Our visit to the House on the Rock is something we’ll never forget. In fact, we still keep talking about it months after the trip. This magical, awe-inspiring, peculiar, somewhat spooky and massively entertaining hidden gem in Wisconsin, USA is something that’s really hard to put into words or even represent correctly in photos, but we’ll do our best below…
The House on the Rock started as Alex Jordan Jr.‘s dream of a house: his own home, literally standing on a rock in Wisconsin. He started building his house sometime in the 1920’s and due to its unusual architecture and location, it started attracting visitors. The story says visitors started “knocking on his door” and asking if they could see the house and in the end, he decided to charge them a few pennies to fund the expanding of his house and eventually, the peculiar exhibitions.
In 1960 the house was officially opened to the public.
Alex Jordan Jr. is described by one of his biographers as a reclusive man who did not like or seek personal publicity. However, as the house and its exhibitions prove, he was a very creative person with an endless amount of ideas. The opening exhibition at the house provides a unique look on his life, with only a few little bits mentioned on his Wikipedia page and the page for the house itself.
We both first learned about the House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman‘s brilliant classic American Gods. There’s a long passage in the book where the attraction and a lot of the exhibitions are described down to the oddest details, so we just had to check if the place really exists… and it totally does!
In the book, the House on the Rock acts as a portal into the mind of the Gods. The quotes in this article are all from Gaiman’s novel and if you haven’t already, you should definitely read it.
Fun fact: American Gods is currently (finally!) being made into a TV show by Starz. It’s being produced by our Hannibal dad Bryan Fuller and stars some really brilliant actors including Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane and Gillian Anderson. We actually bumped into the filming crew in Toronto and can not wait to see the show! Check out the first trailer on YouTube.
“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low,
unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of
The House on the Rock attraction is located between the cities of Dodgeville and Spring Green in Wisconsin. We were so very excited to visit and thought we had a pretty good idea about what we were about to experience.
But oh, we were so wrong. Anything we ever expected was not even half of it. Not in our wildest dreams could we have predicted the vastness of the “house” that hides behind the quite ordinary looking entrance.
There are several different sections at the House on the Rock, so you can choose to see only the first part or a couple of them. However, we urge you to consider staying for all four and having at least one full day for doing the rounds. We had five hours to cover it and had to rush through the last part to make it to the gift shop before closing time.
The tour starts with an extensive exhibition with photos, drawings, sketches and blueprints, old photos and a really interesting look on Alex’s personal life. We were already amazed at this point but also very eager to see it all in real life, so we read a few of the stories, snapped photos of the rest and made our way to the actual house.
Farther in, a player piano was playing something that was intended to be Ravel’s Bolero. The place seemed to be a geometrically reconfigured 1960s bachelor pad, with open stone work, pile carpeting, and magnificently ugly mushroom-shaped stained-glass lampshades. Up a winding staircase was another room filled with knickknacks.
When Alex Jordan Jr. started building a home for himself, he wanted it to be one with the nature around it. So, inside his house you can see some very cute little nooks and corners built around various and varying rock walls, as well as trees growing right in the middle of the rooms. There’s a kitchen and living room, but they aren’t anything you’ve ever seen in other houses.
We were already quite amazed at this point (and Tiia really wanted to live in this house), but little did we know we’d only seen a small portion of the whole attraction so far.
One of Alex’s proudest and most ambitious creations is the Infinity Room built in 1985, just a few years before Alex’s passing. It’s a platform that sticks out 66 meters (218 feet) from the house without any supports underneath. The views are spectacular over the valley and you can enjoy it all through over 3,000 individual window squares. At the end of it there’s a little window on the floor too, just in case you’re brave enough to look down on the trees while the wind gently rocks the whole structure.
Up and down more stairs, and now they were in a long, long room, made of glass, that protruded, needlelike, out over the leafless black-and-white countryside hundreds of feet below them. Shadow stood and watched the snow tumble and spin.
“This is the House on the Rock?” he asked, puzzled.
“More or less. This is the Infinity Room, part of the actual house, although a late addition. But no, my young friend, we have not scratched the tiniest surface of what the house has to offer.”
