House on the Rock

Trip Start Mar 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 14, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Wisconsin
Sunday, September 18, 2011

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I went to the House on the Rock today. It wasn't at all what I expected. I had read something about it that said it was built by someone who thought they were a better architect than Frank Lloyd Wright, who's house was just a few miles away, and who built the house to prove it. Well, doing a little research after my visit I found that someone claimed it was built due to a feud with Wright but there is no proof to back up the claim. The real reason it was built is unknown.

So instead of the House on the Rock being an architectural landmark I found that it's more a piece of outsider art heavy on kitsch that attracts more visitors than any other tourist attraction in Wisconsin.

The house was built by Alex Jordan, Jr. He started building in 1945 and continued building until his death in 1989. Building is still being done by a former associate to whom Jordan sold the house in 1988.

The original building was a house sited on top of Deer Shelter Rock, a 60-foot tall column of rock overlooking the Wyoming Valley. Two other buildings were added nearby.  The house got some local attention and Jordan decided to start charging people to see it. The stream of visitors continued to grow and Jordan used the income to continue building. You get to see the insides of the first three buildings built on the site but very little of the exteriors are visible from anywhere on the tour, which is mostly inside.

Jordan was also a collector. He collected dolls, guns, armor, crown jewels, carriages, airplanes, nautical artifacts, circus memorabilia, Tiffany-style lamps, scrimshaw and carved ivory, carousel animals, musical instruments and mechanical music machines. He started adding rooms to house his collections. When he was interested in something he'd also start making items of his own so now, when you're looking at something in the house, you have no idea whether it's an authentic antique or a fake that Jordan bought, commissioned or made himself. I've read that at one time many of the fakes were labeled as real but someone sued. The solution Jordan chose was to remove the signs and let people guess.

The collections aren't displayed as they'd be displayed in a museum where everything is labeled and neatly categorized. As I mentioned, at the House on the Rock little is labeled. Things are not neatly categorized either. A single room normally will hold a wide range of things. For instance, the Organ Room does contain a few organs but it also holds a couple giant clocks, lots of old brewing equipment, some old industrial equipment that I couldn't identify and a music machine or two. The rooms are almost uniformly poorly lit so it's hard to see what you're looking at.

The music machines are sort of like player pianos run amok. The instruments are often being held by a mannequin or doll of some sort and have mechanisms added to play the instrument. Well, that's what you're supposed to believe, anyway.   Apparently, it's difficult to make a player violin or player clarinet so an organ is used instead. Like so much here, you're never sure what's real and what isn't.  You're given four tokens with your ticket and more can be purchased. The tokens are used to get the music machines to play. As you move through the rooms there's a steady stream of music coming from nearby music machines.

While the House on the Rock wasn't the architectural gem I was expecting, I did enjoy my visit.
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