a row meant to be read across a mile of highway form a complete, if antiquated, joke:
“HIS BEARD/WAS LONG/and STRONG and TOUGH/HE LOST HIS/CHICKEN IN THE ROUGH/Burma-Shave”
“A lot of the older guests that come through remember them,” says Matt Schneider, the House on the Rock’s marketing manager. But one vintage series isn’t enough—next to the authentic billboards are several replicas of the advertisements in red paint.
Jordan often hired a creative department to make antique look-alikes that he placed alongside the originals, usually without any sign to distinguish the two.
“That’s just part of the fun of the [self-guided] tour—deciding what is not necessarily real,” says Schneider. He describes the randomness of the House, which might look like the consequence of a lack of direction or curation, as a form of artistic expression. “You’re determining for yourself what you think it is.”
Standing in a dark hallway with a red shag-carpeted floor and walls, a tall, middle-aged white man in blue jeans and a windbreaker gawks at a display case filled with antique guns. Actually, it’s unclear if the guns are antiques, where they were made, or if they were ever actually usable. Staring at a silver revolver that appears to have four barrels and six rounds piled on top of each other, the man motions to his young son and blurts out, “Is that real?” There’s no answer. There aren’t any plaques explaining the pieces in the case, and there are no tour guides to spout information about the significance of the firearms.
Most of the employees at the House on the Rock are smiling, elderly retirees or quiet high-schoolers passing time until the impending end of summer break. But at 29, Schneider has a youthful sense of humor about parts of the house. Raised in a small town half an hour to the west of Spring Green, Schneider visited the House on the Rock several times as a small child. Tall, with reddish blond hair and a goatee, he is quick to praise the genius of founder Jordan, but smiles sheepishly and shakes his head at some of the oddities as we move through them. Even he sometimes has difficulty describing exactly what the House on the Rock is. There are so many objects stuffed into every corner of it that Schneider, who has worked here for eight years, will still often discover things he’s never seen before.
The tour route begins in a room reminiscent of a 1960s mod house. Gray velvet-covered benches clash with red plush carpeting that covers the walls and the abnormally low ceilings. A tall white man who speaks with a slight Southern twang comments that Jordan couldn’t possibly have been very tall himself, as an informational video in the House on the Rock’s new historical center suggests. Schneider chimes in: “He was six foot four,” he insists. “He had low ceilings because he didn’t want people standing around talking, he wanted people to sit down and have conversations.”
There is a bit of mythology surrounding Jordan that is traded between the staff and patrons of the House on the Rock. Schneider tells me again and again that Jordan was a “private man” who lived a quiet life in a one-bedroom apartment in Madison, and whose only calling was to create the House on the Rock. The current owners paint Jordan as a sort of small-town creative visionary. Signs emblazoned with motivational words from famous thinkers hang on the walls of the Inspiration Point Café inside the house; quotes from Albert Einstein, Walt Disney—and of course Alex Jordan.
Jordan wanted to use his “attraction” to control the mood and focus of visitors, rather than just give them rare items to look at. Shortly after he opened the house to the public, Jordan replaced all the glass with blue-tinted panes covered in wooden stencils. Schneider explains that Jordan did this to stop guests from coming just for the scenic views of the valleys below, and to ensure that they would pay more attention to what was inside the house. (Another employee told me that Jordan just liked the way the blue, dusk-like panels made the figurines and stained glass inside the house stand out.)
The lack of scenery visible from much of the house is balanced by the extensive view of the valleys from the “Infinity Room.” The novelty hallway is filled, floor to ceiling, with 3,264 windowpanes, and comes to a point and a slight incline at its end to give the illusion that it extends infinitely. As one approaches the end of the room, the floor sways with the steps of other visitors. It takes a lot of faith in Jordan’s architectural ability to trust that the room won’t collapse beneath you.
The next stop is the “Mill House,” which Jordan added on next door to the House on the Rock. Aside from an ornamental mill wheel in front, the Mill House has very little to do with mills. Here, Jordan’s collections become more and more random and cluttered. A room of antique firearms leads to a wall of toys, which leads to the “Streets of Yesterday”—a bunch of collections housed in fake storefronts, unrelated beyond their being generally “of old.” In the “apothecary,” old medicine bottles and dried tapeworm weight loss advertisements are on display, while nearby obviously new signs advertising things like “Opium in 3 oz. bags” hang. It’s easy to lose track of time down there in the winding, windowless hallways, which lack both clocks and cell-phone reception.
In front of another display case filled with guns, a gray-haired man in blue jeans approaches Schneider. “Where did he search for all those antique guns? All over the world?” he asks, shaking his head. “Some of them look like they’d be some of the rarest guns in the world.”
