Disclaimer: Pictures were taken with my iPhone
When I first read American Gods, I was convinced that I had visited The House on the Rock at some point in my childhood. We lived in Wisconsin, where The House is, and went on many road-trips and stopped at many road-side attractions. But I was wrong. I am sure of that, because I have never seen anything quite as strange, tacky, and amazing as The House on the Rock.
I pulled into the long driveway and past two giant iron urns with cast-iron lizards crouched on them. The trees crowded the road and I felt a chill pull across me. Why had I driven two hours to visit here? Because of a book? Because of our show?
There was a weirdness about The House, but I was committed. I made my way to the parking lot and felt my nerves settle as I saw the welcoming center. It looked like a cozy hotel or small-time museum entrance. Nothing too weird. I bought my tickets and made my way through the Gate House.
Much of The House on the Rock has an Asian influence. Apparently, the architect of the attraction, Alex Jordan, loved Japanese and Chinese architecture. The Gate House has an idyllic coy pond with Manchu dragon statues all over the place. It is over-done and inelegant, but that is exactly what The House is going for. It has a side-show Vaudeville vibe to it, and the Gate House eases you into it.
The Alex Jordan Center is a small shrine to the creator of The House. It gives you some history about the man and his life's work. Jordan built The House as an audacious money-making scheme and built a mythology around it of exotic treasures, mystery, and American engineering. The entire place is really an explosion of his interests. Architecture. Asian culture. Naval culture. Music boxes. The House is a shrine to the things he loved, but not in any tasteful way. In an excessive, gaudy, and overwhelming way. It is like a child's dream of Christmas morning, where the collections stretch into murky caves. Knick-knacks beyond counting. You get the sense that if Mr. Jordan were still alive, The House would be bigger and the collection would swell.
Part 1: The House
The first ticketed area is The House on the Rock itself. The entire place is like a cave. The walls seem to be the same rock as the cliff The House stands on. The air is chilly. Everything feels close, and the architectural influences swing from room to room. Some are 1960's suburban America, then traditional Japanese, then 1920's constructivist architecture. Bookshelves are crammed with tomes and statues. The light is mostly natural, which leaves the ground floor dark, except for the occasional window slanting away from the bedrock. The second floor is much brighter thanks to the amazing skylights, but just as crammed with odd tables, statues, and furniture.
The Infinity Room is the main draw. There is an automatic-music-machine playing the theme to The Godfather as you approach the room. It is bare of decoration and furniture, which makes it stand out in the cluttered house. The room is an optical illusion designed to make you feel like the hallway extends forever. Actually, the walls and ceiling close in as you walk closer to the vanishing point. The room is made of wood and glass, and is an unsupported structure jutting over the cliff above the forest. Every gust of wind moves the hallway. Every step produces creaks and bounces. It completely terrified me.
Part 2 The Streets of Yesterday
The second ticketed part of The House begins at The Millhouse. This kicks off the curated collections that line the hallways of the rest of the roadside attraction. There are hallways filled with guns, dolls, tea sets, vases, and toys. One rolls into the other like a stream of consciousness from a dream. There is no logic, just an aesthetic of relentless collection. These things aren't rare, important, or even related. There is no information provided, like at a museum. Instead you wander through the gaudy halls lower and lower into a cave, and eventually you feel the tether to the normal world behind you snap. This is Alex Jordan's living dream, and you are just a tourist in it.
You enter The Streets of Yesterday. Living trees reach up to the black unlit ceiling. Everything feels heavy. You are on a cobblestone road lined with shops from a time in America that was only ever imagined. The shops are all closed. No one is around. Everything is dark and cool as a Midwest basement. A silversmith shop is across the street from an old tyme fire station. A toy shop. A tannery. It is as if some manicured section of Disneyland had cracked off into a black hole and you have re-discovered it.
You round a corner and enter The Heritage of the Sea exhibit. A room full of model boats and bric-a-brac swirls three stories up around a 200 foot statue of a giant squid fighting a whale. That isn't a joke, or flowery language. It is an enormous smack-you-in-the-face sculpture featuring a tidal wave, a lost boat, and a flock of seagulls. Surreal becomes normalized here. Everything you expect from this place drops away, and you slip completely under the froth of its weirdness.
I stopped for lunch at the eerie 1950's style hot-dog joint that followed. The next part of The House is The Music of Yesteryear, which is a labyrinth of room-sized music boxes. Each one takes a single coin. They are badly out of tune, creepy, and magnificent. There are Chinese music rooms. Italian. New Orleans. High church. All unattended and unguided. Nooks are piled with Madonnas, Santas, carved ivory tusks. Almost all of them are surely knock-offs and fakes, but The House is authentically fake. It is serious about its gaudy artifice. It is too full to contain irony and I found it impossible to feel anything but meek as I wormed from room to room.
Eventually you come to a hallway echoing with calliope music. This is why I came here. The carousel that features in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. The hallway deposits into a giant hot dome brimming with music and the clanking of gears. Hundreds of mannequin angels swirl overhead as the giant red carousel spins.
According to one of the rare information-placards there are 269 unique creatures on the carousel and none of them are horses. There is a short wooden fence around the carousel, and I rested my arms on it as I tried to count the creatures. The carousel never stops spinning, never stops singing. No one rides it. It is a prayer wheel to excess. A monument to wonder.
There is no good reason for it. It is simply there. Like The House. Its excess is its own justification.
Part 3 The Organ Room
I still had one ticket left, but I thought I must have missed one of the attendants at lunch time. This must be the climax of the tour. There could be nothing left. Sitting next to a hallway framed by a monster's open mouth, was a kindly woman waiting to punch my ticket. She waved me into the creature's throat, and down I went to the Organ Room.
This is a meandering collection of pipe-organ parts, kettle drums, and clock-work parts orbiting an enormous chandelier made of chandeliers. I was numb to awe by this point. After four hours of touring this dreamscape, this was simply reality now. Of course there was a room built to be an instrument played by an unreachable keyboard at the center of everything. This was the last thing that Alex Jordan worked on, and I would not be surprised if someone told me his ghost plays the room on the anniversary of his death.
Past the Organ Room were hallways of dollhouses, miniature circuses, suits of armor, racks and racks of guns, medieval swords and crowns. A glut of collections. There is even a full clockwork orchestra. All of that pales, impossibly, to the two-story tall doll-carousel that follows. A winding ramp curls around the confectionery tower brimming with frozen miniature girls. This is more haunting than the ceaseless, but empty, carousel I had believed was the climax. It is a simulation of childhood bliss. Soulless damsel effigies stare out from a carnival ride that is as ceaseless as their smooth porcelain skin. The only witnesses to this juvenile phantasmagoria are the missing horses from the first carousel, hanging in a frozen stampede on the wall.
I passed out of the exit, that deposits you on the other side of the Asian Gatehouse Garden and tried to rejoin the normal world. I picked through the souvenir shop, which is incongruously spare and tasteful. But what could you buy to commemorate The House? What could they possibly sell?
I left The House on the Rock and found the driveway to be completely normal. It was the highway that seemed off as I sped along. What I took from The House was a slightly canted view of the world. A little piece of Alex Jordan's dream. You can only get that by visiting the place in person. It isn't just a road-side attraction. It isn't only a shrine to excessive American self-indulgence. It is a living dream that can swallow you up if you let it.