Travel feature: The House on the Rock is a place where mystery and magic thrive
April 4, 2018
There are a lot of magical places left in the world. I could try to convince you by going on at length about the beautiful cities, forests and lakes that have persuaded me, but in the end, there’s really only one place that I need to tell you about to make my point: House on the Rock.
I’ve taken several different angles in describing the House on the Rock. Most commonly I tell people, “If a hoarder with an affinity for circuses and Victorian age decorations had enough money to make a museum, this would be the result.” Even that, though, is a gross oversimplification.
Seeing the House is generally viewed as a requirement for anyone living in Wisconsin. The fantasy/horror writer Neil Gaiman featured it as a meeting place for immortals in his book “American Gods,” and if you know Gaiman’s style, you’ll get a bit of an idea what the House is like.
According to its website, the House on the Rock was originally built in the 1940s by a man named Alex Jordan who originally meant for it to be a personal weekend retreat. Over time, however, the strange architecture and the fact that the building was precariously perched atop a 60-foot chimney of rock started to attract curious visitors, and Jordan eventually decided to start charging people to view the house.
Jordan was a longtime collector of odd things, and so he decided to start adding to his original house and arranging his strange collections into a huge tourist attraction. According to the website, however, he wanted the place to be more than just a museum: “The House on the Rock is more of a trip through the wild and fantastic imagination of Alex Jordan than a visit to a dusty, lifeless museum.”
When you drive up to the House, you pretty much immediately know that you’re in for something strange. Giant pots standing eight or ten feet tall and decorated with little dragon statues guard various entrances, and the bits of the House that poke from the surrounding forest look to be Japanese in design.
Inside, you have the option of buying a ticket for the full experience (about $30), or just admission to the first or second parts of the tour. I would recommend the full experience; the first and second sections are interesting, but a lot of the really good stuff is definitely in part three.
The first section consists of Jordan’s original house. I get the feeling, after winding my way through the dimly-lit, low-ceilinged labyrinth of hallways and small cubbies, that Jordan liked caves. I was vaguely reminded of a rabbit’s warren or an ant’s nest. Everything was carpeted and decorated with strange statues, and had there not been a marked route, I probably would have gotten turned around and lost.
Once you leave Jordan’s living quarters, things start to get really interesting. Like Jordan’s house, the museum part is dimly lit with yellow and red lights and often labyrinth-like in design. Shadows dominate the edges of the rooms, and detailed carvings, dioramas and statuary fill almost every nook and cranny you care to look at.
You wander through a tiny, fully-furnished village that might have existed sometime in the 1920s, and from there you end up in a series of rooms that each feature a self-playing orchestra that you can activate with a little gold token. Faint, off-key carnival music often plays softly in the distance, and almost everywhere you look there’s either a doll, Santa, mannequin or statue staring at you.
It’s a place where magic and mystery thrive. Each room is packed with details, hidden stories and untold depth, and it’s all-too easy to imagine that creatures out of ancient mythology might actually be hanging out in the shadows. After three hours of wandering this place, I didn’t know what to focus on. I’d seen a whale statue that was three stories tall, medieval mannequins engaged in battle with an armored elephant, a spread of circus dioramas that probably could have filled my high school gymnasium and the biggest indoor carousel in the world.
In the end, there’s no good way to describe the House on the Rock. It’s too big, too complicated and too thoroughly magical. You just have to see it for yourself.
Maybe don’t go if you’re claustrophobic or afraid of dolls, though.
Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.