The house on the rock

When I was last in Chicago, dayo and I drove about three hours into Wisconsin to see a house.

Not just any house. To understand this particular house, imagine that you were a space alien. Imagine that you came from a strange culture that did not build buildings. Maybe you lived in caves, or, I dunno, burrowed parasitically into the flesh of gigantic alien space walruses or something. Or maybe you lived in trees like the elves in The Lord of the Rings, and went everywhere barefoot because your fantastically advanced magic hadn’t ever got so far as to develop shoes.

Anyway, the point is that you don’t build buildings. And then, let’s suppose you’d heard of a thing called a “house,” which was an enclosed structure divided into “rooms.” Armed with this knowledge, you set out to design and build a house, but you weren’t quite clear on what exactly a “room” was.

If you were this space alien, the house that you built would probably be The House on the Rock. The Web site and the brochures describe it as the “grand vision” of a guy named Alex Jordan, but I’d say it’s not so much a “grand vision” as it is a study in ad-hoc chaos and arguably the world’s greatest monument to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s an enclosed structure. It’s probably about a hundred thousand square feet or so, and it’s three stories tall, more or less. I say “more or less” because it wasn’t so much “designed” as it was thrown together over time by a man whose grasp of architecture and construction was theoretical at best, and the result is…um, well, it’s hard to actually call it a building, really.

You go in, and you find that it’s a hallway. It’s kind of like being inside a living organism, like the organic space ship on that science fiction TV series whose name I can’t remember with the one chick who’s really hot and shoots lots of people, only more so. The hallway winds and twists and ascends and descends more or less at random, and occasionally it widens out into a place with a bed, or a table, or some other object of furniture you might expect to find in a domicile. It’s hard to say how many rooms there are in this house, because the house doesn’t really do “rooms.” Wide spots in the hallway-tunnel-alien-innards-thing pass for rooms, for the most part, and going from one place to another sometimes involves taking a route that’s…unexpected.

I took many pictures, and they’re very large. For those of you who don’t mind the crushing bandwidth:

This is the “infinity room.” It’s the most normal and least claustrophobic part of the house. That’s saying something, when you realize that this “room” is actually a triangular spike that juts out 200 feet from the side of the house, and there’s a window in the floor at the end that overlooks a 150-foot drop. The walls are a mosaic of small square windows–thousands of them. It’s really long, it sticks out really far, and it sways when you walk down it.

When you enter the house itself, this is what you’re confronted with. Most of the house looks this way–a narrow hallway, winding and twisting and turning, with places that open up into alcoves and nooks just large enough for some piece of furniture or a light fixture or something. The house was built assembled tossed together over a period of decades, and many of the interior walls were once exterior walls, so the walls vary from wood to rough brick to external stone without rhyme or reason.

The house lacks anything like a central heating or air conditioning system, so what it does have is a startling assortment of fireplaces. Huge fireplaces, many of which are 20 or 30 feet wide–or more!–and ten or fifteen feet deep.

The word “fireplace” is much too organized to describe the reality. When I say “fireplace,” you’re probably thinking of a rectangular depression in the wall with a chimney above it. “Fireplace” in this context actually means “enormous cavern that goes all the way up to the ceiling, where a gigantic split in the roof lets the smoke out.” These places make the signal fires in Orgrimmar look like small tufts of kindling. Quite how the two or three tons of firewood these enormous firepits require were dragged in here, I don’t know.

The hallway in this picture wound around and down in a spiral in front of this fireplace, with movie-theater-style seating all along the spiral. So that you and, I dunno, ten or twenty of your closest friends could sit in a descending swoop of rock and look at a raging bonfire, but not be able to, y’know, talk to each other or anything.

For some reason, the staff has placed a Christmas tree here. If someone lights a bonfire in this fireplace, that tree is so toast.

For the Horde!

The dining room in the house. And when I say “dining room,” I mean “alcove in the side of the hallway where someone has managed to shove a table. And the carved masthead from an old wooden sailing ship.”

This guy had quite a passion for…well, for obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also for wooden sailing ships. He built an adjacent building to showcase all his model ships. The centerpiece of that building is a model of a kraken fighting a great blue whale.

