Destinations

In the Dream House

Searching for context clues at Wisconsin’s wildest attraction, the House on the Rock.

The world's largest indoor carousel.
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THE MIDWESTERN UNITED States of popular imagination is flat homogeneity — a region of sweeping plains and stifling plainness. Yet all it takes to upend such notions is a trip to southwestern Wisconsin. Here, the great unglaciated terrain known as the Driftless Area offers unexpected drama: timber-crowned ridges, plunging river valleys, cold-water trout streams, and jagged limestone cliffs. There’s a storybook quality to the sloping croplands ribboned with green and gold (alternating strips of corn and hay — a sustainable practice called contour farming). Meanwhile, hidden cave systems, sinkholes, and disappearing streams only deepen the plot.

“Why is the Driftless Region so weird?” asks a top-ranking Google search. Geologically speaking, it was spared the crushing and scouring effects of the last ice age and thus lacks the gravelly “drift” (clay, sand, rock, and silt) of retreating glaciers. This topographic island in an otherwise smoothed-over Midwest is home to rare flora and fauna and bizarre microclimates. But it also boasts its own cultural weirdness: eccentric artists, curious legends, and alleged UFO sightings. It’s only fitting that this aggressively distinctive landscape gave rise to one of the most unique and baffling tourist attractions in the U.S., the House on the Rock.

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South of the bucolic town of Spring Green, the House is perched on a 60-foot column of sandstone rising from a wooded valley. From afar, it looks slightly space age, particularly the 218-foot cantilevered Infinity Room jutting out over the forest floor. Discernible Japanese influences — long lines, natural materials — seem reminiscent of the work of local architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose famed Taliesin estate lies a few miles up the road. Get closer to the House on the Rock, however, and any sense of a cohesive architectural style begins to crumble. Odd angles, uneven lines, and maximalist decor disturb the impression of clean minimalism and prairie-style restraint. Erected without blueprints by a self-taught artist and tinkerer named Alex Jordan Jr., this unusual dwelling on a rocky hilltop seems like an ode to the dictum “more is more.”

Inside, you’ll find a labyrinthine series of buildings crammed with oddball art, antiques, and collectibles — a “monument to kitsch,” as an antique buyer for Jordan once called it — that since 1960 has drawn millions of visitors to the Driftless. Ask any of them to explain this marvel to you, and they’ll likely fumble around for the right words, as if trying to convey the impact of a dream. I became obsessed with the House on the Rock long before I ever experienced it, precisely because it seemed so indescribable.

A visit begins straightforwardly enough, with a stroll through a Japanese-style garden and a stop at the Alex Jordan Center for a brief introduction to the creative mind behind the attraction. But by the time you wander the low-ceilinged Gate House, see the storied Original House (with its bronze statues, stained-glass lamps, and old books), then take in panoramic views from the Infinity Room, you’ve already arrived at the precipice of intelligibility. Stranger things await.

Down dimly lit corridors and inside cavernous warehouses, guests encounter circus-themed miniatures, replicas of crown jewels, suits of armor, meticulously furnished dollhouses, and wildly elaborate music machines, to name but a few surprises. There’s also a 200-foot sea creature wrestling a giant squid; the red-bricked “Streets of Yesterday,” which evokes a nineteenth-century village; and a massive carousel awhirl with 20,000 lights and 269 handcrafted animals — not a single horse among them. This dizzying marvel, meant to be admired but not ridden, is touted as the world’s largest carousel and appears in the Neil Gaiman novel and TV series “American Gods.”


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Like a reverse-engineered matryoshka doll, the House on the Rock doesn’t grow smaller and more comprehensible as you venture though it, but expands, room by room, in strangeness and excess.

“I think one of the things that’s so brilliant about the House on the Rock is that it creeps up on you gradually,” Gaiman told Wisconsin Public Radio. “The transition between somewhere that’s kind of weird and ‘I’m not even sure I’m on planet Earth anymore’ is this carousel; everything on it is like a child’s fever-dream nightmare.”

There’s a bit of rhyme here — e.g., recreations of Burma-Shave signs: “Within This Vale / Of Toil and Sin / Your Head Grows Bald / But Not Your Chin” — but very little reason. While an exhibit called “Spirit of Aviation” features a sky filled with model airplanes, the Doll Carousel room contains hundreds of bisque dolls on multitiered carousels, a 60-foot cannon, and life-size figures of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — bloody severed heads in tow. Like a reverse-engineered matryoshka doll, the House on the Rock doesn’t grow smaller and more comprehensible as you venture though it, but expands, room by room, in strangeness and excess.

