There’s a 200-foot sculpture of a sea monster in one of the rooms, and it’s far from the strangest thing in the house.
To reach the House on the Rock—a roadside attraction in southwestern Wisconsin perched atop a 60-foot tall rock—you must venture up a winding driveway half a mile long, past gigantic urns and sculptures of dragons stationed like sentries along the road. Once you finally crest the top of the hill, you’ll see the house itself, which is less of a “house,” in the traditional sense of the word than a massive, multi-storied cliffside complex (with lots of blacked-out windows) surrounded by man-made waterfalls and Japanese gardens. The exterior and the grounds are a little strange, to say the least, but they’re nothing compared to what’s inside: a motley collection of real and fake antiquities–thousands upon thousands of them–arranged in vast, dimly lit rooms decorated to look like exhibitions nicked from some sort of nightmarish, post-apocalyptic museum.
Looking for a reason to visit? We’ve got 15 for you, in ascending order of weirdness.
The Original House
Most people wouldn’t want to build a house on top of a huge column of rock. But Alex Jordan wasn’t like most people. The eccentric architect was obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived just a few miles away for much of his life, in a Spring Green estate called Taliesin. And so when Jordan began building The House on the Rock in 1945, he consciously imitated his idol’s distinct architectural style. The original 14-room home is a lot less weird than any of the additions Jordan made to it later, but the ceilings are low, the hallways are narrow, and the fireplaces are alarming large.
Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Wisconsin Guide for helpful tips on where to stay and what to do in the Dairy State.
Jordan began building the house at a time when wall-to-wall carpeting was considered a luxury. Maybe that explains why so much of the place is covered in it. The floors, of course, but also the walls and ceilings and some of the furniture (there’s a very shaggy, very uninviting sofa in one of the rooms). Even the ornate wood molding that frames some of the exhibits is, inexplicably, carpeted. Stare too long at it and you’ll start to feel like you’re trapped inside a Muppet’s fever dream.
The Fake Treasure
One of the most confounding things about the house has got to be its creator’s gleeful refusal to separate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality. Jordan spent a not-so-small fortune amassing bona fide antiques, like a 19th-century Regina Sublima coin-operated music box, but he also hired local artists to make shoddy imitations of items he couldn’t or didn’t want to buy, and it’s hard to tell how much of his collection is authentic. For the record: many of the weapons on display in the galleries are real, but the Tiffany lamps, suits of armor, and crown jewels aren’t.
INSIDER TIPMake sure you budget enough time for your visit to the house. It takes most visitors three or four hours to make it through the entirety of the maze-like complex.
The Infinity Room
The 218-foot-long infinity room—which Jordan completed in 1985, a few years before his death—is legitimately impressive. Counterbalanced by many tons of concrete, it extends 140 feet beyond any supporting structure and 15 stories above the rolling hills and valleys below it. And yes, its 3,264 windows make for a truly stunning selfie backdrop.
“Tribute to Nostalgia”
The house is divided into three sections, and those sections are subdivided into strange themed rooms and exhibits. The seemingly antique automobiles and hot air balloons in this one were actually fabricated by Jordan and his crew in the 1990s, but they still look pretty cool (especially the “armored” car covered in hundreds of blue and white tiles).
INSIDER TIPNeed a break? You can rest your feet at a subterranean restaurant in this section. Though the decor is, unsurprisingly, a lot more interesting than the food—vintage posters of Carter the Great hang on the walls, breathlessly touting the magician’s ability to cheat death, beat the devil and perform miraculous on-stage surgeries.
“The Spirit of Aviation”
You can tell that this exhibit opened after Jordan died—there aren’t any monsters, music boxes, or half-clothed mannequins on display. There are a lot of model airplanes, though, painted in cheerful, childlike colors. And underneath them you’ll see framed newspaper clippings of articles about plane crashes, with headlines like “Worst U.S. crash; 272 die at O’Hare” and “Hindenburg Explodes, 34 Die.” The juxtaposition is jarring, to say the least.
“The Heritage of the Sea”
This nautical exhibit resembles something you’d see in a natural history museum. Except that museum collections are meant to educate, and this one only mystifies. It’s unclear whether the model ships on display throughout are re-creations of real-world ships or fanciful renderings. And the 200-foot-long sea monster that dominates the vast space looks a bit like a blue whale, but it’s shown gnashing a small schooner between its sharp teeth (blue whales aren’t known to eat people, and they definitely don’t have fangs).
