25 years ago this month, a small airplane flew low through southern Wisconsin. As it banked over Deershelter Rock, the plane disgorged the cremated remains of Alex Jordan.
Jordan’s ashes rained down over the eccentric house he’d built on that rock—and over the outbuildings housing his vast collections of doll houses, carousel animals, pistols, mannequins, and suits of armor. The ashes rained over the Japanese garden amidst the buildings, and they rained over the gift shop.
That was in 1989, but visiting the House on the Rock today, you still feel as though you’ve stood underneath that rain of ash—as though you’ve come away covered in a dusty layer of Alex Jordan. The late Jordan’s twisted spirit still suffuses his creation: the improbably extravagant un-museum that stands as America’s Sistine Chapel of kitsch.
Anywhere in the Upper Midwest, if you tell a group of people that you’ve never been to the House on the Rock, someone—probably multiple people—will try to explain it to you. Inevitably, though, when you finally cross the House’s crooked threshold, you’ll find that the description falls short. The House on the Rock resembles many things without actually being any of those things, so when you try to comprehend it in conventional terms, you’re bound to misunderstand.
It’s called a house, and in some superficial ways that appellation fits, but the structure doesn’t function as a house and it never really did: though Jordan spent numerous nights there, especially in the early years, he always kept his permanent residence in Madison. The House also resembles a museum—full of massed quantities of objects, sorted into groups and displayed in glass cases—but in fact, it’s the contradiction of a museum, built to confound rather than inform.
Constructed in phases over the course of half a century—work began in the late 1940s and actively continued through the 1990s, as Jordan’s final designs were completed—the complex was fueled and funded by the tourist trade. Both locals and out-of-towners immediately expressed interest in the quixotic structure on what was then an isolated behemoth of a rock, and throughout the 1950s Jordan held raucous parties for hundreds of guests. In 1960, encouraged by his father—a co-owner of the property, which Jordan didn’t own outright until both of his parents died—Jordan began charging admission to the House on the Rock, officially turning his creation into a tourist attraction.
Proceeds rose and kept rising; Jordan would increase admission prices to reduce crowding, but that seemed to have little effect. As the quarters, then dollars piled up, Jordan’s personal wealth soared, and he plowed the income right back into his obsessions, building increasingly elaborate and outrageous features that in turn increased the attraction’s marquee value. An indoor Main Street, with shops and houses built to nearly life scale but all darkened and empty of life. A vast carousel, full of every animal except horses. A towering diorama of a whale and squid locked in mortal combat. Rooms full of musical instruments that robotically play themselves. Did I mention the doll houses?
Only with Jordan’s death did construction finally slow; the focus of the present owners, to whom Jordan sold the property shortly before his death, is on preserving Jordan’s creations and expanding the property into a hotel and resort. The most notable recent addition is an Alex Jordan Center, a museum of Jordania complete with introductory videos, inspirational quotes, and the tattered lawn chair where Jordan liked to rest his ass when he’d visit his workshops.
I’ve been through that museum—and the rest of the property—twice, but I finally had to read Tom Kupsh’s biography (Never Enough: The Creative Life of Alex Jordan) to get any kind of traction on who Jordan really was. All the videos, plaques, and exhibits tell a little bit about the where and the how of the House on the Rock’s construction, but they don’t get at the why. Who the hell was this guy?
Alex Jordan came from inauspicious beginnings, lived a long life that bred a lot of haters and few real friends, and died leaving only a devoted lifelong beau whom he’d never married. He was notoriously ill-tempered—given to bouts of spiteful vindictiveness—and a convicted criminal who’d tried in his youth to blackmail his friend’s boss by photographing the man in a compromising position with Jordan’s own girlfriend.
Many visitors leave the House on the Rock with the sense that Jordan was kind of pervy, and indeed he was—though more of a ribald provocateur than an active lech. By all accounts he remained faithful to his girlfriend Jennie Olson, but when he brought in dozens of mannequins to be flown above his nightmare carousel, he made sure they were all female mannequins, that they were equipped with outsized erect nipples, and that many of the mannequins’ dresses were deliberately pushed back to put those plastic tits on naked display. Jordan also instructed that among the dozens of dollhouses, one was arranged as a brothel.
God knows what went on among the House on the Rock’s gargantuan fireplaces at those Eisenhower-era parties, but there’s no question that the booze-soaked gatherings weren’t exactly what folks on the coasts would expect of the state that sent Joe McCarthy to Congress.
As Jordan grew older and wealthier, he indulged a series of fascinations by acquiring troves of objects—often very cheaply. He’d then either use each collection as the basis of a new exhibit or trade it up for something else he coveted. When he decided to ban horses from his carousel, for example, Jordan traded his merry-go-round horses for a collection of animated displays made for jewelry shop windows.
Even Kupsh struggles to praise Jordan’s aesthetic sense in anything approaching conventional terms, and few ever tried to accuse Jordan of having taste. In the end, he was a weird dude who managed to hit on a mechanism for inflating his crazy whims into a sprawling complex that seems destined to stand—and to continue attracting tourists—indefinitely.
