Words and video about a strange, overgrown roadside attraction.
13 April 2019
The first time I heard about the House on the Rock, I thought it wasn’t a real place. In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, it fits right in along the other fantastical locations described there, like the land of the dead, the otherworldly dimension called “Backstage,” and Chicago. I read about this ultimate roadside attraction, sprawled around a remote portion of Wisconsin and filled with musical automatons, collections of curiosities and the largest carousel in the world that no one is allowed to ride—the place where the gods congregate because it represents the uniquely American fascination with oddities that sprung from the vacuum of a more profound mythology and is therefore a strange kind of sacred—and I just assumed, reasonably, that someone made it all up.
Someone did make the House on the Rock up, but it wasn’t Neil Gaiman. It was mostly a man named Alex Jordan—although I’m not entirely convinced that Jordan didn’t just plant the right seed or conjure the right spell and from there the House grew on its own. But it does exist, just outside of the town of Spring Green, Wisconsin, not far from the state capital of Madison. From a personal residence Jordan started building in the mid-1940s, it has expanded to an inexplicable museum of things and experiences that steady crowds of people come to year in and year out.
The first time I went to the House on the Rock, I still thought it might not be a real place. Much of the journey through it is dim, twisty and unlabeled. It lives in some liminal space that’s not entirely like the place you came from but not entirely detached from it either. It doesn’t explain or contextualize itself. When you enter it, you, like Alice down the rabbit hole, are necessarily subject to another world’s set of logic and rules—a set which is defined by the conviction that a practical purpose doesn’t matter as much as a genuine experience.
The House on the Rock’s true nature is as the result of one creative individual’s interests and obsessions given free rein, manifested from his untrained designs into brick and mortar and cogs and wheels. There is no editing, no second guessing, no guidance dictated by market value or trends. Jordan did adjust parts of his attraction if he thought they didn’t inspire the reaction in guests that he expected. But, mostly, he just made what he wanted. Sometimes it’s creepy and sometimes it’s beautiful. It’s thoroughly weird. It works as a whole because it just doesn’t care what anyone else thinks it should be. It just is what it is. Creepily, beautifully and weirdly.
I’ve now been to the House on the Rock several times. I visit on average twice a year. It never bores me and it always reminds me that there are strange things that exist for no particular reason at all but to experience them.