I don’t know what to expect as I arrive at The House on the Rock in southwestern Wisconsin. The official website promises “an experience that will entertain, astound and amaze!”
At first glance, everything seems fairly standard: I pay my admission at the visitor center and head outside into a beautiful Asian Garden. Walkways set among water displays lead me into the Alex Jordan Center, where I begin to learn the story of the home’s creator and his unique passion project.
How exactly did this mysterious house come to exist in the middle of rural Wisconsin? Alex Jordan first saw Deer Shelter Rock—a large column of rock surrounded by a forest—on a family outing when he was just a child and dreamed of building a house on the overlook.
Jordan started building his dream home in the 1940s and opened it to the public in 1960, after more and more people became curious about it. What had started as a peaceful retreat eventually grew into a sprawling complex housing Jordan’s massive collection of curiosities, including antiques, animatronics, and custom artwork.
“It’s an attraction unlike anything else in the world,” says Jennifer Greene, director of operations at The House on the Rock. “Words can’t describe The House on the Rock—people try to explain it to others but you really have to see it for yourself.”
The original house is perched on the 60-foot chimney of rock and features a three-story bookcase filled with rare books, art, stained glass lamps, and much, much more. Jordan built his house in a style reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose school and studio, Taliesin, is located in nearby Spring Green.
But Jordan wasn’t an architect and he never drew up official plans; he was always creating, tearing down, and rebuilding the house both inside and out. His collections were acquired in the same, seemingly haphazard way. Of all the various objects and knick knacks on display, some are authentic antiques, while others were created especially for Jordan.
When describing the method behind his madness, Jordan once said that “one thing just sort of led to another.”
Attached to the house is the Infinity Room, a glass room that extends 218 feet over the valley—without structural support. My fear of heights has my legs shaking as I walk through the increasingly narrow room, a portion of which has a glass floor that allows you to see straight down into the wooded expanse below.
Section two of The House on the Rock includes a variety of interactive entertainment such as The Mill House, which features suits of armor, one of the world’s largest fireplaces, and bathrooms filled with trinkets of all shapes and sizes. None of it is labeled or identified in any way. “Jordan wanted guests to take it all in and come to their own conclusions,” Greene says.
Strolling along the indoor brick Streets of Yesterday, I feel as if I’ve stepped back into a simpler time. I peer into the windows of quaint, old-timey businesses, including a wood carver’s shop, barbershop, sheriff’s office, and apothecary. At the end of the street is a coin-operated animatronic drum-line band.
A small crowd gathers to watch the figures move to the music, which reverberates loudly throughout the exhibit space. Inspired by the show, I convert a few of my dollars into gold tokens and feel like a child again, sprinting between displays, depositing my coins and watching the collection spring to life.
Doll houses and a tiny big top
The Heritage of the Sea building houses a sea creature “as long as the Statue of Liberty is tall” (200 feet). As the Beatles song “Octopus’s Garden” plays in the background, I feel small in the cavernous room that also includes 200 model ships, a replica of the Titanic, and a giant animatronic octopus.
Much to my delight, the Music of Yesterday section includes more coin-operated machines, and I smile as I watch a mechanically operated symphony orchestra. The Tribute to Nostalgia features trinkets and toys from the past, vintage cars, and hearses. Above me, hot air balloons hang from the ceiling and I realize that I’m no longer certain where I am within the context of the complex.
I start walking down a dark tunnel, having no idea of what I’m about to encounter next. A red glow appears as I near the end, and I gasp out loud as the World’s Largest Indoor Carousel comes into view.
The huge, blindingly bright carousel is unique for many reasons besides its sheer size. The 35-foot-tall, 80-foot-wide, 36-ton carousel comprises 269 various animals—but not a single horse. It sparkles with more than 20,000 lights and is reportedly worth more than $4.8 million. I lose track of time as I stand in front of the spinning marvel—which would make an excellent grand finale—but at The House on the Rock, there’s always more to discover.
The third and final section of the attraction contains more of Jordan’s collections and oddities, including theater organs, carousels made especially for dolls, and spiral staircases. An entire building is dedicated to doll houses; a separate circus building houses miniature circus displays, including tiny tents, elephants, acrobats, and wooden spectators.
Just when I begin to think it might never end, I’m out the door and in a Japanese Garden, similar to the one I encountered at the beginning of my visit. The koi pond and 14-foot waterfall are meant to promote relaxation for guests as they leave the house—a palate cleanser to counteract the sensory overload from the hours spent among Jordan’s dizzying displays. I’m not sure it works.
If you go
The House on the Rock is open with COVID-19 protocols in place. Hours vary by season and tickets are required.