AMERICAN ODD: A Road Trip Through Visionary Wisconsin: The House on the Rock and The Forevertron

All photos by author. They are also posted on my Pinterest page.

I: The House on the Rock

1.

On a brisk day in late September, my wife and I visited Spring Green, Wisconsin and the surrounding area. This part of west central Wisconsin is a half hour drive from Madison. In geologic terms, the Driftless Area dominates the area. Further west one encounters the bluffs surrounding the Mississippi River. Thousands of years ago glaciers covered the North American continent, burying everything beneath miles of ice and snow. The Driftless Area was an exception, a small pocket left unscathed by the frigid juggernaut. As one travels further west across the state of Minnesota one encounters hilly terrain. The hills eventually vanish and the landscape becomes an endless expanse of flat plains. After thousands of miles across farmland, the Badlands pop up, jagged rocks and desolate mountains in a jagged upburst.

It had been years since I visited the House on the Rock. My wife had never visited it. So many years had elapsed since I last visited the House on the Rock I lacked even the barest Proustian memory of the place. I recalled visiting it, but it wasn’t even fuzzy glaucous reminisces, more like the abstract notion I had been there before. Because of the lengthy timespan between visits – in addition to being a small child during my first visit – this would be experienced with fresh eyes.

Due the worldwide fame and lore surrounding the House on the Rock, we both had high expectations. The inevitable anticipation created by the hype colored our outlook. We wanted to be dazzled and we weren’t disappointed.

The House on the Rock exists in a location one could charitably describe as “not near anything.” For a city dweller like myself, this makes planning a trip there a bit of a challenge. It is technically in Spring Green, Wisconsin, but it is far enough from the small town of Spring Green to make it an isolated architectural marvel. It isn’t even close to the House on the Rock Hotel where we stayed. (Granted, the Hotel was only a few short miles to the House on the Rock, but it isn’t something one would simply walk or bike to.) While the distances came as a shock to my urbanite sensibilities, the House on the Rock itself is located within a matrix of oddball and visionary sites in the Driftless Area. These include: Taliesin1 (a short distance from the House on the Rock), the aforementioned Forevertron, and the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. What is it about this area of Wisconsin that cultivates the strange, the visionary, and the odd?

2.

The son of a Madison-area real estate developer, Alex Jordan grew up in relative luxury. His mother was a devout Catholic while his father was not. Until he made the House on the Rock a lifelong project, Jordan didn’t have any set career path. After attending high school he went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a pre-med career. His negative reaction to witnessing an operation nixed that path. With his friend Sid Boyum, Jordan participated in a series of wild quick-buck schemes. It wasn’t until later in life that he find his life’s calling.

In the book Wisconsin Curiosities, longtime radio host Michael Feldman describes Alex Jordan as “job-hopping, ex-student, former cab driver from Madison.” He began building the House atop Deer Shelter Rock and began furnishing it with things he literally carried on his back. Alex Jordan: Architect of His Own Dream, by Doug Moe does venture into the realm of hagiography in his biographical details, yet when it comes to such a singularly madcap structure as the House on the Rock one shouldn’t rule something out simply because it sounds absurd.

Jordan began building the House on the Rock in the Forties. To put this in a national perspective, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Falling Water House in 1935. Whereas Falling Water is linear and austere as it resides peacefully amid the natural surroundings, the House on the Rock dominates the landscape. It was built in and over Deer Shelter Rock. Falling Water’s design cues involve clear lines that give the structure an understated elegance. The House on the Rock cavernous and labyrinthine passageways and staircases provide a unique visitor experience.

As my wife and I journeyed through the House2 we experienced the stark variations between darkness and light. For several minutes we would be enveloped in a dimly lit interior room. There would be giant lamps made of stained glass, Asian art, and towering bookshelves. All this would be artfully presented in rooms literally carved out of solid rock. The décor was simultaneously Mid-century Modern and Post-apocalyptic Stone Age. Then, as we wended our way throughout the House, we’d come across a passage with a giant picture window. It would slightly canted and reminiscent of a pagoda. Below we saw the forest surroundings. My wife characterized the House as “the ultimate bachelor pad.”3

As wild and breathtaking as the House is, compared to the attractions housed nearby, the House came across as positively staid and subdued.

3.

The attractions4 in the adjacent warehouses turn what would otherwise be a memorable historic house into an utterly remarkable tourist attraction. Alex Jordan was not only a builder, he was also a collector. Like other men of means, he didn’t go out and collect them himself. He delegated this authority to others as he focused his attention on building the House atop Deer Shelter Rock. Jordan wasn’t necessarily agoraphobic in any traditional clinical sense. His focus belonged closer to the orbit of the monomaniacal genius businessman.

