House on the Rock

House on the Rock

The House on the Rock is a complex of architecturally unique rooms, streets, gardens and shops designed by Alex Jordan, Jr. Located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, it is a regional tourist attraction.


The "house" itself was begun in the 1940s atop Deer Shelter Rock, a column of rock approximately 60 feet tall, 70 feet by 200 feet on the top,cite web|author=Jane Smiley|publisher=The New York Times|url=|date=1993-03-19|title=Wisconsin: Three Visions Attained|accessdate=2006-09-13] which now stands in a forest south of Spring Green, Wisconsin. Additions were made to the structure and additional buildings added for several decades afterward. The complex now features "The Streets of Yesterday", a recreation of an early twentieth century American town; "The Heritage of the Sea", featuring nautical exhibits and a model of a fight between a 200-ft sea-monster and an enormous octopus that sings The Beatles song "Octopus's Garden"; "The Music of Yesterday", a huge collection of automatic music machines; and what the management bills as "the world's largest indoor carousel" [cite web|url=|title=The Attraction|publisher=The House on the Rock|accessdate=2008-04-25] ,among other attractions. During the winter, the attraction features a Christmas theme, with decorations and a large collection of Santa Claus figures. The bathrooms, as well, are decorated with strange objects, including mannequins and flowers.

The earlier structures, namely the House on the Rock itself, the Gate House, and the Mill House, are reminiscent of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, though much less coherently designed than is characteristic of Wright, given its patchwork of external structures and interior spaces. The building actually began partly in spite of the master architect, who ran his Taliesin communal school near Spring Green. These early structures feature exposed stone, low ceilings, dark woodwork, and antiques on display.

Jordan sold the house in 1988 to a friend who continued building onto the site, adding to the collections of knick-knacks and exhibits featuring authentic pieces, reproductions, and especially-made examples of everything. The most recent addition is the "Spirit of Aviation", a collection of large model airplane designs in a themed room. Another exhibit, the "Transportation Building", is currently under construction (and has been for many years), but visitors can walk through and see the work in progress.

Of the complex, Jane Smiley wrote in 1993::The first section of the house had nine rooms and an observation deck. The inspiration was Japanese. .. Later, Jordan covered the windows. The present, larger house has a dark warrenlike feel, and seems to promote in the viewer a sense of unfolding mystery. The decor is still Oriental, but "cave-Oriental."

:Unlike Taliesin [the house] is not the sole or even the primary draw for the half-million people who come every year. The visitor who threads her way through the dim warren of rooms soon finds herself among Jordan's collections, which in some ways defy description. Jordan's taste ran to low culture rather than to high. There are many rooms of dolls and other rooms of toy banks and mechanical toys that seem to have originated as diamond advertisements in the windows of jewelry stores. [She is referring to the House on the Rock's collection of Baranger motions.]

:...the carousel is guaranteed to astonish. It contains 269 animals making it the largest carousel in the world. In fact, astonishment seems to be the main goal of all the displays. ... It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the House on the Rock. The sheer abundance of objects is impressive, and the warmth most of the objects exude, the way that the toys ask to be played with, for example, makes the displays inherently inviting. But almost from the beginning, it is too much. The house itself is dusty. Windowpanes are cracked. Books are water damaged. The collections seem disordered, not curated. In fact, there is no effort to explore the objects as cultural artifacts, or to use them to educate the passing hordes. If there were informative cards, it would be impossible to read them in the dark. Everything is simply massed together, and Alex Jordan comes to seem like the manifestation of pure American acquisitiveness, and acquisitiveness of a strangely boyish kind, as if he had finalized all his desires in childhood and never grown into any others.op. cit.]

In addition to the attraction, there is a themed House on the Rock Inn located a few miles south in the city of Dodgeville, Wisconsin (cord coord|42.9888|-90.1392), and a House on the Rock Resort (cord coord|43.135833|-90.046864) and golf course.