The original house—along with its corresponding “gatehouse” built soon after—is a space like no other, inducing discomfort without seeming to have been deliberately designed to achieve that effect. Everything is tight and dark; you know you’re up high on a rock, but only occasional glimpses out angled banks of windows allow you to actually see that. As you wind your way through the claustrophobic spaces, random elements seem to pop up and then disappear: a functioning kitchen sunk into the floor, a tree growing up through the roof, a carpeted sofa just inches from a fireplace big enough to cook a human being in. (That’s the kind of turn your thoughts take in the House on the Rock.)
Everything is built in, everything is carpeted, everything is either up or down a short set of stairs from everything that in conventional architecture would be adjacent to it. There’s a pervasive Japanese influence, but one that’s been cranked through the sausage-maker of Jordan’s mind. Adding to the sense of unease are those creepy robot bands, tucked into alcoves playing the kind of red-meat popular classics Jordan loved, Bolero being the quintessential example.
The house’s capstone, built late in Jordan’s life as the fulfillment of a longstanding dream, is the Infinity Room. Cantilevered 140 feet out over Wyoming Valley, the room is built to diminish as it extends so as to create the—fairly effective—visual illusion of a covered passageway continuing on over the trees for untold miles. It’s a perfectly surreal touch, a path through the looking-glass.
The rest of the complex doesn’t actually go on forever, but it starts to feel like it does by the time you hit the second cafe built to provide sustenance for visitors’ long march through the increasingly absurd rooms that occupy barn-like warehouses—only a warehouse could accommodate the likes of a cannon big enough to fire a Chevrolet. That was actually built; Jordan’s dream of an immense fantasy steam engine was not.
By the time he got to the outbuildings, Jordan was consciously trying to disorient and overwhelm. In discussing Jordan’s “Streets of Yesteryear,” Kupsh aptly draws a comparison with the faux main street of Disneyland, designed to comfort and delight. Jordan’s darkened street has the opposite effect, and yet it fascinates because it’s so difficult to comprehend its creator’s intentions. It’s not explicitly scary—that would make it a mundane haunted house—and yet it’s deeply unsettling. Like the House itself, the Streets of Yesteryear display is somehow both cozy and suffocating, with none of the safe predictability that built the Disney empire. In the Streets of Yesteryear there’s great attention to details, yet no overarching vision regarding what those details are.
You get the impression that Jordan knew he wanted his, say, apothecary shop to be filled with a bunch of crap, and duly found crap to fill it. It’s sort of like your grandparents’ cluttered attic, but in that case there’s a sense of narrative: your grandparents didn’t set out to clutter an attic, the clutter accumulated as an aftereffect of the (more or less) deliberate, meaningful lives they were living downstairs. Jordan, by contrast, built the cluttered attic to end all cluttered attics—but he did so consciously, at enormous expense, over the entire span of his life.
Other spaces in the attraction are bizarre more in their collective effect than individually. That crazy gun collection might be something you’d find in the back of a shop in Cheyenne, and the dingy armor display might have come from a down-and-out encyclopedic museum in a forgotten corner of Europe. The dollhouses would almost be cheery if they weren’t all underlit as if by the fires of hell. The automated bands draw on the tradition of the calliope, a hulking instance of which Jordan built at the top of the central Street of Yesteryear. The rubber-skinned orchestra was probably at least slightly less terrifying before the paint started to crack and the skin began to sag and tear.
Kupsh points out that perhaps the least characteristic details added after Jordan’s death are the explanatory texts mounted near the model ships displayed on the walkway circling the humungous whale-vs.-squid diorama. Jordan wasn’t out to educate—if he had been, he wouldn’t have added bone-crunching teeth to that giant whale, which depicts no species ever actually found in nature (nor does the squid, for that matter). The doll houses? They weren’t collected, they were built. Same with many of the suits of armor, the guns, and the carousel animals. Because there’s little text in those areas of the attraction, you assume that Jordan’s quirk was simply collecting so many similar—for example—toy circus tents. You don’t realize that the perverseness of the display goes even deeper: that Jordan paid craftspeople to come to his workshop and create all those things he wanted but couldn’t cheaply buy.
Among the weird displays, two are in a class of their own—going beyond odd to truly twisted.
The space known as “the Organ Room” is so named because it’s filled with a fantastic series of pipe organ components. Why pipe organs? Originally, Jordan envisioned the room as a trip into Dante’s Inferno, with the largest organ in the world providing the soundtrack. As construction progressed, the Inferno theme receded and the organ theme became more prominent.
Jordan built the room in collaboration with Tom Every, a local collector who shared Jordan’s interest in post-consumer cast-offs. Every was even more flamboyantly eccentric than Jordan, and the men’s egos increasingly clashed. Ultimately, Jordan fired Every before the two finished building an enormous and intricate “perpetual motion clock.” Without Every, Jordan and his team couldn’t figure out how to finish the clock and to this day it remains ironically motionless, a victim of Jordan’s pique.