During the construction of the House, Jordan had a two-track strategy. Not only would it be a practical domicile to live in, but he also wanted to make money off the structure. He was pouring capital into the House and buying up neighboring farmland. In his obsession to realize his dream, he resembled William Randolph Hearst or John Paul Getty. Unlike Hearst or Getty, Jordan didn’t have corporate profits to fall back on. The House needed to be a self-sustaining entity. The logical step would be turning the House and adjacent properties into a world class tourist attraction. This made sense, since Spring Green, Wisconsin is so close to Madison and the Wisconsin Dells.

The history of the House on the Rock is detailed in the Alex Jordan Center, housed in a separate structure before one enters the House proper. Of all the structures, the Alex Jordan Center most resembles a traditional museum. Exhibits and labeling follow the best practices for museums, establishing this area of the overall site as one designed for educational uplift and biographical information. Visitors will see reproductions of early sketches of the House, the history of the Jordan family, and an architectural rendering of the Infinity Room.

The Attraction begins innocuously enough. The Streets of Yesterday replicate a turn of the century streets of an anonymous small town. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s Streets of Old Milwaukee echo the Streets of Yesterday.5 The general ambiance trends towards the nostalgic. Scattered throughout the Streets of Yesterday are cabinet-sized music boxes. These musical contrivances foreshadow more epic mechanical marvels.

Throughout the tour the visitor engages with the Attraction’s concept of scale. Case in point with the music boxes. First they appear cabinet-sized, mostly smaller than your average human adult. At the terminus of the Streets of Yesterday is the Gladiator Calliope. Unlike the street scene, the souvenir guidebook states that the Gladiator “originated in Alex Jordan’s imagination.” The massive contrivance is “displayed as though it’s aboard a typical “sternwheeler” riverboat.” This vaguely historical association connects it to the Streets of Yesteryear turn-of-the-century flavor.

After leaving the Streets, we entered The Heritage of the Sea. We saw the Octopus’s Garden, another musical machine. Unfortunately it wasn’t working when we toured the site.6 What we did notice – and couldn’t not notice – was the larger-than-life-sized whale battling an equally immense giant squid. I didn’t feel anything physically during my foray into the Infinity Room, but this time I felt an intense onrush of vertigo. This was a physical assault on the senses.

A walkway wrapped around the sea battle diorama. The display cases had model ships of various sizes, naval paraphernalia, and scrimshaw. Lots and lots of scrimshaw. Even the model ships were big. Two examples: a 12-foot model of the USS Wisconsin and an 18-foot model of the RMS Titanic.

Leaving the sea, we hit the land with the Attractions collection of automobiles, carriages, and the like. There’s a 1963 Lincoln Continental that’s armor plated and covered in square tiles. For steampunk fans there’s a steam-powered hearse of Alex Jordan’s design, a four-wheel hybrid appearing like the monstrous progeny of a carriage and a locomotive.

After the cars there’s Music of Yesterday. The music boxes get bigger and bigger until they fill entire rooms. With the pop of a token we hear the sudden onrush of air, a pregnant pause, and then the music begins. The hydraulic machinery make the machines sound alive, the hidden air bellows filling like giant artificial lungs. The Blue Room is an ornate Victorian chamber crammed with an entire orchestra, each instrument possessing metal attachments with rubber tubes running from them. The Franz Josef, another musical monster, towers at 27 feet and is 12 feet wide. It is as if the cabinet-sized music boxes we saw earlier became afflicted with gigantism. And there are other mechanical musical colossi: the Mikado, the Blue Danube, and the Red Room.

We continued our meander throughout the Attraction. Continuing with the architectural construction of the House, we met with more Lovecraftian geometries. We pressed on despite the lack of even ground. The last leg of the Attraction’s first section was The World’s Largest Carousel. This gigantic device whirled at a rapid speed, enlarded with fantastical creatures. Housed in another massive room battalions of angels – repurposed retail store dummies – hovered over us, also moving. The reaction we had combined being awestruck with an acute case of visual overload.

One of the last rooms we visited was The Organ Room. Alex Jordan combined his love for organs with his love for heavy machinery. With organ music resounding through the space, we gazed at the various organs. Each had hundreds of keys and buttons, along with many foot pedals. A person could look at a single organ for hours on end, but the room seemed to have dozens. Nor was this your garden variety music museum experience. A visitor winds up and around the exhibit space (more Lovecraftian geometries!). Again one feels like a mouse in a maze.

