The strange charms of House on the Rock

house on the rock carousel
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I’d been to House on the Rock, located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, several times as a child. I recall taking spontaneous trips out to the odd tourist attraction with my family and a visit to the magical retreat was always met with enthusiasm. I hadn’t been back since my early twenties, so when the opportunity to visit the House on the Rock (with my father) presented itself recently, I was delighted.

For those readers who aren’t aware of what this unique structure really is, here’s a little history.

Located in southern Wisconsin’s Wyoming Valley, House on the Rock opened in 1959. The house originated as a Japanese-style home perched on top of a pinnacle called “Deer Shelter Rock,” which overlooks the valley. Architect Alex Jordan Jr. created the whimsical home, which features the 3,264 window Infinity Room, complete with a cantilevered structure that extends 218 feet across and 156 feet above the valley below.

At some point in time, Jordan began collecting all kinds of things — from the interesting and mysterious, to the outright frightening. He decided to add additional buildings to his Japanese home as his collections grew.  Over the next several decades, he created a sprawling, alternate reality featuring dimly lit rooms and winding, multileveled hallways.  His gargantuan collections are what the attraction is now best known for.

If you’ve never explored House on the Rock, it’s difficult to describe it through words. But I’ll try my best.

At times, the vibrant sights you will encounter can be overwhelming and don’t appear to make much sense. Leave no corner unexplored — on my most recent trip I discovered a village of penguin figurines engaging in wintertime activities in one bathroom.

Things pop up where least expected, so be sure to spend at the very minimum a few hours exploring.

A reviewer on described the House on the Rock as “the world’s most bizarre and vast collection of stuff — with everything from scrimshaw and medieval armor to carousel horses and mechanical music machines — and all of it may be fake. Or all of it may be real.”

It’s been said that Jordan acquired a number of authentic antiques but it’s also known he was fond of displaying knockoffs and being a trickster.  While wandering around the rooms, it’s somewhat difficult to tell which items are legit and which are fake, though some things are obviously not the real deal — such as the collection of jeweled crowns which I know were not donated by European monarchs.

A heavy Asian influence hangs over the place. Asian dolls, puppets, and trinkets pop up in random rooms.  Other House on the Rock collections include guns, masks, animated toys, armory, doll houses, clocks, stairways leading to nowhere, and trinkets from all over the world.

Then there are the random, creepy oddities.

In one display a one-eyed smiling pineapple face beckons you closer, even as it repels you.

Highlights of the tour are “The Streets of Yesterday,” a recreation of an early 20th-century American town; “The Heritage of the Sea,” an exhibit featuring nautical collections and a giant 200-foot-floor-to-ceiling sculpture of an octopus attacking a whale; “The Music of Yesterday” exhibit, which features a collection of automatic music machines; and a giant carousel that displays 20,000 lights and 269 fantasy creatures, but no horses.

automated musical instrumentsThe horses hang precariously from a wall at one end of the Carousel Room. Overhead, life-sized mannequins donning angel wings hand suspended from the ceiling and stare down at passerby.

One section of the attraction may lead you to feel like you’ve fallen into a Dr. Seuss story — another section may make you feel like you’ve just entered an old museum.

Another reviewer wrote that The House on the Rock is the “stuff nightmares are made of.”

Though I find the review funny, I mostly disagree with that statement, as I find the attraction unique and imaginative.

However, the doll carousel (I have a fear of some dolls), creepy mannequins, clown and joker statues, circus collection, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the nude goat girl playing a violin — a statue that bids you an unsettling farewell as you exit the tour — are indeed completely horrifying.

I’ll put it this way — I like The House on the Rock, but I wouldn’t want to be trapped inside overnight. It does seem like the kind of place where mannequins might come to life when no one is looking.

As I exited the building on my most recent visit, my brain and eyes were swimming. As if management realized a tour of The House on the Rock might cause sensory overload, a beautiful and reflective Japanese garden awaited at the end of the journey.  The garden, in my opinion, is the perfect way to process all you’ve just seen and take a step back into reality.

I do feel upkeep of The House on the Rock has gone down over the last decade, and I wonder about its fate in the future.

The lights seem dimmer, and, perhaps as I’ve grown older, a bit of the magic and mystery have faded as well. But there is no other place like it in the Midwest.

And I say a journey to the weird and wild world Jordan created is definitely still worth the visit.







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