Bizarro Field Trip with Eric Hendrixson: Pt II
Missed Part One? Never fear! Click HERE to catch up!
by Eric Hendrixson
The House on the Rock is an architectural anomaly, a spectacle, an autobiography in clutter, and a museum of hoarding. It holds vast, unrelated collections of of artifacts, some of them authentic. It is said to be the most popular tourist destination in Wisconsin.
As you enter, there is a small museum dedicated to the man who made this happen: Alex Jordan, Jr. A college dropout, Mr. Jordan enjoyed picnicking on Deer Shelter Rock, a towering rock formation near Spring Green, taking a hibachi and a gallon of Tom Collins with him on each trip. When challenged by the land owner, he leased the area for his picnics, eventually purchasing the rock.
After building a platform on the rock, he decided to build a Japanese-style house on it. He decided this having never been to Japan, probably never having seen a Japanese house. The first section of the self-guided tour is through the home he built without a blueprint or any architectural experience. The house is like something a Frank Loyd Wright impersonator would have designed during a drunken weekend, the floor plan resembling a cavern more than a house. While Johnson was well over six feet tall, the ceilings would be low for hobbit hole. The building resembles a stone treehouse that has grown wild. Live trees grow through the walls. It is decorated with dolls, oriental artifacts, kitchenware, stained glass, and self-playing instruments, including a banjo, tambourines, and a player piano that plays Aerosmith’s Dream On slightly out of tune.
The house climaxes with the Infinity Room, a tapering, unsupported structure that hangs over the valley like a wood and glass diving board in a creaking, vertigo-triggering homage to insane design. The house is only the first section of the tour. The second and third sections are larger buildings dedicated to this local eccentric’s collections.
The second section starts with a mill house, complete with a working waterwheel that turns only itself. The visitor then sees a number of glass cases, showcasing a collection of completely unconnected items, including a flintlock rifle with three locks but only one barrel, massive stores of colored glassware, locally-produced medieval armor and weapons, self-playing musical instruments, and animatronic displays. Because the exhibits are not labeled, identified, justified, or explained, they resemble a bunch of stuff more than a curated museum.
The tour continues through a replica old-timey Main Street—complete with ridiculously complete collections of the kinds of items each business on the street would have, coin operated nickelodeons, and animatronic fortune tellers. The dim lighting gives a twilight effect throughout the tour.
After a coin-operated Sousa band, the tour leads to a collection of maritime artifacts, presumably in honor of Wisconsin’s seafaring tradition. In a corridor off this massive room, there are collections of spittoons and cigarette lighters, from old pipe lighters and Zippos to disposable Bics. The room’s centerpiece is a massive sculpture of a toothed whale, larger than the Statue of Liberty, fighting a colossal squid while it holds a lifeboat in its mouth. This takes up the majority of the five-story building, while sailing artifacts and model boats line the walls. From there, the visitor wanders through rooms of self-playing instruments, cars, carriages, Rube Goldberg machines, and random items with no sense of reason or organization. It becomes clear. This is not a museum. This is madness.
I dropped a coin into a slot, and a robotic mikado’s automated eyebrows wagged at me while he played the drums. Other Japanese characters played their instruments while the geisha robots fanned themselves off to the sides. We left the hall and walked toward the sound of carnival music.
The second section ends with a massive carousel, which turns to music played by automatic timpani and bells. There is not a single horse on the carousel. Instead, there are unicorns, an Andrew Jackson centaur, and chimeras of every description. Hanging angels revolve from the ceiling as the music loops and the carousel revolves, flashing fantastic and nightmarish creatures past. There are too many things to see. There is too much light, motion, sound, and batshit insanity. A man could lose his mind in this room. We walked through the cat’s mouth into the third section of the tour.
The Organ Room is where the tour takes on its full bizarro form. The room is a dimly-lit, Burtonesque universe of dials, jugs, copper tubing, power coils, and towers of cheese tubs. Tree branches grow through clockwork cogs. Saints, sleighs, and switches are carefully yet chaotically arranged in the huge, burgundy room. A pipe organ plays The Impossible Dream just slowly enough and just far enough out of tune to make the song uncanny and difficult to place. A giant wooden clockface leans against the wall, and boards of toggles sit next to brass boilers that are arranged three stories high toward the ceiling. I can see panels of gauges, measuring nothing. This is the third act, in which the collection’s madness and collector’s madness are on full display.
What is unnerving about the Organ Room is not like the random collections of unconnected items or the excess of the four-story whale fighting the giant squid or the massive carousel. At the same time, it is not the clockwork order of the no-man bands or the uncanniness of the twilight main street. The Organ Room is disturbing in its sense of purpose. Jordan arranged every item in this room deliberately. The function and the logic behind this space is undeniable, but it is an alien logic toward an inconceivable purpose, like the sermon of a subway schizophrenic given physical form. But it is different here. The rantings of a madman on the street or on public transportation are external, and you can opt out. The Organ Room is different. You chose to be here; you paid for it. You are in some way responsible for it. All of these saints and broken machines are somehow your fault, and because you cannot understand them, you cannot understand your complicity.
Past this room, there is a massive collection of circus models. There is another huge room with an animatronic orchestra and automated devices advertising a jewelry shop that probably closed decades ago. It is somehow within the logic of this museum that exhibits overlap and repeat themselves, with duplicate items scattered throughout, and even that creates a feeling of wonder. The visitor has to wonder how many miniature electric Ferris wheels with wooden parakeets on them the collector thought he would need. While most museums don’t even have one Hope Diamond, the House on the Rock has two. There is a massive collection of dolls and dollhouses. The cases are lit only by footlights, which distort and reshape the dolls’ faces. It occurs to me, looking at these empty and bent faces, that dolls seldom smile, but when they do, it’s creepy as hell.
This is followed by a gallery of medieval weapons and armor, the Crown Jewels, and firearms ranging from the real to the impossible. This all leads to the carousel of dolls, which rises three stories from innocent baby dolls near the floor to nude dancing girls and demon-headed succubi near the ceiling. The carousel of dolls is the ultimate testament to insanity and the end of the tour. It is well-placed. After the carousel of dolls, you don’t want to see any more. We walked out of the place, not talking much. We didn’t turn on the GPS. We just drove the fastest way to the highway.
Most first-time readers of Eric Hendrixson reject his writing. His strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. His prose is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate. During almost 4 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will read Eric Hendrixson.During the lifetime of our founder, Carlton Mellick was apt to say, ‘Eric Hendrixson is produced for that unique group of readers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits.’