Well I’ve been living in Milwaukee for the better part of a year, but I’ve just begun to explore the zone outside the city limits, which the nice folks at the farmers’ market tell me, is that fabled land called “Wisconsin.”
I was afraid it might be a bit dull, to a New York sophisticate like myself.
What a relief to encounter true and large-scale weirdness.
This spring, on a cold, rainy day, I rented a car and ventured out-of-town. At first, it looked a lot like where I grew up, especially the cows, but driving along the Wisconsin River, toward the upper Mississippi, we entered the “Driftless Area,” winding through sharp little ridges and valleys, sometimes wooded.
And then we visited a very strange place indeed.
Even weeks later, thinking it over calmly, my reaction is still the same – it seems less like a real memory, than a drunken, moldering dreamscape. Fun, even charming, but also a bit spooky.
About forty miles west of Madison, beginning in the late 1940’s, and working through the ’50’s, a man built a house in the woods, on top of a rocky outcrop. He called it “The House on the Rock.”
In a pretty commonplace region of cow pastures, woodlots, small towns, this experiment sticks out, literally and figuratively, as a strange, strange place.
A stray fragment of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy realm, Tim Burton as the architect, soundtrack by Tom Waits.
An immense cabinet of curiosities, sideshow extraordinaire, and hoarder’s storehouse of earthly “treasures,” the place where Antiques Roadshow goes off the road.
A crackerjack palace, decorated by Liberace, with every shelf & nook & cranny stocked by the Ringling Brothers & John Lennon, tripping on LSD, raiding every flea market, boardwalk, and carnival, Rube Goldberg tinkering in the back room.
P. T. Barnum’s ghost wanders through, and is humbled.
We didn’t plan on being there.
Family was visiting – – all of them Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts – – and we were headed to Taliesin, Wright’s home and workshop.
The two houses turned out to be a yin & yang thing.
The day we visited Taliesin, the weather was perfect, and the guides were well-informed and well-rehearsed, if a bit dry.
Wright’s artistic creation was well worth the drive – – an organic-seeming creation, the model of the perfect prairie house, in harmony with its surroundings, and almost spartan in its clean lines.
Yeah, so, we can talk about all that art & balance & perfectness & good taste some other time.
And now for something completely different.
Because the day after visiting Taliesin, we went somewhere else entirely – – a place all about the unhinged and the off-kilter and questionable, about trickery and cheesy excess – – you know, more like the America we actually live in, and that’s what this post is about.
It is truly impressive. I remembered a quote from Dolly Parton:
“It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap, honey.”
It was a weekday, off-season, and the weather was crummy – – cold, gray, windy – – and that is absolutely when you should visit, when the place is nearly empty. We almost had the place to ourselves.
Just a few miles from Taliesin, but it was another world.
Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, another local guy also built a home and workshop up on a hill.
It was described to me as “interesting…different…maybe the biggest tourist attraction in the state,” by someone who’d never been there, but we decided to stop by.
I hadn’t read anything about it, and you cannot see the place from the road. The lane winding through the trees gives you the first inkling – – lined with giant bronze vessels, with metal lizards attached to the sides.
To call it a house is inadequate. Yes, there is a house – most of it, a dim, low-ceiled, cave-like conglomeration of amateur rough stone, old stained glass, church bells, firepits, and… shag carpeting. Lots of musty-smelling shag carpeting.
Lots & lots of tchotchkes, statuettes, knick-knacks, bottles, iron pots, etc.
Ebony figures from Africa coexist with imitation Tiffany lights.
Lots of graying, yellowing, browning books – the man read anything and everything, apparently. A wood staircase is lined with bookshelves, for three or four floors.
You come to a big room with slanted windows, looking out over the countryside, and carpeted tiers, what I believe was called, back in the day, “conversation pits.”
And then, the first bit of weirdness – you realize the music you’ve been hearing, appears to come from a mechanized little orchestra, sawing away at “Bolero.” Complicated contraptions, looking like drunken mashups of hydraulic valve lifters and bits of pinball machines, with a dash of Edward Scissorhands, seem to be playing actual instruments. You’ll encounter a number of these robotic ensembles, sometimes, I think, just going through the motions while recorded music played, but drums and other instruments were definitely playing – – amazing, impressive, and often sounding kinda awful.
If Fred Flintstone moved to the Jetson’s neighborhood, and Wilma started hitting eBay and garage sales, this would be their house.
So I guess I’d call it Groovy, or Cool, Daddy-O, or possibly Yabba-Dabba Doo!
It’s fun, kind of cozy, and the colored glass windows are great, but mostly it’s a higgledy-piggledy maze of eccentricity and clutter, with a dash of tackiness.
But the experience hadn’t really even begun.
The entire complex is a “house” in the same way the USS Intrepid is a “boat.”
