Visitors will hardly believe the assortment of items amassed by a Wisconsin resident who decided to preserve fascinating objects inside a most unusual house.
By Bill Vossler
Some people consider the House on the Rock an architectural wonder; others, a boondoggle; and others suggest it’s just plain weird. The house, perched atop a 60-foot-high sandstone pinnacle seven miles south of Spring Green, Wisconsin, is a museum-like structure visited by a half-million people each year. The building and its surrounding property cover 200 acres atop Deer Shelter Rock. Inside are collections of strange, unusual, and rare historical objects: ancient armor, Burma-Shave signs, scrimshaw, automatic-playing instruments, statues, the world’s largest cannon, the world’s largest carousel, a gigantic sea monster, an 1880s street, varied dioramas, replicas of crown jewels, swords of state, and so much more.
Legend has it that the House on the Rock was built for spite. It seems to have been conceived that way. Around 1940 Alex Jordan Sr., a local Wisconsin builder and contractor, decided to ask famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived at Taliesin in Spring Green, to look at some plans he’d conceived for a women’s boardinghouse. As Doug Moe writes in Alex Jordan: Architect of His Own Dream, “Wright took the plans and studied them briefly. He walked to a window [of his Wisconsin home, Taliesin] and stood looking out. “˜I wouldn’t hire you to design a cheese case for me, or a chicken coop,’ Wright said.”
On the drive home, Alex said to his friend, “I’m going to get even with him. I’m going to put a Japanese house up there.”
“Up there” was atop Deer Shelter Rock, a pinnacle not far from Taliesin. And technically, Alex did, since he provided the funds. But the work and the items that wound up inside the house (and around it) were all handled by Alex’s son, Alex Jordan Jr. In 1946 he came to the rock and began building the house of his dreams.
Junior’s “Japanese House,” with its low ceilings, was built with a philosophy similar to that of Wright’s, in that it was designed to cooperate with nature, not fight against it. House on the Rock originally was meant to be a personal weekend retreat. But people were curious, always asking if they could see it. In 1960 Alex Jr. officially opened House on the Rock to the public.
Alex Jr. never lived in the unusual house. He took the proceeds from the admission fees and used them to purchase items for his ever-growing collection of antiques and curiosities. In addition, many pieces were donated to him over the years, as collectors heard that he might be interested in preserving their unusual treasures.
Today visitors reach the entryway via a 375-foot ramp through trees and monstrous oriental serpent planters to begin their self-guided tour through the original low-ceilinged rooms.
To do the place justice, you should be prepared to spend quite a bit of energy “” and at least several hours there. The tour keeps you on your feet, for seating spaces are nonexistent until approximately halfway through. However, the attractions likely will take your mind off any discomfort you might be feeling.
The 14-room house itself contains collections from around the world. In 1985 Jordan completed the 14th and final room, the Infinity Room, one of his greatest dreams for the house. Jordan had planned it for 40 years, and finally modern construction methods made it possible. The thin, long, 218-foot room appears to hang 156 feet above the Wyoming Valley and seems to be made almost entirely of glass “” with 3,264 windows.
Once you’ve finished touring the house itself, you still have much more to see. Other areas hold a variety of diverse collections, including the following:
The Doll House contains 250 miniature wooden dollhouses and miniature homes of many architectural styles, crafted on a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot. They are illuminated and include detailed miniature furnishings.
The Heritage of the Sea Building features 200 finely detailed model sailing ships in glass cases, along with scrimshaw, some carved on ivory. The building’s collection is overshadowed by a 200-foot-long, four-story-high sea monster battling a king-sized octopus. A Titanic display, the likeness of a whaling expedition, and a fully animated circus orchestra are also on display. Most rooms contain some form of animated musical instruments, one of Alex Jr.’s loves.
The Streets of Yesterday, with its gas-illuminated lampposts and brick road, gives the authentic feel of an 1880s city street, with a corsetiere’s shop, sheriff’s office, carriage house, and numerous houses, all containing period artifacts, along with dozens of coin-operated music machines.
