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So long, Frank Lloyd Wright: Descending into Wisconsin’s anti-Taliesin, the House on the Rock

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By Rennie Sparks

House on the Rock is a cozy ski lodge fallen into a ring of Hell. It’s also the number one privately owned summer tourist attraction in Wisconsin.

Located in Spring Green atop Deer Shelter Rock, the House began in the 1940s as a tent and Hibachi where young Alex Jordan used to go to barbecue steak and drink a few Tom Collins. One day his dad, an architect wannabe, decided to bring a design to Frank Lloyd Wright, but when Wright laughed and said, “I wouldn’t hire you to design a chicken coop,” Alex told his dad he’d get the family’s revenge by building a house on Deer Shelter Rock (right down the road from Wright’s architectural school) that would rival the most graceful examples of Wright architecture. But, what started as a spit in the eye of the King of the Prairie School, now fifty years later, borders on the indescribable.

The House tour is self-guided, but no fold-out map can make sense of it. Within seconds my husband and I were arguing about which way to go. Within minutes we were separated and by the end of the tour, some four hours later, I almost had to check my wallet to remember where I was from. They sell beer along the tour, but I suggest a few Valium stuffed in your pocket just in case.

It starts at The Gate House where the first of many automaton bands appears—drum, cello, harp, and piano playing “Bolero” with the help of whirring, clicking machine parts. The tour winds through narrow rooms with red carpet on the ceiling, brown on the floor, past thick stone pillars, pools of running water, massive fireplaces and conversation pits lined with shag pillows. An eerie blue light creeps in through wooden grillwork. Carved Buddhas and stained glass lamps peer out from the shadows. It’s beautiful and maze-like, but still, at this point, just an interesting house tour.

Suddenly you’re outside, heading up a ramp, past a garden full of cement elves and bamboo wind chimes. Inside again, you reach the Infinity Room, a glass-walled hall that stretches 200 feet into the sky, leaving you literally hanging in the air with green tree tops waving below. When the wind gathers strength the entire room bounces and you feel yourself begin to panic in a crowd of tourists trying to hold their camcorders still against the sway.

But it’s down below in the Millhouse where things start to get weird. You stumble past a giant bellows hollowed out and filled with glass paper weights. The women’s room has a wall of chicken figurines. The men’s room is filled with toy trains.

So the “collections” begin. From the 1940s through the 1960s, House on the Rock construction continued along the lines of an ultra-masculine swank pad with enough fireplaces and shag carpeting to woo half the virgins in Wisconsin. But, in 1972, Alex Jordan was speeding to work and hit a horse on the highway. He was in constant pain after the accident and as he crawled from his hospital bed, his vision of the House began to change. He began to gather the trappings and build the rooms that have made House on the Rock the stuff of legend.

Enter the Streets of Yesteryear. It’s still daylight somewhere out there, but inside this fantasy street it’s dark and gas lamps cast shadows across the brick street and tall oak trees. You peer into grandma’s house, the fire station, the clock-maker’s workshop. Around the corner appears the Gladiator, a Dixieland steamboat with a band of mannequins in 1800s regalia with mechanical fingers and levers making cymbals, bells, drums and calliope play old-time marches so loud you feel it shaking your gut.

Around the next bend is Heritage of the Sea—a huge room with a narrow walkway winding up around it, high into the air. At the front of the room, an octopus robot plays “Octopus’s Garden” with his tentacles around guitar, drums, and keyboard. But, the major portion of the room is filled by a fiberglass sculpture in which a huge sea monster battles a giant squid while a whaling expedition is crushed beneath churning waves. The walkway winds up around this horrific scene while, along the walls, glass cases house model ships, dioramas depicting shipwrecks and sea memorabilia like a menu from the Queen Elizabeth where the Sarah Bernhardt Mousse was served with Haunch of Venison. I heard “Octopus’s Garden” five times before I reached the top level of the walkway, where fiberglass seagulls hang from the rafters along with a statue of George Washington. I walked out dazed, exhausted, teetering down a hallway filled with hundreds of Santas and a collection of antique spittoons. Things had stopped making sense.

Next comes The Music of Yesteryear, a maze of rooms filled with automaton bands with levers and pistons plucking strings and pneumatic tubes feeding air into woodwinds. There’s the Red Room, where an automaton band sits in a red room decorated in chandeliers, velvet, and gold that evokes the days of Czarist glory. Above the band flies a sled pulled by a lion and a tiger. For 50 cents the band comes to life with, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” The Mikado Room is red and gold and full of bamboo bird cages, birch trees, paper lanterns and Japanese figures in gold kimonos whose heads turn, eyes scanning the crowd, as they play kettle drum, flute and pipe organ.

I stumbled down a hallway filled with mounted butterflies, past a collection of porcelain Madonnas and antique cash registers, a glass case filled with sea shells and wine goblets. Children crouched in dark corridors waiting to pounce on their exhausted parents.

Enter the Carousel Room where the world’s largest carousel resides. With 20,000 red and white lights and 182 chandeliers, it stretches 80 feet in diameter and spins around a red room with circus music booming and giant automaton timpanis playing along. This room could easily bring on a seizure in your average joe, but add to that the animals who inhabit the carousel deck—giant frogs, walruses, bulldogs, reindeer, tigers, pigs, dragons, a white rabbit with a carrot in its mouth, a zebra in armor, sea unicorns, grotesque mermaids with bright red nipples, hybrids like the rooster-legged woman—I almost wet my pants. On the far wall, hundreds more carousel creatures stampede away into darkness and from the ceiling hang throngs of female mannequins decked out in thick white wings and long evening gowns (one breast exposed). The only exit is through a giant devil’s mouth which leads to the terrifying Organ Room.

Metal catwalks covered in burnt orange carpet wind down and around the Organ Room in Escher-like, spiraling disorder. Several catwalks are completely inaccessible, seemingly built only to confuse, others wind up and up to nowhere, the steps getting tinier and tinier as they ascend. The Organ Room is filled with giant hydraulic pumps, beer steins, copper brewing tanks, giant propellers, huge pieces of mysterious electrical equipment and a perpetual motion machine run by rolling cannon balls. Behind it all pounds the music of three giant theater organs. People mill in all directions, completely disoriented. An open doorway reveals we are still high above the trees.

I hobbled into the Wildlife Room where a snack bar is situated directly below a thatched roof littered with stuffed raccoon, wolves, and bears slithering down towards exhausted tourists while an organ plays, “Climb Every Mountain.” I passed on the nachos and pressed on with the tour.

Next stop, the Doll Carousel, where a tiered carousel spins hundreds of sweet-faced dolls in frilly dresses riding grotesque monsters—half-pirate/half-horse, half-Buddha/half-pony, snarling zebras, trumpeting elephants. Women jammed the path, ogling the porcelain beauties, but I was on the verge of a nervous collapse. I race-walked through the Doll House Room (packed with 250 doll houses) and into a room entitled, “The World’s Largest Collection of Miniature Circuses.” A few hours earlier I would have remarked at such a surreal title, but by this point I was beginning to understand how a man like Howard Hughes ended up wearing Kleenex boxes on his feet.

The tour winds down with a weapons collection that includes Samurai warrior outfits and a woman’s wooden leg fitted with a Dillinger. The final room is the Cannon Building where a giant cannon sits under a sculpture of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I limped to the car. No trip to the Art Institute or Great America, not even the handful of LSD I gobbled once before a Ramones concert, has shook me up as much as House on the Rock. Maybe I’ll start collecting spoons.

The House on the Rock, open daily 9am-dusk, through October 31. Spring Green, Wisconsin 9 miles south on SR 23, (608) 935-3639.

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