“The Streets of Yesterday”
Visitors who expect this rendition of a 19th-century town to look anything like Disneyland’s iconic Main Street are bound to be disappointed. The nearly life-sized shops and houses that line the red brick road are dimly lit and devoid of life, and the goods for sale in the stores are more sinister than sweet. Take, for example, the viscous tinctures that line the shelves of the apothecary, or the glass eyes resting on the lid of a velvet-lined box.
INSIDER TIPYou’ll see animatronic fortune tellers, coin-operated puppet shows, and machines that claim to measure the strength of your hand-shake here. If you decide to buy tokens to feed the machines, save some for the self-playing instrument displays further into the house.
“Music of Yesterday”
Walking through the House on the Rock is a lot like walking around the inside of a David Lynch movie. It’s surreal, sometimes disturbing—though that doesn’t stop families with young kids from visiting on their way to or from the Wisconsin Dells—and entirely deserving of its R-rating. This section, though, is actually kind of child-friendly. It’s filled with hundreds of self-playing musical instruments arranged in elaborate vignettes. The Blue Room, a fin-de-siècle salon filled with more than a dozen gilded mirrors and at least as many automated instruments, are especially impressive.
The Demonic Doorway
Everyone who visits the House on the Rock talks about the carousel, and for good reason—it looks like a literal manifestation of a child’s nightmare. But there’s a lot of other weird stuff in the basement where it’s located, like this doorway. It’s shaped like a monster’s gaping, fanged maw, and you’ll have to walk through it to reach the third and final section of the house.
Jordan had a thing for music machines and mannequins. So it makes sense that he’d want to combine the two, in the form of a mechanized orchestra. No less than three dozen robotic, rubber-skinned musicians, wearing neatly pressed tuxedos or evening gowns, make up this strange orchestra. Drop two tokens in the slot beside them, and you’ll see them roar to life. The music you’ll hear is actually coming from a sound system nearby, though, not the instruments themselves.
The Doll House Room
If you’ve seen any of the Chucky movies, you know that dolls can be more creepy than cute. Here you’ll find thousands of Thumbelina-sized dolls, sprawled across tiny sofas, sitting at tiny tables, standing on tiny lawns, staring at you through tiny, expressionless eyes. You’ll also find larger dolls looming over those lawns, like a race of pouting, porcelain-skinned giants bent on destroying their smaller brethren. And they’re all lit from below, by cool fluorescent lights casting strange shadows on their faces.
INSIDER TIPTo really ratchet up the weirdness of your experience here, drop a token into the giant wooden box near the entrance of the exhibit. It’ll emit a sort of prolonged mechanical wail, for no discernable reason whatsoever.
The Organ Room
Fortunately this room is devoted to organs of the musical, rather than anatomical, variety. But it’s still pretty disturbing, in part because the cavernous space is lit by clusters of spherical red lights that glow like insect eyes, and in part because it’s filled with monstrously sized organ pipes, towering displays of steel drums and cannons, and spiral staircases that lead nowhere. Unsurprisingly, Jordan cited Dante’s Inferno as his initial source of inspiration.
INSIDER TIPJordan hired outsider artist Tom Every (a.k.a Dr. Evermor) to construct many of the more outlandish sculptural components on view in the Organ Room, including a perpetual motion machine that remains, ironically, motionless. You can see more of Every’s work, including the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture, at Dr. Evermor’s Park (about 35 miles northeast of Spring Green).
When you walk into the Carousel Room, be sure to look up. You’ll see mannequins. Hundreds of winged mannequins—many of them topless—dangling from the ceiling like an army of sexy-scary Victoria’s Secret angels. Look closer, and you’ll see that Jordan had them outfitted with unusually large, pink nipples (most of the house is poorly lit, but the 20,000 lights strung up around the carousel illuminate both the mannequins and their nipples pretty clearly). The effect is, in a word, weird.
No trip to The House on the Rock is complete without a visit to the world’s largest, and creepiest, carousel. A staggering 269 animals—some real, some fantastical—cavort atop the mechanized monstrosity, lit from above by 182 chandeliers and powered from below by 18 wheels whirring continuously while the house is open. No wonder it took 10 years to plan and build.
The carousel features prominently in Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novel, American Gods (and will appear in the second season of the television adaption, slated to come out early next year). According to Gaiman, he had to work to tone down the weirdness of the carousel, and the rest of the house, while writing the book. You know, to make it more believable.