There were more rooms and more exhibits, but I’ll end my personal experience here. The Attraction doesn’t yield easily to the written word. Acting as a stenographer for the time we had could eventually devolve into an exercise in futility. Literally, there are no words. You have to see it to comprehend it.

4.

The House on the Rock was mentioned in Donna Kossy’s Kooks. She relates how the House has “the world’s largest collection of world’s largest collections.” The description is at once meta and incomprehensible. The material excess housed within challenge the capacity for description.

The House on the Rock teeters on the border between kitsch and beauty. Tacky, ridiculous, beautiful, overwhelming, LOUD!, and visionary are words that help illustrate the visitor experience of this deliriously confounding place. This excessive visual and sonic atmosphere is tinctured by a feeling of eeriness and dread. It simply overwhelms the senses. The epic grandeur combined with its heritage of the American roadside attraction lends it a singular place in our cultural consciousness. This cultural singularity was probably what attracted Neil Gaiman to make The House on the Rock a place of spiritual pilgrimage in his famous novel (now a TV series) American Gods.

The House on the Rock possesses a cult-like attraction to the curious. The word “cult” is meant in both senses. Both as a para-religious object and, more accurately, as a location of worship. The House on the Rock exists for those American oddballs, myself included, as a kind of spiritual epicenter of the American Dream. It is the American Dream made real … in the most grandiose, bizarro, unclassifiably bugfuck brilliant way possible. Sure, San Simeon, the Biltmore Estate, and Mar-a-lago are exemplars of patrician wealth and architectural beauty, but they are still rather conventional. The House on the Rock belongs with Rodia’s Watts Tower and Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Domes.

The House on the Rock is the culmination, the very metaphysical apex, of what it means to be American Odd.

II: The Forevertron

After a night in the House on the Rock Inn, my wife and I headed to find The Forevertron.7 We had endured a night suffering through the spacious hotel room’s basic cable offerings8 and were ready to find the fabled Forevetron.

Unlike the above on the House on the Rock, I chose to experience the Forevertron as a cold reading. I didn’t read any books on Tom Every, the creator of the Forevertron. Sometimes biographical information and critical interpretation can cloud one’s initial judgment. Reading another person’s interpretation or experience can alter your own judgment. I wanted to experience the Forevertron in a state of raw emotional and intellectual vulnerability. So if you plan to see the Forevertron, STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW!!! My first impressions and editorializing will only taint your firsthand experiences.

The first impression I had about the Forevertron was its bigness. Unlike the House on the Rock, with its sophisticated marketing apparatus, we found the Forevertron almost by accident. We were traveling from Spring Green to Baraboo and I happened to glance across the road. I saw a small arrow made of iron and painted red. It seemed strangely out of place along the highway. I had to investigate.

To steal Brigham Young’s line, “This is the place.” As we turned the car around, we followed the arrow. It led to a dirt road surrounded by greenery. After a very short drive we were confronted by giant metal sculptures of insects, birds, and the Forevertron.

The experience of seeing the Forevertron is hard to explain. It’s big. It’s weird. It’s a giant steampunk sculpture. Yet its bigness beggars explanation. Part of this involves context. Unless you are there, standing in front of it, you will always have the sculpture framed. A TV documentary or photograph will place an artificial boundary around this gloriously epic incomprehensible art object. It is immune to White Cube theorizing, since it is so huge. Standing several stories high and as wide as a house, the Forevertron shimmered in the sunlight like a steampunk Sagrada Familia.

Tom Every’s sculpture garden turned me into a flâneur. It is an outdoor space best experienced as an aimless wander. The Heartland, symbol of rural thrift, pious humility, and hard-nosed practicality, has a wonderful counter-example in the Forevertron. It is embedded in a sculpture garden, a baroque monument of pure uselessness, and a delicious visual orgy for idlers, dreamers, and visionaries.9

It is nice to know in a world increasingly dominated by the false promises of clickbait that there are places that actually will change your life. The House on the Rock and The Forevertron exemplify the genuinely unique first-hand experience. In the Experience Economy both places symbolize individual genius that can’t be commodified or monetized. A tour of the House on the Rock or a walk among Tom Every’s sculptural creations cannot be replicated. Describing each site represents a challenge, since each break the bounds of the conventional, existing in the paradoxical category of the unclassifiable. Each embrace a visionary excess and an aesthetic exuberance. This is roadside maximalism at its finest.