At 1:1 scale.

It’s about two hundred feet long and nearly four stories tall. Did I mention this guy was insane?

Anyway, the masthead from the old wooden sailing ship has been repurposed here to hold a couple of lights over the dining room table. And, y’know, glower down at guests with an enigmatic expression, making them uncomfortable.

The guy who built this house collected things. Lots of things. Tons of things. Among the things he collected were antique music boxes.

When I say “music boxes,” what I mean is “Victorian clockwork machines that play actual instruments, like drums and violins and stuff.” They are everywhere. Almost every wall, nearly every “room” has one or more of these machines set in it. This one, which has little mechanical limbs that play a guitar and a cello, is just randomly stuck in the wall near the entrance, and has little sculpted cherubs cunningly arranged all around it.

No, I don’t get it either.

All these music machines require power, so there’s a waterwheel bolted to the side of the house.

At this point, I was so numb to the bizarre that I just kind of took it in stride and kept going. It wasn’t until days later it struck me just how truly weird this is.

This house. Has a water wheel. To drive all the hundreds of mechanical music contraptions.

This…is a bedroom. Dear God in Heaven, this is a bedroom. It’s on an elevated platform in an alcove cut from the side of the hallway; as such, it has only three walls, no door.

Even the most casual of observers will quickly notice some strange things about this bedroom. First is the color scheme, a kind of “early Victorian meets serial killer” motif. Then comes the ever-present musical devices. Yes, that’s a saxophone, played by machines, to the right. The thing barely visible in the upper left is part of a steam calliope.

This room is the stuff of nightmares. Sweet dreams!

Probably the most “normal” structure in the entire house, and I use the word “normal” cautiously. Most of the house is a winding, twisty-curvy hallway that undulates up and down in strange loops and spirals without rhyme or reason, but apparently the designer engineer guy who built all this found himself painted into a corner here, with no solution other than to put in a rather conventional and ordinary set of stairs. Only, y’know, with a curve.

And a glowering statue of some sea god or other.

The people who built the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where they hold folks like Ted “I don’t like computers and dishwashers, so I’m gonna blow a bunch of people up” Kaczynski, is designed in such a way that the hallways and corridors always curve, so that an escapee can never see what guards might be waiting for him fifty feet on down the path. This design idea was, I think, pioneered by this house. There are no straight lines anywhere; even the goddamn stairways are crooked.

126 thoughts on “The house on the rock

    • I was a tour guide to the Winchester Mystery House. I love that house. It’s the epitome of Victorian Architecture. I can talk about that place for hours! My favorite times were when I closed up the house at night and I was the only one on the property. It’s very beautiful.


      • How very interesting! I just recently moved to the SFBA. Work paid for someone to give me an 8 hour area tour, and my tour guide person mentioned the WMH, but was rather down on it, saying it was an overrated tourist trap.
        Nice to hear some support on the other end. I think I’ll arrange to go see it and decide for myself. You still have “keys”? 🙂 Always fun to hang out places when noone else is around – all sorts of additional activities become possible/less-problematic.

        • I’m not in CA anymore and the keys stayed at the office 🙁

          The problem is that it’s touted as a silly haunted house, and from that perspective, it is an overrated tourist trap. It’s not haunted in real life and it’s not the cheesy/scary of Halloween haunted houses. If you go there expecting that, you’ll be disappointed.

          But from the perspective of one of the most classic examples of a bygon era, with all the money and beauty it entails, complete with an appreciation of an important part of Californian history, it’s a beautiful spot and one I think everyone should visit if they’re anywhere near it. Think the scenes of all the First Class travelers from the movie Titanic and you’ll have a better idea of what it’s about. Throw in the sad and tragic dignity of a clever, intelligent woman, frought with grief over the loss of her husband and daughter, and subjected to the trappings of her society, and it becomes all the more elegant for its melancholy beauty.

    • I LOVE the House on the Rock. then again I have spent most of my adult life in new construction open floor plan houses and that winding path thing I LOVE.

