Where Fictional Gods Reside: The House on the Rock

Neil Gaiman by 8 Eyes Photography

Neil Gaiman by 8 Eyes Photography

The House on the Rock is a real place about an hour west of Madison Wi, that I write about in American Gods, and I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable. – Neil Gaiman

If the author of the Sandman comics, Coraline, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere, and several other dark fantasy/horror works believes that a place needs to be “toned down” to be believable, the creator of that place must be doing something right. The House on the Rock, which provides the inspiration for one of the settings in Gaiman’s novel American Gods, is a regional Wisconsin tourist attraction that opened in 1959 and is still operating today. Even more interesting than a house that boasts attractions like a room designed to look like it stretches to infinity, a 200 foot sculpture of a whale and giant squid fighting to the death, and the world’s largest indoor carousel, is the story of its creator.

Giant Squid Versus Whale

Giant Squid Versus Whale

Designed by Alex Jordan Jr., the House on the Rock is said to draw more visitors every year than any other spot in the state. That claim, unlike some of the ones made by Jordan during his lifetime, may indeed be true. Described by one biographer as “a shadowy figure as reclusive as the late multi-millionaire Howard Hughes” (Balousek, 1990), Jordan did not seek attention for himself. All of his efforts went to creating and promoting The House on the Rock, the eccentric architectural and entertainment attraction that became his life’s work.

The sheer abundance of objects and the massive scope of the design would indeed have taken a lifetime to collect and create. The original “house” built in a modernist design was constructed on the top of a column of rock and additions and other buildings have been added over the years. Today the complex covers over 200 acres.

Mechanical Music 2

Upon arrival a symphony of mechanical instruments serenades visitors as they travel through collections of Japanese ornaments and Catholic iconography. This style of building perhaps inspired Jordan’s claim of a feud with Frank Lloyd Wright. Jordan had apparently gone to Taliesin (a house designed by Wright) to show the famous architect the plans for the original building of House of the Rock. According to the story, Wright dismissed the design and told Jordan that he wouldn’t hire him to design a chicken coop. However, this tale is just that—something dreamed up by Jordan. He was not averse to “stretching the truth” about the house or his acquisitions to make them more interesting to the general public. Thus his feud with Wright became the stuff of legends, even though in reality the two never met.

Jordon made up other stories as well, particularly about the authenticity of his collection. The Tiffany Lamps, for example, are a major attraction that he had boasted about for years. An entire room was created with a special blue glass in the windows so that the lamps could be seen day or night in all of their glory. Yet the lamps are reproductions made by the Illinois firm of Bauer and Coble and not by the Tiffany Company.  The truth finally came out about the lamps in the late 1970s–approximately 20 years after they first went on public display.

Dolls

What is most surprising is that Jordon felt the need to exaggerate. The house itself is amazing and contains an overwhelming variety of collections. In one section an entire early Twentieth century American town has been recreated. Called “The Streets of Yesterday,” the houses, stores, and other buildings are completely furnished and populated with hundreds of manikins dressed in period-appropriate fashion. When I toured The House on the Rock as a child many years ago, visitors were allowed to explore areas that today are blocked off behind glass.  We were invited by the tour guide to play with many of the “toys” that are now consigned to glass cases.  Such is the price of success. Today it takes special permission for someone to ride the carousel, as evidence by the photo of Neil Gaiman at the publication celebration for American Gods held at The House on the Rock.* Still, there are more than enough interactive elements to keep a visitor entertained.

Western

As a collector, Jordan cornered the market on the word “eclectic.”  Whether you like steampunk, science fiction, horror, fantasy, dark fantasy, the Old West, Japanese gardens, dolls, Victorian fashion, full size airplanes and models, antiques, steam-powered cars, weapons, music played by mechanical devices, or if you are enamored of innovative building design, The House on the Rock will have something to capture your interest. It is well worth a visit.

*I realized when writing this article that I had something in common with Neil Gaiman. Both of us have ridden the largest carousel in the world!

References

Gaiman, N. (2010). Something really cool: Read this one. NeilGaiman.com. Retrieved from http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2010/01/something-really-cool-read-this-one.html#sthash.APy9wqGi.dpuf

Balousek, M. (1990). House of Alex: A true story of architecture and art; greed, deception and blackmail. Oregon, WI: Waubesa Press.


 

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