Heading on this trip out west, my wife wanted to pick a few places to stop and breakup the drive for our family. Our first stop would be near Madison, Wisconsin to see House On The Rock. After all, she had read somewhere it was the state’s top attraction. I found that hard to believe because I had never even heard of it.
I figured Wisconsin’s House On The Rock had to be more than just some architecturally delightful house to be the state’s number one tourist attraction. And after paying admission, my expectations increased 20-fold. There goes the second day’s budget!
But let me say ahead of reading the rest, it was worth EVERY penny!
There were three different self-guided tours available but hey, we’re on vacation so when we do a place, I want to do it all! Fittingly, this all-in-one tour’s name was The Ultimate Experience Tour!
Mind you the reception building was top-notch itself from the foyer to the gift shop and even the bathrooms. The visuals hinted at what’s ahead. Both subtle and bold examples from amazing and eclectic collections of collectibles were strategically placed high, low and all around.
We ventured outside and along a roofed walkway that wound down a hill and around something new being constructed. The experience will teach you that this destination is always a work in progress forever growing and offering sights and sounds to blow your mind.
Between the visitors center and the House on the Rock is a sensational rock garden, complete with waterfall, little streams and beautiful plants. You can walk within it for a variety of photo ops. Like everything ahead it is grand in scope.
Now it was onward and upward, and upward …and upward to the House on the Rock. Upon entering I fell in love with the artistry of the low ceilings and multi-level design hiding what’s around each corner to maximize the surprise and delight when you get there. The fireplace, stone walls, architectural design and fascinating music machine replicating a complete chamber orchestra all made me want to take up residence. And I find out this is ONLY THE GATEHOUSE!
Moving into the real deal, I became envious. This is a dream. The House on the Rock has touched my soul. After wrapping through its every nook and cranny I was lost. Like a kid, on the tip of my lips were the words, “Can we do it again?” But my kids’ lips mouthed, “No, Dad, let’s keep going.”
So we did.
The library was multi-level. You pass it at the bottom and later from another room higher up. The rooms have discrete entrances and exits creating framed views through cracks and holes littered in the floors and walls. Sometimes you come around a corner and see more than expected. Other times you scrunch down to see a huge stone table and casual seating nestled into a wedge that whispers cozy and p-r-i-v-a-t-e. Another thought that entered my mind was God forbid there was ever a fire. This maze and its material would be a death-trap.
Okay back to happier thoughts.
It isn’t just the ambience of the House that grabs you. It’s what its creator collected to display in it. The collections throughout the house are from all corners of the world. The owner of the house definitely had an affinity for the Orient. Stained glass and music machines were also prevalent.
The crowning jewel of House on the Rock is its Infinity Room. It’s the 14th and final room of the house. How the architect of this place defied gravity and had the gumption to build a long room that narrows from left, right, top and bottom to a gradual elevation at the end, sticking 218 feet out over a scenic valley some 156 feet below, is truly amazing. The Infinity Room has 3,264 windows that serve as walls so you can take in the views. As you near the end of the room you may feel a tinge of fear for this just doesn’t feel right. The view into the room creates a mirage as if the room continues forever. It’s an architectural marvel.
You can even go up to the roof of the house and take in breathtaking panoramic views of the nature all around.
And with that, you are only a third of the way through the experience!
As is evident throughout the house, the person who created this masterpiece loved to collect things. And I mean collect until room after room was filled with some of the world’s largest, most unique and eclectic collections using 3-dimensional space like no “museum” I’ve ever seen. The intricacy is overwhelming.
Eventually, the house could not house these burgeoning collections. So the grounds are continually developing in order to offer the never-ending collecting that so obsessed its creator.
Who was this man so driven to create this one-of-a-kind destination that nothing in the world could ever claim to rival? His name was Alex Jordan, Jr. His vision and passion were awe-inspiring. Jordan enjoyed the view from atop “the rock” and let his imagination take it from there. He learned most things on the job in his quest to build something majestic. It is said that every penny he earned from giving tours dating back to the 1940s was reinvested into the house and its collections. His dreams often were so far before its time, it took years for technology to advance enough to achieve some of them. Such is the case with the construction of the Infinity Room.
More than 60 years have passed since Jordan looked about his open canvass of natural surroundings from his favorite sitting rock. Although he has since passed on, it was not without spending decades to make sure his successor was every bit committed to the house as he was to the day he died. His legacy lives and so does his house, thanks to Art Donaldson.