Both of Jordan's biographerscite book|title=House of Alex: A true story of architecture and art; greed, deception and blackmail|first=Marv|last=Balousek|year=1990|publisher=Waubesa Press|location=Oregon, Wisconsin|id=ISBN 1-878569-06-6 (Waubesa Press is a subsidy imprint). Balousek describes himself as "a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison since 1981," and the book is said to be based on three months of research which led to a four-part series published in the Wisconsin State Journal. Balousek characterizes his book as "an unauthorized biography, ...not been sanctioned by the new owner of The House on the Rock, nor by those closest to Alex Jordan. Jennie Olson, his companion of 50 years, declined to be interviewed; so did Don Martin, who helped build every exhibit." (p. 182)] cite book|title=Alex Jordan: Architect of his Own Dream|first=Doug|last=Moe|ISBN=0-9630207-0-6|year=1991|publisher=House of Wyoming Valley, Inc.; The spine gives "The House on the Rock" as the publisher's imprint. The back cover bears the House on the Rock corporate logo and the legend "The Authorized Biography." The author is described as a "magazine journalist" and "associate editor of "Madison Magazine." Moe had access to and quotes Jennie Olson, Don Martin, and others not accessible to Balousek.] relate a story told by Sid Boyum,Boyum was "Jordan's closest friend. .. [for] 60 years" (Balousek 1990, p. 34). Balousek notes that Boyum "enjoys telling a good tale, whether it's true or not" and says the Burlington Liars' Club declared him World Champion Liar in 1976. According to Moe, Boyum said that he "decided to make a legend out of [Alex] " and wrote the copy for early brochures, which stretched the truth on many matters.] which places the inspiration for the house in a meeting between Alex Jordan Sr. and Frank Lloyd Wright, at some unspecified time apparently between 1914 and 1923. Jordan Sr. drove with Boyum to Taliesin to show Wright the plans for a building, the Villa Maria in Madison, [The building exists today, at 615 Howard Place, Madison, Wisconsin, and is being renovated: cite web|url=|title=Villa Maria Regains Some Of Its Classic Shine: New Owner Tries To Recapture The Building's Original Beauty In The Single-tenant Units.|accessdate=2006-10-17|date=2006-01-16|author=Lisa Schuetzin|publisher=Wisconsin State Journal; which says "Architect Frank Riley designed the Spanish Colonial revival building for Jordan. ... Its walls are stucco, broken up by irregularly spaced and sized windows. Dormer windows line the top of the structure. A large front terrace is surrounded by iron grillwork and the roof, which was originally covered with red tile as shown in a postcard from about 1950, is now shingled." The stucco was originally pink.] which Jordan had designed. Jordan worshiped the famous architect and hoped for his approval. Wright looked at the plans and told Jordan "I wouldn't hire you to design a cheese crate or a chicken coop. You're not capable." Fuming, on the drive back on Highway 23, Jordan pointed to a spire of rock and told Boyum "I'm going to put up a Japanese house on one of those pinnacle rocks and advertise it." [Balousek, 1990, p. 58. Moe, 1991, p. 21 gives a virtually identical account, with Wright quoted as saying "I wouldn't hire you to design a cheese case for me, or a chicken coop" and Jordan Sr. as saying "I'm going to get even with him. I'm going to build a Japanese house out there."] Balousek says Wright "apparently didn't forget the incident," noting that Wright "complained publicly to Iowa County officials about the house the Jordans were building" and bought a nearby piece of property, "perhaps as a way to get back at Jordan" (but failed to develop it). [Balousek 1990, p. 58]


*c. 1920: Alex Jordan Sr. vows to "put up a Japanese house on one of those pinnacle rocks" to spite Frank Lloyd Wright [Balousek, 1990, p. 58; Moe, 1991, p. 21]
*c. 1945: Alex Jordan Jr. begins blasting to form a level foundation at the top of the pinnacle. They talked to the farmer who owned the rock but did not bother to secure formal rights at the time. The first structure on the rock was a simple "tent" (Moe) or "picnic place with a tarpaper roof" (Balousek) [Balousek 1989, p. 60-62; Moe 1990 p. 25]
*1952 An electric hoist is installed to aid construction. [Moe 1990 p. 36]
*1959, Labor Day: Jordan places a stone marker on Highway 23 and officially opens the house to paying visitors. [Balousek 1989 p. 71; however, Moe 1990 p. 26, however, says "1960."]
*1962, "Wisconsin Trails" magazine publishes a long article about the house by publisher Howard Mead. The article marks the status of the house as a serious tourist attraction, and draws regional attention to it. State Industrial Commission gives the house its first formal inspection. [Balousek 1989 p. 76]
*1968, the "Mill House" opens, containing "one of the world's largest" fireplaces. It is the first room in the house to emphasize collections of curiosities and antiques, including dolls, guns, and mechanical musical instruments. [Moe 1990 p. 78-81]
*1971, "Streets of Yesterday" opens, influenced by techniques devised by Paul Yank for a 1968 "Streets of Old Milwaukee" exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. [Moe 1990 p. 86]
*1974, "Music of Yesterday" opens. [Moe 1990 p. 103]
*1981, Carousel Building and "World's Largest Carousel" open, on Easter weekend. [Moe 1990 p. 112]
*1985: The "Infinity Room" is constructed. [Moe 1990 p. 30]