Alex Jordan and Tom Every each deserve a place in the pantheon of the American Odd. They have created wonders transcending the regional vernacular and worthy of prominence on the national and world stage.

1Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Alex Jordan’s House on the Rock evoke the stark contrasts between the highbrow and the lowbrow. (I have never visited Taliesin and during our trip my wife showed no interest in seeing it.) Taliesin and The House on the Rock belong to two different perspectives in American culture. On the one hand, Frank Lloyd Wright is spoken in reverential tones, his impact and genius on modern architecture undeniable. His name rests in the same aesthetic pantheon as Mies von der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Luckily he was talented, because Wright was had a gargantuan ego and could be a total dick sometimes. Alex Jordan, by contrast, exists in the milieu of circuses, roadside attractions, and theme parks. Jordan had the insatiable appetite of a completist with the cornball charm of a sideshow barker. As an illustration in contrast, Alex Jordan would exist in a pantheon alongside such visionaries as P.T. Barnum, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and David Hildrebrand Wilson. Frank Lloyd Wright is about the Ego, whereas Alex Jordan is about Spectacle.

2The House on the Rock is the catchall term for a wide-ranging campus of buildings. For simplicity sake I will differentiate between the House itself (hereafter The House) and various attractions in the adjacent warehouses (hereafter The Attraction). The House on the Rock encompasses the House itself, the Gate House, the Japanese Garden, and the Alex Jordan Center.

3Alex Jordan never married but had a lifelong companion named Jennie Olsen.

4This essay will not be a garden variety rehash of every attraction at the House on the Rock. For a blow-by-blow account of the various attractions, you should acquire The House on the Rock souvenir picture. Its summation of visual wonders is more linear than this essay. Except for the foreword by Susan A. Donaldson, President of the House on the Rock corporation, the souvenir has no indication of authorship.

5The Streets of Yesterday opened in 1971. The Streets of Old Milwaukee opened in 1965. (The Streets of Old Milwaukee had a recent face-lift in 2015.) Despite the similarity in construction, the Streets of Yesterday and the Streets of Old Milwaukee serve different functions. In the case of the Streets of Old Milwaukee, the overarching mission is to educate visitors. Unlike the Streets of Old Milwaukee, the Streets of Yesterday main concern is entertainment. Because of the educational mission, the Streets of Old Milwaukee are site-specific (Milwaukee) and the exhibit maintains a more rigorous and consistent labeling system. The overall labeling regime for The Streets of Yesterday is altogether more spotty and informal. But like the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Streets of Yesterday make up only a fraction of the House on the Rock experience. Even walking at a relatively brisk pace, the House on the Rock takes around three to four hours to experience.

6Several musical machines weren’t working during our visit, but since there were so many musical contraptions scattered throughout the Attraction our experience wasn’t adversely affected. The maintenance and upkeep of these musical entertainments brought up a fascinating aspect of The House on the Rock: Who keeps these intricate contraptions running? Some were especially designed for the Attraction, while others were purchased and installed. Like preserving a dead language, numerous individual technicians and artisans work diligently behind the scenes to keep things running. These machines – either genuinely antique or uniquely designed – require the rallying of various obscure disciplines. Each discipline a relic of muscle memory and fading operations manuals. These esoteric mechanical arts represent relationships to machines existing before digital and even pre-analog.

7Unlike the House on the Rock, I approached the Forevertron as a “cold read.” I didn’t want to be swayed or biased by reading any biographies on its creator, Tom Every, aka Doctor Evermor. I wanted to experience the Forevertron without being “spoiled” by explanations and interpretations. This aesthetic demand can be harder to come by, especially in the realm of pop culture and Hollywood films. Perhaps it is my age or my personal idiosyncrasies, but I really don’t want to have every part of a movie trailer explained to me or have every “Easter egg” dissected. (Remember when an Easter egg was a hidden feature buried in a DVD? Now, in this degraded age of clickbait, Easter egg now means “everything.” Akin to the chronic overuse of the word “amazing” to describe something. The word “amazing” has been so overused, it has lost all currency and meaning. The word has become so meaningless it actually kind of amazing.)

8The cable selection was pretty bad. We would have watched the Brewers game, except that the Brew Crew were getting their asses handed to them. The search for entertainment ended on a rather mediocre installment of Star Trek: the Next Generation. I’m sure there’s a lesson somewhere about how the free market provides for a plethora of terrible choices.

9It’s not entirely useless. Tom Every, aka Dr. Evermor, stated that the Forevertron will send the Victorian inventor “into the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam.”

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