Keep in mind, the house is just the beginning of this full-day bombardment of the senses.
Enter the Mill House and see one of the world’s largest fireplaces. Collections here range from dolls to guns. Don’t miss the many mechanical banks. Moving past the antique guns and suits of armor, you’ll be on The Streets of Yesteryear. The red brick lane is a recreation of 19th Century Americana. At the other end begins a journey called Music of Yesteryear.
You’ll want to grab a bunch of tokens to play the enormous and intricate displays of music machines filling one room after another. Your jaw will drop at what your eyes and ears behold.
If you get hungry there’s a mouth-watering café that’ll pump enough new energy into everyone to continue on this bizarre odyssey. You won’t want to miss the 200-foot tall sea creature, the world’s largest carousel or three of the greatest theatre organ consoles ever built.
Along the way there is one treat after another. Kids love the old carnival games that come in the form of huge wooden boxes predicting your future or telling you what kind of person you are. Remember, tokens, tokens, tokens.
The 200-foot sea monster is a towering spectacle. A catwalk allows visitors to scale the behemoth getting a bird’s eye view of every detail. Again, space is maximized throughout the tour. There are visuals EVERYWHERE high, low, left, right and well, shake a snow globe and imagine being in the middle of it trying to eye-up every flake of snow because one after the next is a completely different and cool sight to see.
The Heritage of the Sea room not only has the sea creature dominating it but along the walkway going up, up, up to the top are more than 200 model ship displays pulling your attention from the sea creature because each of them are also intoxicating.
The model ships collection is just the start of many more eclectic displays that feature vintage automobiles, hot air balloons and multistory Rube Goldberg machine. Goldberg was known as a cartoonist and also for his series of complicated gadgets that performed simple tasks in indirect and convoluted ways.
Not only are the senses bombarded from every direction but the source of which comes in stunning collectibles that are miniature to monstrous.
One moment your sky is filled with model airplanes and the next, carousel horses. In the Carousel Room the music and motion take over. The walls AND CEILING are filled with carousel horses as ornate as anything you’ve seen. But the centerpiece is the fully operational carousel itself sporting 269 handcrafted animals – not one of them a horse! There are also 20,000 lights and 182 chandeliers on this amazing carousel.
Later you happen into the Carousel Room again at a higher elevation. You see the theme and flow of the original house is repeated throughout using all available space.
The last leg of the journey treats everyone to The Organ Room surrounded and filled by walkways, bridges and spiral staircases with the centerpiece being three of the greatest theatre organs ever built.
Okay you may need another breather or dinner. There’s no better place than Inspiration Point. The restaurant is indoors but also has outdoor accommodations including a quick jaunt through a portion of the valley to get a snail’s view of the House On The Rock and its Infinity Room defying all logic as it juts out over the valley.
Back inside there is even more to get to before the day is over.
Get lost in a world of miniatures. One of the world’s largest collection of doll houses features multiple styles and meticulous hand-crafted detail. If you are like me, I was fully intrigued inspecting each house with wonder until I realized just how many houses there were to see. Most of the collections are like this and after a awhile you may find yourself as I did, just breezing past the remainder of amazing collections wishing you had more time and energy to soak it all in.
If you don’t take up residency there, you can escape to the circus. Again, it is an epic display of miniatures. The pyramid of elephants was my favorite but the music filling the room sets the mood perfectly as it serenades all from an automated 40-piece band and an 80-piece orchestra. By the way, there’s also an enormous circus wagon –nothing miniature about that.
Do you get the picture, all space is used and it’s filled with things large and small. Additional galleries feature ivories to armories and much more. But there are a couple more must-sees!
It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the Doll Carousel and its variety of hand-crafted and costumed dolls and accessories. And last but not least is the mid-air suspension of the display called Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. The artistry, size, position, lighting, and location of this captivating piece is a testament to the entire tour. Just when you least expect it, BAM, out of nowhere your line of vision is captivated by a stunning visual. What first appeared to be discretely placed soon becomes dominant. It is unassuming and overbearing at the same time.
Trust that it is no accident that House on the Rock serves up one great surprise after another. If you have more time to spend at this place than we did, you may consider the House on the Rock Inn and resort. Begin your tour at www.thehouseontherock.com.
And just when we thought we’d seen it all, we saw the strangest cloud formation when we left a restaurant later that evening.