Schneider nods and replies without really answering the question: “Yeah, he had collectors that would find different things and ask him if he was interested.” The origins of the pieces on display are mostly either unimportant or unknown. At the House on the Rock, the authenticity or significance of what you see isn’t critical. The exhibits aren’t so much about history or beauty as they are sheer wonder. Central to the experience is a sense of awe at “how big” or “how strange” the items filling every room are.
“I’m not really sure Alex Jordan loved everything he put on display,” Schneider says. “I think he wanted to make it where there was something for everyone.”
One of the most impressive parts of the Mill House collections is the more than 40 music machines that use mechanical devices that pump air though a series of tubes–creating the appearance that an instrument is playing itself. Some are organized into coordinated orchestras that fill entire rooms, including one that was used for a scene in the BBC’s Doctor Who. Here again though, Jordan mixes genuine nineteenth-century antiques with newer machines developed specifically for the House on the Rock, and a lot of the instrument mechanics are obviously just for show. It’s clear, for instance, that the four bows moving across every violin string are not producing any sound, which comes instead from a recording playing in the background. Others seem to be breaking down; a woefully out-of-tune Xylophone startles onlookers as it chimes in during an otherwise mesmerizing performance.
78-year-old Thomas Kenyon has worked at the House on the Rock for 25 years, first keeping up the mechanics on the “World’s Largest” carousel, and for the past 15 on the music machines. Specifically, he fixes the air pressure chambers (“pneumatics—the air and stuff”) that power the devices playing the instruments (or in some cases, the devices that just appear to be playing them.) Letting out a hearty laugh that reveals a snaggle tooth, Kenyon says he loves all of the music machines, even the replicas. He enjoys “the way they’re cobbled together,” and especially the ornate Mikado machine—a House on the Rock original that relies mostly on percussive instruments. Although its “oriental” theme has the potential to offend—a robotic, mustached Japanese man raises his eyebrows up and down while sternly playing a tympani—its effect on the room is certainly imposing.
Kenyon regularly spends long hours in the workshop, trying to keep the machines up and running despite their age and the large number of tourists who wear them down, inserting tokens to play them again and again, every day.
The music machines are everywhere in the exhibits, including around the 35-foot-high carousel that claims the title “World’s Largest” despite the fact that it’s not actually open for visitors to ride. Instead of typical carousel horses, it’s adorned with water buffalo, peacocks and centaurs, as well as topless mermaids and a grotesquely oversized pug—out of place even in this hall of crazy. Next door are not one but two carousels that feature several stories of old fashioned glass-eyed dolls in petticoats riding miniature horses. In the middle of the room, Jordan positioned a military canon that is at least 40 feet tall, and remains unexplained and not even vaguely tied to the theme. Hanging from the ceiling are the monstrous four horsemen of the apocalypse (one grasping three gory severed heads), all of whom ride carousel-like horses and look as though they are about to stomp down on the porcelain dolls below.
The Organ Room is perhaps the strangest of all. In it seems to be just a gigantic pile of metal machinery. It includes, as its name suggests, a few organs (and a lot of organ pipes). But mostly, it contains a nightmare-like assortment of large wagon wheels, stage coaches, church bells, typewriters, copper kettle drums stacked up to the ceiling, and a giant engine with a huge propeller. Using three stories of walkways, visitors can wade through layer upon layer of the organized mess. Exclamations of “That’s a big bell!” and “Look at the bell—it’s huge!” abound. The room is either an abstract masterpiece or a dumping ground for large items that couldn’t fit elsewhere.
Schneider admits that he doesn’t quite understand the room. He’s quick to add: “ I mean, it’s a really, really neat… I like the room! It’s not that I don’t—it’s just that I understand it the least.” He lets out a little laugh. “Because, well, it’s a hard room to grasp.”
Further on, past the suits of armor and rooms filled with the “world’s largest” collection of circus-themed figurines, are rows and rows of mannequins in bad tuxedos and ill-fitting wigs, making up an animated circus orchestra. Each mannequin is supposedly modeled after a celebrity, but not even Schneider can’t tell me with certainty who each is supposed to be. The clarinet players appear to be George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, one of the Three Stooges is on the cymbals, and I’m pretty sure Elton John is playing the violin. The only mannequin Schneider positively recognizes is of an elderly bald man looking down from the balcony, modeled after Alex Jordan himself.
Whether Jordan was a Disney-esque creative mastermind or just a sharp businessman who capitalized on America’s love of the bizarre and nostalgic is immaterial. Jordan’s goal was to stretch imaginations and challenge people to question that which surrounds them. If the bemused faces of visitors are any indication—not to mention their repeated cries of “What is that?” “Why are there so many of those?” and “How did I just spend eight hours here?”—he has surely succeeded.
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Erin Kron is a documentary filmmaker and journalist based in New York.
Nathan Biehl is a designer, printmaker & photographer. After bouncing around the Midwest for most of his life, he now claims Cedar Rapids, Iowa as his home.