The World’s Largest Carousel is 35 feet tall, 80 feet wide, and weighs 35 tons. It contains 269 hand-carved animals “” but no horses; many of the creatures were created by House on the Rock sculptor Tom Kupsh. The room in which it is housed has 182 chandeliers, and hundreds of angels hanging from the ceiling.
The Cannon Building was constructed to house the world’s largest cannon, a 56-foot-long sculpture made by in-house sculptor John Korb. The room also contains a sculpture of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” the “world’s largest castle,” and hundreds of bisque dolls.
The Music of Yesterday room contains what’s billed as the “greatest collection in the world” of gigantic pipe organs and automatic music machines. These include orchestrions (giant mechanical music boxes that imitate the sound of an orchestra), along with the world’s only mechanically operated symphony orchestra. Also, don’t miss the Mikado music machine, whose flailing instrumentalists all look very real.
The Organ Room building houses three of the greatest theater organ consoles ever built, along with a 45-foot-high perpetual-motion clock, giant copper vats, and huge red-glass chandeliers.
But that’s not all of the House on the Rock’s displays. The Mill House sets forth a variety of antiques, including more music machines, guns, suits of armor, and mechanical banks. The Transportation Building holds a display of Burma-Shave signs and a variety of modes of transportation. The Circus Building boasts a complete collection of Baranger Motion displays (animated signs used in jewelry store windows to advertise diamonds), in addition to miniature circus models and animated circus bands. A collection of model airplanes is housed in the Spirit of Aviation building “” great nostalgia for those who recall the 1940s.
You’ll also encounter gift and specialty shops, shaded walkways, gardens with 285 varieties of plants, and an area where local artists sell their creations.
After Alex Jordan Jr.’s death in 1989, building and amassing continued, with the addition of the Carriage Collection, the Blue Danube Room, the Alex Jordan Creative Center, and others. Even the rest rooms contain exhibits “” model trains for men and glassware for women.
Visitors hear all kinds of exclamations from their peers while touring House on the Rock: “Wow!” “Unreal!” “Weird!” “Jordan really must have been eccentric.” “Look at this!” Your favorite part of the House on the Rock will depend on your interests. In the end, one thing is inescapably clear: a trip through this unusual establishment makes for a memorable day.
If You Go
House on the Rock is located just south of Spring Green, Wisconsin, and is open regularly from mid-March to the first week in November. Spring and fall are especially good times to visit. The attraction is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in spring and fall, and later during the summer.
Admission is $19.50 for ages 13 and older, $10.50 for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under. “Christmas at the House on the Rock” is celebrated from November 10 to December 24 this year. During this time, admission is $13.95 for adults and $6.95 for children.
Ample motorhome parking is available in a lot at the site.
For more information, contact:
House on the Rock
5754 State Route 23
Spring Green, WI 53533
While in the area, most visitors will want to consider checking out Taliesin, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright, and see other area attractions. For more ideas and travel information, contact:
Spring Green Chamber of Commerce
150 E. Jefferson St.
Spring Green, WI 53588
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com.
Bob’s Riverside Resort
S. 13220 Shifflet Road
Spring Green, WI 53588
Spring Valley Campground
Dodgeville, WI 53533
Tom’s Campground Inc.
2751 County Road BB
Dodgeville, WI 53533
Valley RV Park
E 5016 Routes 14 & 23
Spring Green, WI 53588
Amassing The Collection
From childhood, Alex Jr. was a collector. He began by displaying his existing collections at House on the Rock, but eventually began to look for more. “Alex Jordan was always “” always “” on the lookout for things,” Doug Moe wrote in Alex Jordan: Architect of His Own Dream. “Often there didn’t seem to be a plan, or even a rhyme or reason. If something was unique, interesting, or unusual, there was a good chance he wanted it. If he liked it enough, he wanted many others to like it as well. So often in his life, Alex Jordan wanted it all.”
As Don Martin said after working for Jordan for 32 years, “He never took a vacation as long as I knew him. The house was his love and joy. He was one in a million. He gave his heart and soul to this place.” Another man who worked with Jordan said his hobby was “collecting other people’s hobbies.”
Though the items came from around the globe, Jordan hated to travel and never left the United States. He obtained information about collections by telephone, through photos, or through agents and collectors who found items for him throughout the world.