Brian Jacobson

Deep-Fried Romantic Rocks the House

By - Aug 25th, 2010 04:00 am
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I was in Sun Prairie for a cousin’s wedding, and I didn’t really feel like going home. So instead of returning east, I went west. Actually, first I stopped off at a friend’s house in Madison who just happened to live near Ella’s Deli — which should have been my first hint I was about to go kitschy. Inspired by this first-time visit, I determined to knock another Wisconsin destination off my Bucket List.

A disclaimer here: I don’t really have a “Bucket List” nor do I endorse the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. But every time I get to do something I’ve always wanted to do, like call Bingo at my hometown parish festival (completed: June 12, 2010), I consider it part of a non-consequential checklist that just makes me happy because I made it happen.

This is how I ended up at House on the Rock outside Spring Green, Wisconsin — one of the greatest whacked out places in the state. It didn’t help that the night before I caught a partial episode of Hoarders on A&E, thanks to the cable TV at an overpriced Best Western in Dodgeville. Ten minutes of that show is just all about anyone can take before becoming incredibly depressed and reflective on American consumer culture.

Was House on the Rock creator Alex Jordan, Jr. a hoarder? No. Why? Because he had a lot more money and a lot more space. He was a man who liked to build spaces and then put lots of interesting stuff inside them. Also, he wasn’t keeping old plastic bags and cereal boxes — just lots and lots of dolls.

His father famously started building the first retreat-like house in the 1940s as a middle finger to Frank Lloyd Wright (whose Taliesin home is just up the road) after a falling out between the two men. Apparently, Jordan Sr. admired Wright and Wright in turn told Jordan Sr. that he was a talentless hack.

What kind of man was the son, then? Well, he carried on a 50-year relationship with a beautiful woman named Jennie — mostly from arms-length and unfufilled. He maintained the ultra-private house until too many tourists showed up on his property, at which point he started charging admission.

Much is unknown about him and even the two authorized biographies are pretty respectful and don’t delve deeply into his pysche. The rumor stories are great if you can find them. My favorite is about the drunks who helped blast away at the rock during construction, only to have Junior burn the records to make it look like he did it all.

Jordan Jr. did appear to have a lot of testosterone flowing through his veins, and a lot of chutzpah. What started off as a Japanese-inspired getaway cabin ended up surrounded by gigantic museums filled with Organ Rooms, Carousel Rooms, Custom Vehicles storage, a millinery, an old-time town that blows “Streets of Old Milwaukee” away, and “The Infinity Room” a long hallway that juts 218 feet away from the House and has 3,000 windows.

Have I mentioned the giant, life-sized whale battling a giant octopus?  Or that one room has the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse flying past the three-story plush red doll carousel?

There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the collection. The last exhibits were completed in the mid-1980s. Jordan sold the place to friend Art Donaldson in 1988 and died a year later, and by that time everything was pretty much set in stone.

Strange things were randomly added later, such as the outdoor Japanese gardens and mannequins dressed as angels flying overhead in the Carousel Room. Look close enough and you can almost guess which strange mish-mosh of knick-knacks, curios, artifacts, and over-the-top items are original and which were tacked on.

I highly recommend buying the $28.50 tour that allows access to all three sections. However, at a certain point (it takes about four hours to see everything) fatigue sets in from the body and the mind.

In fact, somewhere around the time I escaped a winding maze of dollhouses and scooted through the very next room filled with old guns, I considered taking the “early exit.” But then I would have missed the Organ Room…which…well, I couldn’t photograph it well and I can’t really describe it. The room is the definition of EPIC!!! with those three exclamation marks considered valid punctuation.

At the final ramp, a foursome was walking quickly up behind me. The women playfully waved their arms and screamed. It’s true, keeping your sanity is a difficult task on this tour.

There are some great photos at the Web Urbanist that I couldn’t get as a tourist, but nonetheless I shot a lot of photos for your consideration. Please enjoy, and know that House on the Rock is only about 2 hours 30 minutes from Milwaukee. On your way home, you can stop at the Mustard Museum now in Middleton.

Finally, a word of advice. The five tokens to operate curiosities that the cashier gives you with the ticket will not be enough. Spending 50 cents to hear the Mikado exhibit is just one example of greatness, but you should also try the funny teetotaller warning boxes and other smaller gadgets.

2 thoughts on “Deep-Fried Romantic Rocks the House”

  1. judith ann moriarty says:

    actually I think it was lack of testosterone that fueled the original madman. as a woman I didn’t fail to notice a huge cavern of a room (is it still there), with creepy dolls arranged with creepy cannons. one needn’t imagine the obvious reference to males mowing down women. Creepy. The whole place is creepsville. A great article Brian. Also many of the intems are repros not vintage stuff.

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