You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about “the man” who built this place. His name was Alex Jordan, Jr., and he apparently was what my grandmother used to call “a real character.” And I’m not going to tell you about him. You may have already googled him, you definitely should.
There’s also a fun video filmed there, by the band “10,000 Maniacs,” (from Jamestown, NY, yea!). It’s a re-make of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” (The video was done after Natalie Merchant left the band, and their cover isn’t as good as the original, but it gives a good idea of the place.) https://vimeo.com/108524874
You go up to the roof to admire the view, then down past a minimal, vintage kitchen, and a couple more Buddhas. Did I mention there are a whole lot of Buddhas sitting around? Indoors and out, big and small, in gravel courtyards and tucked into niches. They seemed a little dubious, like garden store knockoffs, looking less contemplative than baffled, just like the rest of us.)
And as the sound of the endless “Bolero” begins, mercifully, to fade, you hear, around the corner and down a corridor, the theme from “The Godfather.”
And then you enter something that’s that’s not weird, cluttered, and uneasy, but just plain great.
The Infinity Room.
An enclosed, glassed-in room – – a covered bridge shaped like a Viking longship, juts out, cantilevered to what seems an impossible distance! You quickly realize the optical illusion, and (spoiler alert) it really isn’t infinite, but it is over two hundred feet long, with a glass window to look down at the far end, at the pine trees and boulders you’re suspended over.
There’s a rocky outcrop underneath, somewhere, to balance the weight of the thing, but you can’t see it, and it just seems like the coolest treehouse-and-walk-the-gangplank-observation-room any daydreaming kid ever sketched in his notebook during geometry class.
The wind was kicking up, the day we were there, and the room creaked and swayed a bit, which was cool, but you could tell it was OK.
And anyway if it did collapse, how cool it would be to toboggan down the hill, through the pine trees, yeah, with the theme from the Godfather echoing in our ears, and the tinkling sound of countless imitation Tiffany lights smashing!
A wonderful external picture on the “Highest Bridges” website http://www.highestbridges.com/wiki/index.php?title=Infinity_Room_at_the_House_on_the_Rock
Outside, in the fresh air, smelling the pines, is a garden with a little waterfall, in the Japanese style, as done by a Holiday Inn.
And connected to the house, by a series of roofed, somewhat decrepit walkways, are labyrinthine warehouses. You walk past a waterwheel, into a sort of millhouse, with suits of armor and random artifacts everywhere, including the men’s room.
You are entering a delirious steampunk world.
Acres of massive hangers, filled to the brim with outrageous jumbles of collectibles mixed with giant industrial machinery (an iron drive wheel, bigger than a car, a massive steam tractor, a ship’s propeller, huge electric generators) arranged into cityscapes, draped and intersected with dim colored lights.
I don’t mean a few Christmas lights. They walked into J. C. Penny, and bought every made-in-Taiwan, ruby-glass kitchen light fixture, and grouped them into interwoven, homemade chandeliers of impossible sizes and scales, dangling eerily.
It is a glorious shambles – – creepy in places, charming in others, and sometimes a bit sad. I don’t want to call it “surreal,” because I think “hyper-real” is closer to the truth.
If you’ve ever played “Myst,” a mystery video game from the ‘90’s, you’ll have a similar sense of a semi-abandoned fantasy realm.
The dimly-lit corridors and sloping catwalks are sometimes a bit disorienting.
You can feed tokens into antique arcade games – some work, some don’t – decrepit musical machines from a hundred years ago, some still squawking out tunes from Edison rolls, others plinking plaintively from music boxes, or huffing asthmatically from dusty pneumatic systems.
Life-size mannikins jerk into action, pistons and gears and cranks beat out tunes.
Player piano rolls unroll, mallets & hammers tap on bells, drums, glass cylinders, chimes.
We dance to a Charleston-era tune wheezing from a massive ancestor of the jukebox.
Describing this place seems kind of impossible. Nothing really does it justice.
You may think I exaggerate.
No, my regular readers protest, not Robbie! Not that straight arrow, scrupulously-reliable-fact-checking-chronicler-of the American Way!
And this may all seem like pretty tame stuff, really. It’s just the volume of it all that kind of swamps you. Like that scene in “Moscow on the Hudson,” where the recent immigrant from Russia, overwhelmed by choices, faints in the breakfast cereal aisle. And the dusty stillness of some sections – – they really ought to put bells on the darn maintenance guys, so when they’re tinkering with something behind the scenes, and then step out suddenly, they don’t give you a heart attack.
I got a drink of water, straightened up, and told myself “We’re Americans, darn it, we like stuff! The more the merrier!” And pressed on.
The Smithsonian is far, far more extensive, with over 100 million artifacts, and is often called “America’s Attic.”
Sometimes in idle moments, I wonder what those people want with, for example, 140,000 taxidermied bats, but it’s Washington, D.C. another focal point of weirdness.
