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Wisconsin’s bizarre House on the Rock was always meant to be a mystery

As I wander the streets of yesterday, peeking into reproduced 19th-century storefronts, a cacophony of circus begins to echo through the air. Curious, I walk over to the music, glancing at a group of people surrounding a fortune-telling machine, where a mechanized Esmeralda dispenses prophecies printed on tiny cards.

At the end of the street, a huge music machine called Gladiator Calliope came to life. As high-pitched sounds, trills and whistles erupt from the steam whistle organ, a line of mechanized gladiators holding clubs and mallets strike a drum, cymbal and bell. At their feet, invisible breaths blow on ceramic jugs.

“Oh my God, this is crazy,” someone in the crowd whispers.

Around the next corner, a 200-foot-tall rumbling fiberglass sea creature rises improbably from the ground, as The Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden” plays merrily.

Welcome to the House on the Rock, one of the nation’s most notable roadside attractions. It’s a hard-to-describe mix of art, history, music and fantasy that excites and amazes you one minute, then leaves you perplexed and pissed off the next.

The destination outside of Spring Green, Wisconsin has also gained notoriety for its physical and mental challenges: Visitors once had to navigate the entire three-plus-hour experience, squeeze through narrow passages and climb to heights that some found unnerving, before they could get out.

Today you have the option of visiting one, two or all three sections of the House on the Rock. And for customers with claustrophobia or acrophobia, the brochures say they can call on the employees to help them find alternate routes.

How it all began

The House on the Rock was never intended to be a public attraction, much less such a huge and unusual attraction. It all started innocently in 1945, when a young Alex Jordan Jr. wanted to build a shelter at Deer Shelter Rock, a 60-foot stone tower in southwestern Wisconsin. Jordan’s family helped him buy 240 acres, and he spent the next decade working tirelessly to build a home on and around the rock. Locals called him “the mountain goat” because they saw him repeatedly placing stones and mortar in a basket, tying it to his back, and hoisting it up the rock via a ladder.

Fast forward to 1960. Jordan’s fantasy house was largely complete, though it wasn’t so much a house as a collection of cozy nooks and fireplaces with massive hearths. Unfortunately for the private Jordan, the number of people regularly asking to peek inside grew uncomfortably. To drive them away, he said tours cost 50 cents. Much to his dismay, they gladly pony up.

By the end of the year, Jordan had raised a surprising $5,000 from his tours. The following year, he pocketed $34,000 – or $340,000 today, after adjusting for inflation. He never looked back.

Now officially operating a tourist attraction, Jordan began hoarding random collections for additional exhibits: biscuit dolls, swords, scrimshaw artwork, Burma-Shave billboards. Then he built a network of sprawling buildings to house them all. These structures also contained his various creations, such as the streets of yesteryear, this massive sea creature, and a variety of music machines that eerily come to life when powered by a token.

“Alex loved musical machines and made sure he always had skilled workers who could create the machines he envisioned,” says Jennifer Greene, Operations Manager of House on the Rock. “Alex was in complete control of the process and had the perseverance to achieve his dreams.”

Two of those dreams were to create an Infinity Room and the world’s largest indoor carousel, which are guest favorites today. Its Infinity Room is a 218-foot glass-walled cantilevered platform that overlooks the Wyoming Valley 15 stories below. Its massive carousel, illuminated by 20,000 lights, contains 269 centaurs, dragons and other fantastic creatures, but no horses.

The mystery is the point

As my group strolls through the attraction, which today also includes a visitor center, an interpretive center, two Asian gardens and an extensive system of outdoor walkways, we continue to be shocked, amazed and bewildered. by what we see. A 1963 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors completely covered in blue patterned tiles. An ancient multi-barreled pistol similar to a mini-machine gun. A bright red “humor tester” chair that, after depositing a token, reveals whether your temperament is grumpy or clownish.

“It’s so unlikely that something like this exists,” said John Junghans, a member of my party from San Antonio.

Soon, questions begin to spring from us. Why are there so few signs to explain what we see? How did Jordan pay for it all? Do mechanical instruments really play or do we hear recorded music?

“I want to know all this,” says my daughter Maura, “but I’m actually glad they don’t tell us. It adds to the mystique.”

Exactly, said Greene. “Alex Jordan was very determined not to give out a lot of information,” she says. “He wanted the House on the Rock to be a mystery, one that would amaze and captivate guests. He was not looking to create a museum.”

To keep visitors engaged, Jordan has carefully placed its collections and designs so that each room contains elements that appeal to a variety of tastes. He also liked to place pieces in a contrary or even shocking way, perhaps to throw visitors off balance. To wit: In the third section, delicate bisque dolls spin slowly on carousels, while a spooky, skeletal rendition of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse hangs overhead.

After leaving the House on the Rock, we immediately pass Taliesin, the home and studio of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright is said to have put the finishing touches on his lifetime masterpiece just as Jordan was working on his own masterpiece just a few miles away.

Surely, both men appreciated the irony.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a travel and adventure writer. She lives near Madison, Wisconsin.

The house on the rock

Or: 8 miles south of Spring Green, Wis.

Hours: 9am-5pm Thu.-Mon. until May 14 and from Sept. 25 to Nov. 12. Daily May 15-Sept. 24 and 16 Nov.-Dec. 31. Arrival before 3 p.m. is recommended.

Admission: $20 to $36 adults.

Information: thehouseontherock.com.

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