The House on the Rock: An Absolute Wonder
A pilgrimage is a journey of moral, and often, religious significance. Catholics travel to Lourdes, Muslims to Mecca, and Jews to the Western Wall. Where do weirdoes like me go for enlightenment? While there are many places around the world that offer esoteric insight into the strangest aspects of the human condition, in my humble opinion, none compare to the House on the Rock, located near Spring Green, Wisconsin.
I first learned about the House from one of my fellow weirdoes in 2008, and not a year has passed since then that I’ve not visited the place at least once.
One cannot properly explain the House on the Rock experience to someone who has never been. I liken it to explaining what sexual intercourse feels like to a virgin, or what a near-death experience is like to someone who’s never so-much-as broken a bone; it’s impossible. Still, one has to make the attempt.
The House stands on top of a 60-foot tall tower of sandstone called Deer Shelter Rock in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, a region of the state that was left unspoiled by the migration of glaciers during the last ice age. The Driftless Area is famous for its rolling hills and enormous rock formations, and has a unique atmosphere of power and magnificence to it.
Wisconsin author and anthologist August Derleth, who was also a close friend and “posthumous collaborator” with H.P. Lovecraft, described the Driftless Area as having “real Cthulhu power.”
To my knowledge there’s no Lovecraftian influence at the House, but it’s fascinating enough as is.
A Madison artist named Alex Jordan first became aware of Deer Shelter Rock in the 1940s, and decided to make it his family’s regular picnic area. The beauty of the place inspired Jordan so strongly that he wanted to turn it into his own private creative sanctuary. He initially erected a canvas tent, which was promptly blown away by the area’s strong winds. Jordan decided he’d need to build something much sturdier. So enthusiastic was Jordan, that he started constructing the house in 1945 before he even had permission. He didn’t sign a lease until 1953, and he eventually bought the land in 1956.
There was very little advance planning in the house’s design. He built the Japanese-inspired house room-by-room as his whims dictated, incorporating nature into his design rather than altering it. Trees that were growing on the rock were allowed to remain, with holes in the house’s windows allowing the branches to escape back into the sun.
The resources Jordan used to build the house are all local. The limestone was quarried on a neighboring farm, and much of the timber is from dismantled barns from nearby. All materials had to be lifted high up onto the rock, and Jordan did the majority of this grueling work alone, climbing up a rope ladder and hauling the materials up in baskets. When electricity finally came to the area in 1952, he installed an electric elevator.
Unhappy with the open fields that surrounded Deer Shelter Rock, Jordan and his only employee at the time, Don Martin, planted over 110,000 trees and shrubs to create the forest around the House.
By the late 1950s people began to hear about this eccentric artist that was building a house on a rock, and started asking to tour it. In 1960 Jordan reluctantly gave up his dream of a private artists’ retreat and began charging the public to tour the House so he could continue construction, as he continually dreamed up new ideas for the house, including a needle-like structure called “The Infinity Room,” which precariously hangs some 218 feet out over the valley and 156 feet above the forest floor. Nearly all of the income the House generated was used to build more; the House basically became a self-sustaining organism, with Jordan as the brain and heart of the creature.
Jordan had so many ideas that one structure simply wouldn’t be enough. He built an equally odd “Gatehouse,” and several cavernous warehouses around the House, that he filled with odd, borderline-demented exhibits; some examples include the World’s Largest Carousel with no Horses Heads (many of the fantasy creatures on the marvel were designed by Jordan), a room filled with enormous pipe organs, which was originally intended to be an exhibit based on Dante’s Inferno—Jordan decided against the “Inferno” room but kept many of its elements, including a huge entrance shaped like a devil’s gaping maw; statues of a 200-foot high whale battling a 200-foot high octopus; frightening sculptures of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse flying high above duel doll carousels and a life-sized interpretation of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring character Old Man Willow; and a plethora of seemingly random collections including mechanical jewelry store displays, circus memorabilia, doll houses, guns, suits of armor, replicas of the Crown Jewels, and discordant coin-operated music machines (the most intricate of which were designed by Jordan).
Jordan died in 1989, a year after selling the House to friend and business associate Art Donaldson, who completed many of Jordan’s unfinished projects, and bought up nearby properties to build an Inn, as well as a Resort. One of the most recent additions to the House is “The Alex Jordan Center,” a museum of sorts dedicated to Jordan, which is where much of my information was gathered.
While the house never achieved its initial goal of being a secluded retreat where artists could hide away and create, it became something much more special; something so incomprehensible that one must experience it to understand it, and many, like myself, considered it an absolute wonder.
Neil Gaiman, one of literature’s most acclaimed living authors, successfully mythologized the House in his Hugo Award-winning 2001 Americana-Fantasy novel, “American Gods.” To be overly simplistic, in “American Gods,” Gaiman describes “roadside attractions” like the House as true locations of power, doorways into the invisible world, if you will.
The House plays a very important part of the story, in which the book’s protagonists use the World’s Largest Carousel to travel into another plane of existence. The book’s publishers’ allegedly found many of Gaiman’s descriptions of the House so bizarre that they were removed, being deemed too unbelievable. The novel is about manifestations of old-world deities secretly living in the U.S., while engaged in a life-or-death struggle against a new breed of technological divinities, if that helps you understand the House’s rating on the “unbelievability meter.”
To fend off accusations of hyperbole, I won’t deny that a large number of House patrons are merely tourists who want to see something “crazy.” I’ve seen many upper-middle class gawkers power-walk through the place scratching their heads and cracking-wise, barely taking time to take in the lovingly-crafted layers of peculiarity that make up the attraction. But, for a certain minority of the population, we spend hours at the House trying to decipher the meaning of it all, to figure out what could inspire such a labyrinthine wonder; in my own case, often resulting in self-inflicted migraines.
While I don’t consider the House to have “Cthulhu power,” or be a gateway into another dimension, I certainly appreciate Gaiman’s interpretation of what the House is. I honestly do consider my yearly visit to the House as a pilgrimage. Every time I visit, I absorb the mystery, wonder, and creativity of it all, while I try and understand the deeper workings of life, and the strangeness of being human.
Oh yeah, it’s supposed to be haunted by Jordan’s spirit, too, but who cares about something as mundane as a ghost, when you’ve got the House on the Rock to try to comprehend?