Wisconsin is home to plenty of oddities. This one is definitely the strangest. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
“It’s better than ‘It’s a Small World.’”
“It’s the weirdest place I’ve ever been.”
Both of those statements were true. We had been inside the House on the Rock for more than an hour, and all of our senses were entirely overwhelmed.
Part of me thinks it isunfair to explain what happens inside the House on the Rock, a tourist attraction in Iowa County Wisconsin about an hour outside of Madison. Allowing the attraction to surprise, delight, and terrify you will almost certainly enhance your own experience. But I truly believe that it doesn’t matter what I write here; mere words will fail to describe it.
The Infinity Room extends 218 feet out over the valley and has 3,264 windows for walls. (Photo: House on the Rock)
TripAdvisor reviews certainly won’t help you:
“A fine example of the line between genius and mad man.”
“Dark, dungeon feel, confining, yukky smells. Music was creepy.”
“Perfect family outing!”
If you’re a member of a certain generation (mine) or a fan of fantasy literature, the House will be slightly familiar to you. It inspired the writer Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods.” In the book the house becomes a portal into another reality.
Gaiman once said, “I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable … it’s a monument to kitsch and wonder and madness and uncertainty.”
10,000 Maniacs filmed the elaborate music video for the 1997 song and anthem of my teenaged angst “More Than This” in the carnival-like atmosphere.
The author just catching a ride on one of the restored carousel figures. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
The elevator pitch is that the House on the Rock is an artist’s refuge perched on the top of Deer Shelter Rock, constructed by the architect, inventor, and collector Alex Jordan.
The more complicated version is that going through this grab bag of architectural wonder, amusement attraction, and museum oddities is like stepping inside the maze-like mind of a madman. A genius, but a madman. There is no cohesion to it. It’s as if Jordan brought all of his obsessions to one place, and the only thing that links them is him. Make no mistake, it is intense to live entirely in someone else’s head.
There are more mirrors than a fun house. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
To the casual observer, approaching the House on the Rock is much like arriving at any state or national park. The entrance to the property is a simple wooden building with a gift shop up front selling “House on the Rock” T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, and snow globes. The only indications that this place is something beyond the typical roadside attraction are the giant flower urns lining the driveway. They’re covered in dragons and demons straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
When you enter, you are given the choice of purchasing the “the ultimate tour,” a three- to three-and-a-half-hour self-guided tour through the multiple realms of the property, or you can opt for simply entering the actual “House on the Rock” — but that would be akin to visiting Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and then only gazing upon Cinderella’s Castle.
The House is reminiscent of a low-ceilinged bordello meets ‘70s martini lounge and is divided into three sections. The real highlight here is the Infinity Room, which seemingly stretches into infinity over the rock and out over the treetops of the Wisconsin Plains.
Guards explained that some visitors can’t make it to the end of the Infinity Room without turning back in fear. (Photos: Jo Piazza)
Section two consists of “Streets of Yesterday,” an eerie tour through 19th century America, or perhaps Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A. with some macabre twists.
Throughout the entire property are Jordan’s self-playing orchestras, cases of historical memorabilia, and collections of dolls, marionettes, and Fabergé eggs. Ancient, but still functional, carnival games wait around every corner. Even the bathrooms house galleries of glass bottles, dolls, or Christmas decorations.
Just one of the very well decorated women’s rest rooms. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
There is the hall celebrating the “Heritage of the Sea.” Are you a fan of the giant blue whale in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History? Then you will love the 200-foot model of a be-fanged whale doing battle with a squid, its gaping jaw swallowing a capsized rowboat.
There is nothing friendly about this whale. Visitors climb ramps three stories high to peer into its mouth. (Photo: House on the Rock)
The best is saved for last. Section three contains the largest carousel in the world, which consists of 269 handcrafted carousel animals (none of them a horse), 20,000 lights, and 182 chandeliers.
In many respects, the world’s largest carousel is a sort of heaven for carousels of years past. Pieces found their way here from all over the world, often broken and battered and in a state of seeming disrepair. Many had been rotting away in barns. Now they are a part of one of the grandest carousels in existence.
We thought we could speed through the house, snap some Instagram photos, gape at the carousel, and be back on the road in time to hit South Dakota by dark. But once you enter section one, you’re in a dimly lit Minotaur’s maze, and you will not be able to emerge for several hours.
After the carousel we needed to leave. “How do we get out?” we panted to the guard, a local retiree. He casually pointed up a half-hidden stairway. It seems a lot of people try to cut out after the carousel. What is left may be appealing to some, but to me it was the stuff nightmares are made of — the dollhouse room and the doll carousel room.
What’s even stranger than something this bizarre appearing on a rural road in conservative rural Wisconsin is that it has yet to be overtaken by any kind of hipster irony. The House on the Rock is as straightforward, honest, and without guile as the rest of the state — just a little stranger.
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”