Pretty quick into the House on the Rock tour, just as your eyes begin adjusting to the darkness, your brain is simultaneously trying to process the complexities of the collection and alternately screaming “why?!” “how?!” “who?!”
As you make your way through the corridors and the coves, you begin to accept that there might be no answer to the first two questions. But even though we know the “who” part – Spring Green collector and eccentric Alex Jordan, Jr., is the man behind the madness – not much seems to be known about him. Or no one is saying.
The attraction now known as the House on the Rock sprang from the structure Alex Jordan Sr. began building in 1920. According to lore, Alex Sr. was an aspiring architect who was rebuffed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who deemed Alex Sr. unfit to design a chicken coop.
Less than a decade after Wright began work on his Spring Green home and studio, Taliesin, Alex Sr. began building his own house on a limestone outcropping in the Wyoming Valley just 5.3 miles southwest of Taliesin. Whether the structure was intended as a labor of vengeance or as a mockery of Wright’s work has been debated over the decades. Also in question is whether Alex Sr. hauled building materials and equipment up the rock face on a rope ladder himself or paid the town drunks to do so.
Things do not become any clearer when Alex Jr. becomes involved in the 1940s. We do know that Alex Jr. was the collector and the visionary behind the attraction we see today. Based on the stuff that fills the 17 building of the HOTR complex, we know with certainty that Alex Jr. was eccentric. It’s also safe to say that he was a very undisciplined collector, amassing artifacts from myriad eras and themes.
There is no answering the “why?” of this collection. As for the “how?” HOTR claims that the Jordans were of meager means. Just how, then, does their son go on to acquire such a boundless collection? From what we can see on exhibit, Alex Jr. was not limited by price and collected to his heart’s content.
HOTR would have you believe that Jordan funded his early buying sprees with the .50 admission charge. HOTR did take in $5,000 the first year it charged admission, but the numbers just don’t square with the sheer volume of items being collected.
The critics charge that Alex Jr. bought low and exhibited high, claiming authenticity for many of the items that were in fact replicas. ”The Tiffany-style lamps, for instance, were created by Illinois glassworks company Bauer and Coble, which HOTR marketing manager Matt Schneider says are valuable in themselves. It is difficult to verify that claim with a simple web search; little can be found about the company and most of the top Google results for the company are pages about the HOTR trying to pass of Bauer and Coble glass as Tiffany.
But HOTR has never been billed as, or even tries to be, an antiques emporium. It’s not about the individual pieces, it’s the sum of them. If the collection needs to be valuable in order to be credible, it is both. Even if the Windsor chair in a HOTR reproduction of a 19th-century American home does not actually date from the era, the intention is there, and let’s face it – if that knockoff chair is really worth just 10 bucks, multiply that by the thousands of other reproductions and the overall value skyrockets.
But the fact is that there are many valuable, original pieces, a few of which are priceless – particularly among the vast array of musical machines, instruments and players. Schneider doesn’t know how much the attraction is insured for today, but nearly 25 years ago, Janesville billboard baron Art Donaldson bought HOTR lock, stock and barrel for $21 million.
In Donaldson, Alex Jr. found a fellow businessman and collector who got his vision and would honor his wish that his collection would remain intact and onsite at HOTR. Donaldson, who also owns Xanadu and the Biblical Gardens in the Wisconsin Dells, bought the HOTR complex in 1988. Jordan died the following year at the age of 75.
Reclusive in his life, not much is known about Jordan, and that is felt on the HOTR tour. The deeper one crawls into the core of the place, the more the mind lets go of the “how” and the “why”- mainly out of exhaustion and sensory overload – but the call for “who” intensifies.
Schneider admits that Alex Jordan is a man of mystery. He says that one of the first things new employees learn is that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” when asked about Jordan. “He was a very private person,” Schneider says.
Don Martin knew Alex Jr. as well as almost anyone, having worked with him for decades; today Martin is the creative director at HOTR and is reportedly working on a book about Jordan. I asked Schneider what Martin had to say about Jordan. “What kind of guy was he? Was he nice?” I wanted to know the dirt on Jordan. I had this notion of the tortured, lonely, misunderstood recluse who busied himself with his eccentricities. Schneider dropped some tokens in a music machine, leaving the ensuing clanging of symbols to fill the silence. So, I take it he was a jerk.
There are two books out about Jordan – one authorized version by Wisconsin State Journal writer Doug Moe and another, unauthorized, by former State Journal writer Marv Balousek. The truth about Jordan lies somewhere between the HOTR-commissioned Moe tome and the salacious Balousek version. Moe does admit that almost everyone he interviewed, including Martin, described Jordan as “a complicated mix of hubris and shyness, cruelty and kindness.”
Schneider says that the Wikipedia page on Alex Jordan, Jr., is full of inaccuracies, but he doesn’t specify which ones. “We’ve been trying for years to get that changed,” he says of the page. HOTR seems to take most offense at the notion that the Jordans were scorned by Wright. Schneider says that they didn’t even know each other, although that appears unlikely, given that rural folk all know or know of each other in a “the big heifer got loose yesterday out on Old Man Jordan’s property” kind of way. In order to prove his point, Schneider notes that Wright died in 1959, the year that HOTR was completed.
Curiously, the Wikipedia page does include a reference to our own publication, Wisconsin Trails magazine. From the timeline: “1962: Wisconsin Trails magazine published a long article about the house by Howard Mead. The article marked the status of the house as a serious tourist attraction and drew regional attention to it.”
So, it seems that since its inception, HOTR has struggled against public perception and the inevitable comparison to its much tonier neighbor, Taliesin, in the ongoing Spring Green battle of camp vs. class. Some might think that it was the Jordans’ misfortune to have situated HOTR mere miles as the crow flies from Wright’s Taliesin, thus inspiring unavoidable and constant comparison of the two. Misfortune or brilliance?
I enjoy and have great respect for both HOTR and Taliesin. I admit, however, that before visiting HOTR, I did see Taliesin as the more sophisticated of the two and regarded HOTR in a more fun-house manner. Now, I see that it is unfair to compare the two sites, even if their proximity to each other begs one to do so. Taliesin and HOTR are different and each has its own virtues. Like Wright, the Jordans worked toward a specific vision with a world-be-damned kind of focus, and that is admirable.
And now I have a dilemma. Until visiting HOTR, I had taken out-of-state guests to see Taliesin (always barreling down US-14W because I never remember just how far west it is of Madison). Now, I’m thinking that I want to take future guests to HOTR. “Why?” shrieks my friend Alyssa when I tell her this plan. “Is that how you want people to think of Wisconsin?” Yeah, I think I do.