The House on the Rock: A Detour Worth Making

Last weekend, two of my friends and I packed all our things into my tiny car and drove out to Madison, Wisconsin for Teslacon. For the record, Teslacon is easily my favorite fan convention, and I’ve already bought my tickets for next year, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. After Teslacon, on Monday, before we drove home, I insisted on making a detour. I had wanted to make the detour last year when we went, but we had run out of time. This year I was adamant. We were going to see The House on the Rock.

With everything loaded back into the car, we squished ourselves back in my car and drove an hour out of our way to go to what I knew full well to be a tourist trap. Still, I had heard stories that it was one of the more interesting tourist traps out there and I was determined. After an hour of driving on country roads and getting worried that we were lost because my GPS was giving us instructions to turn when there were no turns, we pulled into the long driveway that leads up to the house. I really wish I had a picture of the driveway, but I don’t, largely because I was driving. It’s lined with giant urns that have metal lizards and Asian style dragons crawling all over them. Perhaps due to visiting in the winter when the trees were bare and the plants withered, it was a rather unsettling drive up. Which is to say, it set the mood perfectly.

The House on the Rock is the work of Alex Jordan, Jr. It began it’s life in the 1940s as a odd sort of resort house that he decided to build on top of Deer Shelter Rock, a 60-ft chimney of rock where he used to camp. But as curious onlookers came to gawk at it, he started charging admission, and so the House became an attraction. He packed it full of collections of the sorts of items he found attractive. Eventually it sprawled into several other buildings, where his massive collections could be housed.

A model of the House on the Rock
A scale model of the house

The first area you go through is a little visitor’s center with information about the house and Alex Jordan, it’s creator. I confess, we skimmed. Then it was up a 300 some odd foot ramp to the house itself. It feels a bit like a combination of Asian style architecture and a cave in there. The lighting is all very dim and the rooms loop around and turn back on themselves. The ceilings are low and the taller members of my group banged their heads a few times. The walls are lined with knickknacks and books (and because I was there so close to Christmas, lots and lots of Santas). Or at least that’s true of most of the house. The infinity room stretches out 218 feet of the side of the building and 160 feet above the valley floor with floor to ceiling glass windows. And it just hangs off the side of the building. Sadly it was a bit foggy the day I was there, or I imagine the view would have been breathtaking.

Infinity Room Viewed from Outside. It's basically a glass spike sticking out over the valley.
From the Photo Gallery on the House on the Rock Website
Infinity Room Interior: A long white walkway with reinforced glass walls.
And a shot I took from the inside.

Then there are the other buildings and exhibits. The Streets of Yesteryear have an indoor recreated early 20th century American village. The Music of Yesteryear houses some breathtaking music machines, some of which are bigger than the bedroom I am currently writing this from. The Heritage of the Sea, with it’s three-story-tall whale monster sculpture in the center and model ships lining the walls. And of course the Carousal Room with the world’s biggest indoor Carousel. 269 animals spin around on it, and not a single one is a horse, although the walls are lined with carousel horses. For those of you familiar with Neil Gaiman’s work, this carousal was featured in his book American Gods. In the video below, he recreates the scene:

The jaws of monster in the Heritage of the Sea building. A man stands in front of it, barely as tall as the bottom row of teeth.
The monster in the Heritage of the Sea building. For scale, the guy in the picture is 6’4″. We are on the third floor of the building.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with The House on the Rock. You’ve barely had enough time to process what you’ve seen before you turn a corner and some new marvel presents itself. Even the bathrooms have exhibits in them. And each is presented without much fanfare. “Here is a case of unusual objects for you to guess the origin of” it seems to say. There is little in the way of placards or explanations. Although the massive Rube Goldberg machine did have a sign on it that stated in German that “dummkopfen” should not put their fingers in the machine lest they get crushed or pulled off (had to have the boyfriend translate for me, as dummkopfen was the only word I recognized). At any rate, perhaps it’s for the best. Some of the antiques on display are genuine; many were created for the displays. Alex Jordan was creating a spectacle, not a museum. He was fascinated with the circus, and it shows. The layout is also very organic feeling, and I couldn’t shake the sense that I was walking around inside a dream landscape. There were also several points when it seemed to me that I had turned back to walk the way I came in, only to end up somewhere new. The whole place feels a little magical, and the guys were so glad that I talked them into going, and we have agreed to go back again next year.

One of the many music machines, adorned with candelabras and golden statues of nude women
One of the many room sized music machines. I had to lay on my back on the floor to get this shot.

If you do decide to go to The House on the Rock, I do have a few things to point out. First off, while the vast bulk of vertical transitions are done with ramps, there are several staircases in the house itself that do not have ramp options. Also there is a lot of walking involved. Benches for resting, are, however, blessedly plentiful. Secondly, it is a little on the pricey side. My ticket was $20 and I spent probably around $5 on top of that to buy the tokens that operated the numerous automated music machines. And due to the Christmas season, the full exhibits were not open, so the price was reduced. Regular season tickets are $28.50. Well worth the money, as far as I am concerned, but something to be aware of. Thirdly, bring a camera and extra batteries if you can. I had my phone at full charge before I came in, and I wore out the battery walking through and taking pictures.

And speaking of pictures, if you would like to see a few more the House on the Rock website has an excellent gallery, and the rest of the ones I took can be found here.

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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