The Organ Room is a three-dimensional experience unlike anything else in the attraction—or anywhere else, for that matter. Inspired by the Escher-like imagined spaces of 18th century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Jordan designed an interior space laced with ramps, catwalks, and underpasses, all carpeted in blood red and crammed into close proximity with organ pipes, clock workings, a huge (and completely nonfunctional) Tesla generator, and a mammoth chandelier described as (natch) the world’s largest. To this already-crowded mix, Jordan and Every welded salvaged brew kettles and motors—and some bare-branched birch trees, because why not.
The end result is an industrial phantasmagoria, impossible to make sense of. Jordan considered the room his finest work, and indeed it represents his outlandish aesthetic even more quintessentially than the original House itself: overwhelming excesses, juxtaposed in a way that made sense only in the mind of Alex Jordan. For comparison, consider the also impressive but much more mundane giant boot on display at Red Wing Shoes, across the Minnesota border. It’s “the world’s largest boot,” yes, but it’s in a context that makes sense: a boot store. It stands alone in a front window, attracting prospective boot-buyers. Jordan wasn’t selling chandeliers, clocks, organs, or electrical generators—he just wanted to make a lot of giant stuff.
If the Organ Room is unsettling, the room you exit (through a giant devil’s head) to get there is even weirder—the pinnacle of Jordan’s work, such as it is. There are few spaces on Earth that come as close as Jordan’s overwhelming Carousel Room to capturing the random menace of a really bad dream.
To understand the impact of the House on the Rock Carousel, you have to understand Jordan’s method: reclaiming cultural detritus, then arranging and extending the collection for maximum bizarreness. The carousel itself was an antique from the early 20th century, super-powered with an electric motor and expanded in size to the point where 18 wheels were required running around the underside to support the epic disc’s weight. When the attraction is open, the carousel runs continuously, lit by 182 chandeliers—but no one is ever allowed to ride it.
On the carousel are a total of 269 animals, and none of them—a rare piece of Jordan-approved descriptive text proudly declares—are horses. What the typical visitor doesn’t realize is that many of the animals were horses, until they were transformed by Jordan’s team of sculptors into varied, often invented creatures. As Kupsh, who worked as a sculptor on the project, puts it, “the carousel figures whirling by in a blur of color do not fit into any unified thematic category but are a collage of images beyond the logic of time and space, referring as they do to an amalgam of myths and romantic tales and dreamy figures from the underworld of Alex’s imagination.”
Then you look up and see the mannequins. Hundreds of them, all female, clad in light gauzy dresses that do nothing to hide their Jordan-enhanced breasts with big red nipples. The mannequins are winged, a blank-eyed army of Victoria’s Secret angels rising to the room’s domed roof as though the Day of Reckoning had arrived and it turned out to be Black Friday. A nearby quartet of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, along with the vaguely Inferno-themed Organ Room, add to the sense that the End Times have arrived—as does the Carousel Room’s soundtrack, a loud clangor coming from a band organ equipped with heavy percussion.
The Carousel Room earned the House on the Rock a new wave of pop-culture fame when it was incorporated into Wisconsin-via-England writer Neil Gaiman’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning 2001 novel American Gods, wherein the real-life carousel was portrayed as a portal between our world and the mind of the gods. It was an apt choice: there’s something darkly otherworldly about the Carousel Room, a religious space for the creedless and crazy.
The House on the Rock is creepy. It’s tacky. It contains little of genuine historical value. Yet it fascinates me—and I’m not alone. The entire complex was built on the dollars of visitors: every dollar metastasized, expanding the attraction like an aesthetic cancer on the same Wisconsin landscape that inspired masterworks by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Stories about Wright pithily disdaining Jordan’s application for an apprenticeship are apocryphal (Jordan didn’t apply for a fellowship, and the two men never met, though Wright’s students were known to make field trips to gawk in awe at the crazy carousel), but the close proximity of Jordan’s complex to Wright’s home and studio makes for a delicious contrast. Both Wright and Jordan were determined iconoclasts, both built famed attractions, and both were basically self-important assholes. In the end, though, Wright’s buildings inspire contemplation of a higher consciousness, while Jordan’s inspire thoughts of a teeming subconscious. For his masterpiece, Wright took a name from Welsh: Taliesin, meaning “shining brow.” The more prosaic Jordan just stuck with the literal moniker “House on the Rock.” It is what it is.
Though I can’t defend Jordan as a human being and I can’t defend his work as significant in the context of the artistic canon, the House on the Rock is an essential artifact of outsider art—a truly great work of art, on its own terms. Like all great art, it touches the infinite: it illustrates the limitless possibilities of imagination, pointing the way into a dark but strangely alluring house of mirrors. It speaks to the force of Jordan’s personal vision that it’s impossible to imagine the facility expanding beyond what Jordan outlined. It would be like writing another sequel to Alice in Wonderland: you could fake it, but it would never feel right.
If Jordan had lived, it’s impressive—but also a little terrifying—to realize, the House on the Rock might have gone on expanding, attracting ever-more visitors and adding ever-more chambers of oddities to entice us. Eventually, perhaps, all of America might have become one giant House on the Rock. Sometimes it feels like that’s exactly what this country is anyway.