Authenticity of the collections

Some of the apparent antiques in the House on the Rock are real, but many are not what they seem: depending on one's point of view one could call them fakes, or replicas, or original and imaginative creations in the style of antiques. Moe's authorized biography suggests that the question of authenticity is not a problem, presenting it this way::While the Regina Sublima [music box] is a real antique, as are many other pieces and exhibits at the House, everyone knows that other pieces are re-creations designed and built on the House property. It's part of the fun—guessing what's real at the House and what is the magic of imagination and re-creation. [Moe 1990 p. 106]

Much of the House's contents were built by Jordan and his associates. Balousek quotes Jordan associate Bob Searles as saying:We were creating entertainment. We were not making a historically accurate representation. There was never any need to worry about historical accuracy. We were creating a fun place. [Balousek 1990 p. 91]

The "Phelps Car" in the Streets of Yesterday, for example, was made by Jordan associate Bob Searles from an old carriage and some motorcycle parts. Balousek quotes Searles as saying "We could fabricate any antiques we wanted to—that was the fun of it. It was just one guy's great big sandbox, where he kept building stuff." Balousek says that Jordan sometimes bought bonafide antiques, but "usually preferred a good copy that cost less," and quotes a supplier as saying "I suspect that Jordan would pay more for a good copy than he would for an original, because he could sit in a corner and laugh about the way he fooled everyone." [Balousek 1990: "Phelps car," "fabricate any antiques," p. 92; "laugh about the way he fooled everyone," p. 93]

In 1978 a disgruntled employee complained to the state Justice Department of consumer fraud, saying that these claims were tall tales. The "Tiffany" lamps, for example, were made by the Illinois firm of Bauer and Coble. The name of the Tusk of Ranchipoor was actually a pun on the name of Richard Rahn, a Mazomanie antiques dealer, who had built many of the fakes: "Rahn is poor." Jordan was enjoined from making false claims, the brochure was rewritten, and misleading signs were removed from the exhibit. However, the exhibits retained their colorful names, allowing visitors to surmise what they wished. [Balousek 1990: antiques disclosed as fake, pp. 103-4]

The room-sized assemblages of what appear to be mechanical musical instruments are partly illusion. Some of the instruments actually play, but the strings and woodwinds in particular do not; their sound is actually produced by organ pipes, while the moving instruments fool visitors. [Moe 1990 p. 103]

Today, the nature of the exhibits is disclosed, though perhaps not emphasized, by the management; for example, the current website notes that "All the armor featured in this elaborate collection was made for The House on the Rock." [cite web|accessdate=2006-10-18|url=|title=House on the Rock: Attraction|publisher=The House on the Rock] . This was not always the case. According to Balousek, before 1978 brochures advertised authentic Tiffany lamps, said the Gladiator Calliope dated from 1895, that the Franz Josef music machine had actually belonged to the Austrian emperor, that the Tusk of Ranchipoor was genuine ivory carved by an "unknown Punjab artisan," and so forth.

The official 1993 brochure says that the house "boasts the largest collection of Bauer and Coble lamps in the world. The management considers them finer and expects them to be more valuable than Tiffany's," and boasts that "The 'Four Seasons' panels are thought to be the only exact replica of the original and very popular Tiffany effort." ["The House on the Rock," 1993, "Photography and factual data supplied by The House on the Rock executive staff.]

In other media

* In 1988, the "Wisconsin State Journal" published a four-part series on "The House on the Rock," which reporter Marv Balousek later expanded into a self-published book entitled "House of Alex."op. cit.] According to Balousek, Jordan Sr. hired "drunks and bums" from the Madison street to help blast the rock. Balousek says that according to Sid Boyum these workers were sometimes paid with whiskey and sometimes by check, but that Alex Jordan Jr. destroyed the cancelled checks later to further a myth that he had personally built the house himself.

* The House on the Rock also appears in the novel "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman. In the novel, the house is a portal into the mind of the Gods. In one of the rooms is the world's largest carousel, and the main characters ride the carousel's creatures and get transported into the mind of the "All-Father" a.k.a. Odin.


External links

* [ The House on the Rock] , official website
* [ Photos, from a 2005 visitor]
* [ Photos] , many photos from the House
* [ 2004 CBS article (with video)]
* [ House on the Rock Music Machines]

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