I have determined that there are two types of people in Wisconsin: people that aggressively tell you that you absolutely must go to House on the Rock, and people like me who are new to the state or moved here or are visiting or for whatever reason just never made it there.
It took me six years of living here, but thanks to an impromptu Sunday afternoon road trip, I ended up at one of Wisconsin’s most treasured locations. And it was… something else.
So here’s the thing about House on the Rock: it is tacky. I need you to know that going in. Like, really tacky. But like South of the Border in South Carolina (one assumes, anyway) it’s intentionally tacky. See, House on the Rock is a fairly impressive feat of architecture constructed way back in 1959 by Alex Jordan, Jr. who, according to legend, really just wanted to piss off Frank Lloyd Wright. Seriously. So the story goes, Jordan loved Frank Lloyd Wright, seriously admired the guy, and when Wright told Jordan that he would never be a serious architect he drove down the road from the dude’s house and built a shrine to all things ridiculous.
That’s just one story, of course, and there have been disagreements as to exactly how true it is, but we do know two things for certain:
1. Alex Jordan, Jr was a reasonably talented architect, even if his taste can certainly be brought into question.
2. If he wanted to create something that would be an affront to everything Frank Lloyd Wright stood for, he absolutely one hundred percent succeeded, no questions asked.
The House on the Rock
From the outside, the House on the Rock actually looks kind of cool. You have a nice drive up, you park in the woods, you wander up to an entrance crafted with a hint of Japanese architecture and you set off to visit one of three sections: the main house, the attraction itself, and the collections. All told, it takes about three hours to see everything there is to see and you’re bound to leave more confused than you were when you arrived. To get to everything you’re taken around a Japanese zen garden, which you get to experience at its fullest at the end of the exhibit. All told, it’s a nice palate cleanser from everything else you’re about to see or have just seen. There’s also a pretty interesting museum at the beginning as well, but we skipped most of it so that we could just experience the building as it was.
The house itself is dated and looks as if the carpet has never been replaced since the ’60s, but it has a unique layout that lets you wander through narrow hallways, around deep-inset living rooms decorated with stone, dark wood, self playing instruments and suits of armor. The doorways are crazy short, though; so if you’re someone (or with someone) over about 5’5″, be prepared to duck. This is probably the fastest section, but if you’re into weird houses it’s probably going to be your favorite part. I loved imagining what it might have been like to actually live there, and the Infinity Room features a pretty neat little optical illusion paired with a phenomenal view of the surrounding area.
As for the attraction and the collections, I hesitate to divulge too much (which is also why my pictures here are few. Sorry!) I went in not knowing very much at all about what I was about to witness, and I think it added to the experience. As you wander through the oddly shaped halls of the main attraction itself you start to wonder if what you’re experiencing is a work of genius, the work of a madman, or perhaps some combination of both. Most notable is possibly the Streets of Yesterday, which basically feels like it was constructed directly out of Bioshock: Infinite. Actually, if you’re a Bioshock fan in general, you should probably go out of your way to come here. I had just beat the game right before our trip and was more amused than I probably should have been at all the coin powered machines, including a salts-vendor-esque Uncle Sam. He was my favorite.
From room after room of eclectic designs, self playing instruments, and a mix of artifacts so wildly varied that you’re never quite sure what is real and what is fake (though it’s clear that quite a bit of it is reproduction… and in fact, they are pretty open about how many replicas they create in house.) Half of it is fascinating, the other half seems to play on every possible anxiety a person could have, all of it culminating in the fascinating carousel room you meet about halfway through, which contains the world’s largest carousel. The strangeness is especially clear when you get to the collections, which can be best described as a labyrinth of knick knacks that never seems to end. There are medieval relics. Circus relics. More circus relics. Dolls. More dolls. Even more dolls. At some point, it becomes a test of willpower and endurance to make it to the finish line.
Eventually you do make it to the end, and start to wonder what the hell you just did for the last few hours.
All told though, really, the experience is amazing. Neil Gaiman had it right in American Gods: House on the Rock is really the ultimate roadside attraction to end all roadside attractions, and though it comes with a hefty price tag and an afternoon of going what the hell was that? I immediately left making a list of all the people I needed to take there so that they could experience it too.
The Day Trip
Spring Green, Wisconsin is a decent day trip for anyone in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, or Minnesota, depending on how far you would like to travel. Times listed below are for one way, so remember to double it if you’re looking to return the same day:
From Madison, WI: Approx. 1 hour
From Milwaukee, WI: Approx. 2.25 hours
From Dubuque, IA: Approx. 1 hour
From Chicago, IL: Approx. 3.5 hours
From Minneapolis, MN: Approx. 4.5 hours
Just remember that House on the Rock alone will take about 3 hours of your day if you choose to see all of the sections (and you should really see all of the sections.)
While you’re in Spring Green, there are a number of other attractions such as Taliesin (an actual Frank Lloyd Wright creation,) and the American Players Theatre, which has some of the absolute best outdoor Shakespeare performances I have seen in my life. As you can see from the times listed above, this is also a great stop on the way to a number of great midwest cities if you’re looking to do an overnight somewhere. There are also several inns, hotels, and similar accommodations ivery c if you’re looking to spend a few days in the region.
Ticket prices are not cheap and clock in at approximately $29.95 for adults, $26.95 for seniors and military members, and $15.95 for children over the age of 3. (Children 3 and under are free!) These tickets cover all three sections and give you tokens for the coin operated bits, though they do have cheaper tickets available if you’d like to only do one part.
You can learn more about House on the Rock on their website. If you’ve already visited, be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments…but don’t give too much away!