The Infinity Room is actually visible from a scenic overlook down Highway 23, almost a mile away. We went there to admire the sunset, and even if the overlook itself wasn’t the most impressive one we’ve visited, it was a nice walk and we loved seeing the Infinity Room from the quite famous point of view.
Between the actual house and the collection of stuff stands the Mill House. We stopped for a few photos and some air before diving back into the madness.
Cobblestones under their feet, the darkness of a roof above their heads, jangling mechanical music in the background. They passed a glass box of broken puppets and an overgrown golden music box in a glass case. They passed the dentist’s and the drugstore (“RESTORE POTENCY! USE O’LEARY’S MAGNETICAL BELT!”). At the end of the street was a large glass box with a female mannequin inside it, dressed as a gypsy fortune-teller.
After the Mill House the visitors get to walk down the Streets of Yesterday. It reminded us a little of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter Experience in London, albeit a slightly dusty, somewhat eerie version of it. We peeked through as many windows into the displays as we could, photographed some and then spent 10 minutes trying to capture some ghostly photos of each other by using a long exposure on the camera.
All good fun. But again, we needed to move as we assumed there’s still a lot to see up ahead. We were not wrong.
Everywhere was the sound of music: jangling, awkward music, ever so slightly off the beat and out of time. Wednesday took a five-dollar bill and put it into a change machine, receiving a handful of brass-colored metal coins in return.
In our pockets we had handfuls of little tokens that they sell in the beginning of the tour. We spent a few on the music machines, but also got some predictions from a fortune teller machine. It was amazing. We’re not silly enough to actually believe in horoscopes or predictions like this, but it was delightfully entertaining to watch the doll go and then spit out a card typed in oldey-timey font.
It reminded us of Derren Brown‘s fortune teller trick all the way, though, which made it extra spooky.
The amount of toys, decorations, figurines, collectables and other little things scattered along the tour is simply staggering. If you spent a week inside the house, you probably wouldn’t have time to really look at each and every one of them. We have no idea how many items exactly the house holds, but even if we took a really wild guess, we’d probably get it very wrong.
Below you’ll see a few examples of all the magnificent items Tiia captured with her camera. It was lucky she brought along her Canon MKII + the 2.8L lens. Otherwise, many of the photos would’ve been dark and blurry due to the very low lighting in most parts of the tour.
We actually hoped they’d sold some replicas of the oddest of toys in the gift shop, because it would’ve been lovely to take home something so recognizable only to the House on the Rock.
They had walked for what felt like several miles when they came to a room called the Mikado, one wall of which was a nineteenth-century pseudo-Oriental nightmare, in which beetle-browed mechanical drummers banged cymbals and drums while staring out from their dragon-encrusted lair. Currently, they were majestically torturing Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. The Danse Macabre came to a tempestuous and discordant end.
The music machine section is incredible. None of it makes any sense, really, which adds to the experience. Seriously: who would really have some actual use for a room-sized music machine? You’ll have a hard time believing what you see and after that, making any sense of it.
That all the artificial instruments were ever so slightly out of tune added to the otherworldliness of the place.
In the beginning of the section we stopped at each and every one of the machines and wanted to hear it play, but by the end of it, we were full of the out of tune cacophony that followed us all the way through. The music machines are in separate rooms (although some of the smaller ones share spaces), but you can still hear the noise through the walls as visitors feed their endless tokens into their favorite looking ones.
More corridors, more musical machines. Shadow became aware that they were not following the path through the rooms intended for tourists, but seemed to be following a different route of Wednesday’s own devising. They were going down a slope, and Shadow, confused, wondered if they had already been that way.
It’s not actually just the amount of stuff that’s impressive about the house. Almost all of the tour takes place underground (or at least through windowless spaces), which makes it a really immersive experience. You’ll soon forget what day and time it is and will have no idea how far you’ve walked.
A mechanical machine played “Octopus’s Garden” in a room that went up for many stories, the center of which was filled entirely with a replica of a great black whalelike beast, with a life-sized replica of a boat in its vast fiberglass mouth.
At this point, we’d already adventured in the house and along the corridors for 2-3 hours. We were walking in a queue with a few other visitors and one of them asked if we’d ever been here before. “No”, we said, and she laughed. “Well, you’re in for a surprise around the next corner.”