It’s easy to experience sensory overload. A typical online review warns, “Enter at your mental risk.” My own reaction ping-ponged between amazement and perplexity. Lacking a cohesive narrative, the House on the Rock leaves much to visitors’ interpretation. For many — at least for me — this only amplifies interest in the man behind the curtain.

As the Alex Jordan Center explains, he originally used the site of the House on the Rock as a picnic spot and then a place for campouts. One day, the wind made off with his tent, and Jordan began building a more stable structure atop the rocky outcropping. Curiosity about the project grew, and he reluctantly opened the House to the public.

Marv Balousek’s 1990 book, “House of Alex,” probes deeper than the visitor center wall text. He describes how once the attraction took off, Jordan constantly expanded it to keep visitors coming back for more — and how many of his exhibits contained falsely labeled replicas. “A disgruntled employee complained to the Justice Department that the House on the Rock was engaged in consumer fraud by misrepresenting many of its artifacts as antiques,” Balousek writes. “He said many of the alleged Tiffany lamps were made by Bauer & Cobel, an Illinois Company … and some of the massive bronze bells were made of paper-mache.” Down came the misleading signage, and brochure copy was revised. But the question remains: Is the House on the Rock still enjoyable if you’re aware many of its “priceless antiques” are cheaply made replicas? If the “self-playing” instruments aren’t actually all playing themselves?

“He was a very creative guy,” Balousek tells me, “but he was also kind of devious and a scoundrel.” “House of Alex” also delves into a blackmail scheme, questionable business practices, and Jordan’s mercurial personality — the latter of which is even acknowledged by other, less critical biographies, such as “Alex Jordan: Architect of His Own Design” and “Never Enough: The Creative Life of Alex Jordan.” Writing in the New York Times, author Jane Smiley characterized him as “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.”

The stories stack up, one atop each other, further complicating the picture. After spending hours in this disorienting place, tucked away in a landscape of billowing hills and bluffs, I’m still convinced, however, that the wow overwhelms the why. It would be easy to oversimplify the story of the House on the Rock. But feeling around for its true contours is far more interesting.

Get the Drift

Where to go, what to eat, and where to stay when visiting Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.

  • American Players Theatre

    There’s drama in the landscape — and literal drama too. This classic theater troupe performs at a complex just outside Spring Green, situated on 110 acres of hilly woods and meadows.

  • Driftless Café

    If you’re up for a drive, the verdant hills of Vernon County are home to more than 200 organic farms, and fresh ingredients abound. Dinner menus rotate daily at this James Beard Award–nominated farm-to-table restaurant in Viroqua.

  • Anaway Place

    This collection of stunning cabins situated in Richland Center, Wisconsin, offers everything for an ideal getaway: firepits, Bluetooth speakers, and an on-site store stocked with local beer and firewood.

  • Taliesin

    A few miles from the House on the Rock but seemingly a world away, Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous home, studio, school, and 800-acre estate remains a must-see for architectural buffs.

  • American Players Theatre

    There’s drama in the landscape — and literal drama too. This classic theater troupe performs at a complex just outside Spring Green, situated on 110 acres of hilly woods and meadows.

  • Anaway Place

    This collection of stunning cabins situated in Richland Center, Wisconsin, offers everything for an ideal getaway: firepits, Bluetooth speakers, and an on-site store stocked with local beer and firewood.

  • Driftless Café

    If you’re up for a drive, the verdant hills of Vernon County are home to more than 200 organic farms, and fresh ingredients abound. Dinner menus rotate daily at this James Beard Award–nominated farm-to-table restaurant in Viroqua.

  • Taliesin

    A few miles from the House on the Rock but seemingly a world away, Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous home, studio, school, and 800-acre estate remains a must-see for architectural buffs.

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Our Contributors

Laura Pearson Writer

Laura Pearson is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. She was the books editor at Time Out Chicago, and her writing on arts, culture, design, and travel has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, the Chicago Reader, Pitchfork, and VICE.

Cayce Clifford Photographer

Cayce Clifford is a portrait and documentary photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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