I recently checked off the first item on my 2012 Bucket List: the House on the Rock. One of Wisconsin’s top tourist destinations, HOTR draws a half-million visitors a year, and I’m glad to have finally made it to this iconic Wisconsin attraction.
Of all the surprises in store for visitors at HOTR, I was most surprised by how much I liked it. And, as I was busy exploring architect Alex Jordan’s crazy collection, it hit me that the House on the Rock has an image problem. I can think of two reasons for this: 1) word-of-mouth is not always the best advertising and 2) the “house” and the “rock” in question are inconsequential features of this attraction.
Like most people who haven’t been to HOTR, I had a preconceived notion of the place – mainly due to the distorted, hazy memories of adults who visited the attraction as a kid, dozens of years ago. “Creepy and useless” – that’s how one Wisconsin Trails Facebook friend remembers her visit to HOTR two decades ago. One teacher I know describes her experience as a chaperone on a trip to HOTR many years ago as a “nightmare.”
I don’t know why HOTR is such a popular destination for school groups, anyway. First, it’s huge. The collection is spread out over 17 buildings and visitors maneuver in and through them along dark passageways and dimly-lit rooms – many of the spaces tinged in red (red lights, red carpeting, red upholstery … Jordan really liked red). Throw in canopies of flashing lights and hundreds of auto-play music machines and the experience is a two-hour assault on the senses.
Word-of-mouth is very powerful and it can really work against you. Based on quite a few first-hand accounts, I went in to the HOTR with my mom and son Charlie expecting some tired, old, dusty collection of kitsch. Make no mistake: the place is crawling with kitsch – and that part is fine with me. But I had this idea that while good-intentioned, the collection had seen its better days and had since lost its shine.
To me, though, it gleamed. HOTR reminded me of the “theatre-museum” that Spanish painter Salvador Dali built as a shrine to surrealism. What makes it so fascinating is that, unlike just any museum of Dali’s paintings, the artist designed the museum and all its display spaces himself, so we see his work as he intended it to be seen.
This is what Jordan has accomplished. He created not only the view but the manner in which visitors access the view. Jordan created an entire experience – and it is unlike any you have ever had. Like Dali’s museum, HOTR place is saturated in surrealism and once the visitor accepts that this is no traditional house tour, the mind is opened – and its propensity for reasoning ready to be plied by the genius of Jordan.
For instance, anyone (with the means and a flair for the bizarre) can acquire the world’s largest carousel and charge admission to see it. It’s the kind of thing the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums have been doing since the ‘30s. But Jordan didn’t just get the world’s largest carousel, stick it in a room and plug it in.
The experience starts outside the cavernous room. Visitors are taken through the streets of a 19th-century town at dusk (the displays of period businesses, shops and homes rivaling the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum). The mood is quiet and contemplative, but as visitors near the mother of all carousels, the light at the end of the hall becomes brighter and the carnival music louder. Once in the room, the senses are attacked by bobbing (somewhat ghoulish-looking) creatures and whirling lights – 20,000 of them.
Not only did Jordan create a senses-slaying experience, but he somehow ensured that not one horse (the creature most associated with carousels) was on the carousel. (Rest assured horse-lovers; there are dozens of horse heads mounted on the walls of the carousel room.)
HOTR is all about the collection – and there really is nothing that Jordan didn’t collect. Secondary to the House on the Rock: the house. And the rock.
I like historic homes and the chance to see how people lived in other eras. I also like to see period furniture and accoutrements that a particular inhabitant may have used many years before. (This is one reason the Lunt/Fontanne historic home Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot is on my Bucket List for October).
But if you went to the House on the Rock to see how its architect Alex Jordan lived, you would be disappointed – mainly because House on the Rock was never Jordan’s home. While he built the place between 1945 and 1959, he spent just a handful of nights on the premises, choosing, instead, to head back into Madison, where he kept a small apartment. I think the “house” in the name is actually a verb, as in the place where he would house all his stuff.
The tour kicks off in the house but I don’t even know what the house looks like. Visitors walk up a covered ramp and then drop into the house. There is no front “Welcome”-matted door and inside, the space is disorienting. I’m not sure if it was a tunnel or a series of caves. You can see a sliver of the house from the outside – one section called the Infinity Room, which juts out 215 from the main structure and extends over the valley.The best view of the Infinity Room is from the scenic overlook just south of HOTR on Highway 23.
So, to review, the House on the Rock is not about a house and it’s not about a rock. I have to clarify one more thing before I finish this part: HOTR is not a museum. Sure, it’s got rooms of dollhouses, models of historic ships, an extensive firearm collection, hundreds of musical instruments, music boxes, cast-iron banks, original advertising posters and a couple of classic cars, but HOTR is an attraction, not a museum – and I’ll get to that later.