And indeed we were. A room the height of several floors, the walls covered in glass cases and a narrow walkway going up and around it all. In the middle, a sculpture the size of a whale, with smaller creatures at the bottom of the “sea” and birds, birds hanging everywhere. The size of it took our breath away and for a moment, we couldn’t decide what exactly to take photos of as there was no way of fitting it all in a single shot.
So we just started climbing and eventually, after about a thousand models of boats from different eras, walrus tusks, boating items, sailor outfits and memorabilia from all over the world, reached the top.
Aside from the huge things, there’s also a kazillion tiny things to look at. For example, the massive doll house collection: each house is unique in its design and colors, each room in each house a perfectly decorated and often specifically themed room. The dollhouse section alone would take a full day to look at, and by this point, we were so overwhelmed that we just walked through it and took an occasional peek to one or two house at a time.
Calliope music played: a Strauss waltz, stirring and occasionally discordant. The wall as they entered was hung with antique carousel horses, hundreds of them, some in need of a lick of paint, others in need of a good dusting; above them hung dozens of winged angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.
And then there was the carousel.
After everything we’d seen so far, there was still the carousel. We knew to expect it as it’s mentioned in both American Gods and in brochures and the like, but seeing it for the first time was really magical. The carousel rotates around carrying 269 unique, most imaginative carousel animals, 182 chandeliers and over 20,000 lights. On the ceiling around and above it you can see hundreds of mannequin angels staring down back at you, with their wings spread and expressions vacant.
It’s the most magnificent thing.
“What’s it for?” asked Shadow. “I mean, okay, world’s biggest, hundreds of animals, thousands of lightbulbs, and it goes around all the time, and no one ever rides it.”
“It’s not there to be ridden, not by people,” said Wednesday. “It’s there to be admired. It’s there to be.”
By the time we reached the carousel and the additional section next to it (a room full of the most peculiar machinery, walkways, bridges and stairs), we were already running out of time. We realized we’d been inside the house for almost 5 hours at this point and Satu’s phone told us we’d walked about 4 miles that day.
Emerging back to the real world from the House on the Rock, through the peaceful gardens and sunlight, is the most surreal experience. Not as surreal as the house itself, but still a very strange feeling.
Thinking back now, a few months after our visit, we’re still amazed by it all and really want to go back some day. It doesn’t matter how some of the collections are “fake” or not really worth any money, or real antique, or whatever it is that puts any value to any man-made items. What matters is the sheer quantity of artifacts and the uniqueness of the collection.
The House on the Rock should be protected at all costs, as it’s an unparalleled testament to the creativity and uniqueness of the human mind.
You simply can not walk through it all without giving thought to our evolution and history, our faults and our strengths, the meaning of art and the dark side of materialism. You’ll enter the house amazed and amused, but you’ll probably step out feeling inspired and a little bit out of breath… and most definitely feeling a special sort of exhausted.
After our visit we really needed a night off, some good food and to possibly not look at things all night. We stayed at the House on the Rock Inn, which is located a few kilometers from the attraction itself. What we had were comfortable rooms and a few pools, including this kiddie pool with the most amazing submarine in the middle of it.
We even tried some of the slides, but soon realized we were possibly a little too old for them and spent the rest of the night just floating in the outside pool looking at the stars and enjoying the quiet.
If you ever manage to get to Wisconsin, you should not miss this experience. Just book a room at the Inn, head to the attraction the minute the doors open and prepare to be amazed!
Our visit was a part of our massive Movie Roadtrip 2016, but you don’t have to do a massive roadtrip to get there: you can simply fly to a nearby big city. From there, you’ll have multiple travel options. Rome2Rio lists some of the options, but of course, it depends where you’re coming from and how much time and money you’re willing to spend.
Renting a car is the fastest and possibly even the cheapest option, so we’d recommend looking into that if possible.
AWESOME TRAVEL IDEA: If you’re visiting from Finland (like us!), the United Kingdom or the rest of Europe, you should definitely look into Icelandair’s StopOver deals and flights to Chicago and Minneapolis. This way, you’ll not only get to experience this mad and beautiful house, you’ll get to spend a night or few in magical Iceland too.
A collaboration post: we’ve received complimentary tickets in review purposes but did not get paid to write the story. All opinions, ideas, experiences and images in this story are 100% our own.