House on the Rocks

Some people go to museums We went to the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wis. built on a mountain pinnacle by Alex Jordan. We went to see his house and his collections of collections: dolls, circus dioramas, church organs, carousel horses, guns, armor, model ships, books and more that I have forgotten.

It takes two hours to simply walk through, more if you sit and enjoy the carousel or mechanized musical machines. Jordan collected player pianos and designed an entire orchestra with mannequins that played instruments. The mechanized self-playing violas intrigued me. The violas stand in front of chairs with an arrangement of pulleys, levers and springs that pull the bow across the strings or hold the finger positions. Bladders behind the saxophone expand and contract to push air as mechanized fingers press keys.

The House on the Rock began after Jordan realized he wanted more than a tent to enjoy his favorite spot on the mountain. He backpacked the tools and lumber he needed to began building in 1945. The lay of the land dictated the architecture. He finished a sitting room and added rooms until he had 13 including the infinity room: a long hall of windows that appears to go on forever. That might have been the end of his build but folks wanted to see it. In 1959 he charged the exorbitant price of 50 cents admission. Folks paid and loved what they saw.

The original rooms have low ceilings, few windows and sparse furnishings because Jordan actually only slept in the house four nights. He lived in a modest two-room apartment in Madison, Wis. He spent his days designing his massive hoax including a huge collection of vintage European armor, all made in America. Although he never went to Europe, the house displays replicas of the English royal crowns – in glass cases. The instruments play themselves with the back-up of synthesizers. The constantly circling carousel has not one horse among the 269 animals. Guests never touch or ride on the 80 feet-wide platform but we watch it or study the hundreds of carousel horses that covered the walls and ceiling around the carousel. A few rooms later dolls rode a multi-tiered small carousel. He had so much of everything including a long hall filled with elaborate doll houses of every size and era.

After opening the door for the first customer, Jordan spent the rest of his life developing more ideas. Once he opened a new display, he watched visitors’ reactions. If the room did not trigger a “Wow!” factor, he reworked it. Amazingly he used only the money generated from showing the house to buy, build and expand.

His final display of 200 model ships surrounds a massive squid fighting a whale. It’s longer than the height of the Statue of Liberty. Shortly before he died in 1989, he sat in the mouth of the whale for his last photograph. Walking around the display, I read the placards for each model. Most had sunk.

Some of the stuff is odd. For instance, the massive room filled with vats and mechanics from boilers and factories interspersed with three of the world’s largest church organs collected from around the world. We strolled down a replica of an 1800s cobblestone street peeking in windows of fully furnished shops and homes.

Even the bathrooms and in-house cafes include displays of dolls or dioramas. Building sized posters advertising magicians loom over the tables in the active snack shop where we had lunch. We came, we saw, we checked it off our list of things to see, photograph and remember.

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