The House That Alex Jordan Built

About halfway up the ramp, the panic kicks in. It’s dark, and there is something disturbing about this place. It is unsettled and off-center. There are boats everywhere and I am sinking. A giant whale with dinosaur teeth is eating a broken dinghy. The walls are lined with nautical dioramas. Above me looms a bare-breasted Indian woman made of wood.

I climb higher, and the urge to escape gets stronger. I feel like I’m being caught in someone’s bad dream, or a crazy man’s mind, or a never-ending rummage sale. Or some combination of all three.

Which, of course, I am.

The House on the Rock, which is currently in the midst of a major renovation, is possibly Wisconsin’s most famous landmark and definitely one of the world’s strangest tourist attractions. Before it metastasized into its current incarnation, the Japanese-inspired house near Spring Green was conceived by Alex Jordan as “a retreat or something like that” perched on a tall sandstone formation called Deer Shelter Rock.

Before my wife and I moved back to Madison, I hadn’t been here in decades, since the 1970s, when I was a child and my family lived here. We came out for a day, and I promptly got lost in the funhouse. Then, a few years ago, a friend from England came to stay with us, and we sent her out to see the place. She came back raving about the brilliance of it, the magnificence. She was blown away by the sheer act of creativity that is the House on the Rock.

She’s not alone. Since it first opened in 1959, hundreds of thousands have traipsed through Jordan’s two miles’ worth of curiosities. Many of those people, presumably, enjoyed themselves. But, all the place had made we want to do was run. Now I’ve come back again to see if maybe I was just having a bad day, or if I missed something, or if somehow I could see it in a different light.

So far, I can’t. It’s a feeling in my gut; the same visceral sensation I get when I witness the human body bend in a way it shouldn’t. It’s just not right. As I pass by another couple, I overhear one of them say, “It’s like one of those houses of horrors that never ends.”

Following the signs around the “Heritage of the Sea,” I come to a dead end at the top. This causes more panic, so I hurry back down, past some tourists discussing whether a mounted object is a narwhal’s tusk or a whale’s penis. I have no opinion on the matter, and I keep walking.

The next room is the “Transportation Building” and is a “work in progress,” in the same way my garage is a work in progress. I hurry through, into the next room, where I am gripped with a kind of primordial fear of the self-playing instruments. This must be where I got lost when I was six years old because all of a sudden I want my mother. Onward, I start to wonder what all of this means. Is there a point? If all the earth were destroyed except the House on the Rock, what would alien archaeologists make of the wizards, the concrete trees, the token-powered music? Normally, I am a big fan of anyone who has a vision and works to realize it. But this is different.

Then, as I’m standing and staring at the world’s largest carousel with its twenty thousand light bulbs, it dawns on me: I am groping for a rope, for a thread to pull me through here. What might come next, and why? There is no reason I can think of that “Streets of Yesterday” would be followed by “Heritage of the Sea,” and that followed by “Transportation” and so on. This, I realize, is at the core of my panic. I’m like a gerbil on LSD trapped in Alex Jordan’s head. It feels like the verge of psychosis. My mind is reaching out for reasoning, for a kind of logic, but around each corner there is none. It’s just one spectacle randomly grafted onto another, the roadside equivalent of a French philosophical novel. It is a story with no plot. An act of pure, stream-of-consciousness entertainment.

Finally I emerge from the maze. Outside, it is quiet, and the wind is blowing through the pines. I walk to my car, and as I pull away I can feel a strange calm. I look in the mirror and I can see clearly now that the House on the Rock is high in the air, floating above, with the world we know far below.

Frank Bures’s travel writing received a Lowell Thomas Award in 2007, and an Honorable Mention from the Council for Wisconsin Writers in 2008.

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