The House on the Rock is on a more modest scale, but its chaotic and mostly unlabeled collection seems worthy of being “America’s Basement,” at the very least. Parts of it might be the props storeroom for Cecille B. DeMille.
Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine museum, with glass cases along claustrophobic aisles, and sometimes, like an antediluvian amusement park
And another difference from any other collection of Americana I’ve visited. – -some of this stuff is junk. By which I mean, it’s unabashedly phony. Homemade neo-Victorian nonsense is jumbled together with genuine antiques.
A room of firearms contained clearly fantastical creations, like 36-shot pepperbox pistols, that looked to be cobbled together from bits of old piping. The flintlocks appear to be brass-bedecked tourist items from the Casbah, or perhaps a theatrical prop room. Naval 32-pounders might have come from a movie set. Larger items, like a two-story cannon, must have come from defunct circuses or sideshows. They’re all together, and you’re left to distinguish the real from the imaginary. Or not.
Heading toward one of the larger mechanical bands, you walk up a dim brick-paved Street of Shops – – storefronts stuffed with antiques. I paused to take the picture below, of the pale, glass-eyed dolls, staring back from their baby carriages, and was left behind by my group.
And honestly, when the place is empty, it felt a bit creepy, a place one feels watched, and doesn’t want to be alone in. When a maintenance man appeared out of the shadows, I froze for a couple of heartbeats.
Overall, it’s not creepy. But still.
After admiring the first dozen dollhouses, I walked and walked past innumerable more examples, barely looking at the tiny tea sets and miniature domestic tableaus, and then, out of the corner of my eye, noticed one tiny figure had apparently given up on escaping, and had tucked a shotgun barrel under his chin.
The H.O.T.R boasts a number of carousels, but you cannot ride on them. The biggest, claimed to be the biggest indoor carousel in the country, has many creatures, but not a single horse.
Instead, the walls of the huge building are covered with the wooden horses.
Hovering overhead are a host of dissolute-looking department store mannequins, like vengeful ghosts from shuttered Macy’s and Gimbels, ready to snatch people like me, who fail to color coordinate – –
tarnished angels in the architecture, women in loose gowns, with huge wings attached.
I imagine they’re intended as angels, but, especially since some are missing hands, or suffering wardrobe malfunctions, they looked like inebriated and menacing Valkyries.
Another, smaller carousel, is reserved for hundreds of dolls. And at least one skeleton.
The carousels are spectacular.
At some point, just after looking at more spittoons than I’ve ever seen before (which spilled over, so to speak, into the adjoining exhibit areas), continuing to march along ramps, walkways, and corridors, feeling pretty stunned by the sheer mass of it all, we found ourselves in a nautical area.
And as you enter the four-story warehouse, with walkways and cases winding up the walls, looming over you is a giant model of a whale fighting a giant squid.
I could not estimate the number of ship models. Clippers, carracks, caravels, aircraft carriers. Some were museum quality, some were toy-like, and some would have looked at home hanging over the bar in Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. The Titanic hitting an iceberg. Big tin Spanish-American dreadnoughts. Scrimshaw, some real, some fake, scattered amongst the models.
Towards the end, shambling along in mostly stupefied silence, we entered the newest wing, for model airplanes. (Too tired to even attempt a pun.)
I actually feel that you can learn something from this place. I’m just not sure what that is. They call a lot of this stuff “memorabilia,” but what exactly are we remembering? Mostly, I’d say, those dreams we get after eating a pepperoni pizza, while watching Vincent Price in “House of Wax.”
One thing that popped in my head. The scale and variety of this vast repository, and the jumbling of steam engines, generators, and other industrial detritus, with the toys and old arcade amusements, strikes me as perfectly right & proper.
When American fired up the Industrial Age, it also started cranking out industrial entertainment, and decorative knickknacks. “The Theory of the Leisure Class” came out in 1899, and introduced the idea of “conspicuous consumption,” that is, buying stuff you don’t need, to show off.
Permanent “amusement parks,” like Coney Island, boardwalks & piers full of rides, penny arcades, and coin-fed fortune-telling machines, etc. and huge “expositions” or “World’s Fairs” started popping up, peddling technology and manufactured fantasy.
You can learn a lot about a place, and a time, by visiting serious museums, symphony halls, art galleries, etc.
– – but life isn’t all dioramas & statues, Beethoven & Rembrandts, is it?
It’s also beer & skittles, the Dead Kennedys, hotdog stands, snow globes, and graffiti.
In Wisconsin, a state that prides itself on its blue collar solidarity and working stiffs’ pleasures, the House on the Rock takes our pride in unrefined fare to a memorable extreme – – amassing thousands of the cheap thrills of yore, kitschy games, and diabolical-looking toys from the five & dimes, carnivals, fairs, and toy shops.
A house built not on sand, but on bric-a-brac.
It’s a blast.
Wear comfortable shoes, and brace yourself.
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