      The man who built it was an obsessive compulsive collector.

      try to go take the full tour during the summer months, there is a fantastic garden and you get to see his ENTIRE collection that includes dolls, doll houses, carousels, weapons, royal jewelery, an entire maritime museum (was not his personal collection of model ships, sorry), as well as a collection of pipe organs that would give the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s prganist heart palpitations. cant forget the cannon that was the size of a ship, and the life size mechanical orchestra and the life size elephant pyramid. I think there is even a new collection of cars and model planes.

      it is a fascinating place to visit, and a lot more comfortable if you are under 5’5″ tall as thats the height of the doorways in the house lol.

  1. Got there right ahead of me 😉

    Also…. IS this THAT House On The Rock? Because if so, I’m going to have to schedule in a bout of incoherent fangirl squeeing and gibberish.

  2. Wow, that’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that with us! It kind of reminds me of something in San Jose, CA called the “Mystery House”, built by a similarly OCD widow who believed that as long as she continued to build on to her house, she would never die. I never actually got to see it, but we saw ads for it on a trip there in July, and my mom was telling me about it. If I’m ever in the Chicago area I might just have to check it out.

    like the organic space ship on that science fiction TV series whose name I can’t remember with the one chick who’s really hot and shoots lots of people, only more so

    Farscape?

    • Sarah Winchester was actually quite intelligent and devised some clever acoutrements (sp?) in that house. She had absolutely no architectural education, believe the ghosts of all the victims killed by the Winchester rifle were haunting her, and still managed to be much less chaotic and more practical than this guy!

      They bill the house as spooky and wierd, but it’s actually not really. The local architecture schools have their classes visit the house when they study Victorian architecture.


      • Phew! I was really curious what the TV show was (and figured it would get answered in the comments 🙂 Must check out the really hot chick. One might argue that deciding to watch a TV series because of a “really hot chick” is kinda “missing the point”, but oh well. 🙂

        • The series itself is fair-to-middlin’. The character in question appears, from my exposure to the show, to have two roles: she shoots lots of people, and she complains about being kicked out of a group of law enforcement types, membership in which group allowed her to shoot even more people. This is the character:

          The law enforcement group is called the League of Psychotic Bastards or the Peacekeepers or something like that. Apparently, they’re all sociopaths, and their members get kicked out (and shot) for doing things like bonding with the folks they’re supposed to be shooting, which apparently means talking to them before shooting them.

  3. Wow, that’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that with us! It kind of reminds me of something in San Jose, CA called the “Mystery House”, built by a similarly OCD widow who believed that as long as she continued to build on to her house, she would never die. I never actually got to see it, but we saw ads for it on a trip there in July, and my mom was telling me about it. If I’m ever in the Chicago area I might just have to check it out.

    like the organic space ship on that science fiction TV series whose name I can’t remember with the one chick who’s really hot and shoots lots of people, only more so

    Farscape?

  4. See, your succinct discourse on safewords, followed up by delightful travelogues like this – you are genius. Truly.

    That being said – holy hell! I can’t imagine living in a place like this. Seriously – there must have been so many WTF moments going through this place.

    However, the true-to-scale replica of the kraken/blue whale fight might just be worth the trip.

    BTW, was the random, pseudo-Victorian Christmas kitsch part of the house, the original collections, or just placed there by staffers with the same tone-deaf sense of design?

    • That’s a good question, and I really don’t know. The house, except for the Infinity Room, is windowless, at least int he conventional sense–there are windows, but you can’t see trough any of them. There are also religious stained-glass windows in unexpected places, most of which aren’t on an outside wall, so I suspect the guy who put this all together had a religious streak of the fluffy bunnies and Jesus variety. It’s quite possible the Christmas stuff was part of his Grand Master Plan(tm), and equally possible it was put there by the current caretakers; I have no clue.

    • The Xmas stuff was part of their Holy Hallelujah it’s CHRISTMAS! (well, something like that) celebration. They bring out all the Christmas Kitch in November and December. It was just.. odd. Not cool Victorian angels or ornaments, but like plastic santa kewpie dolls and dimestore holly glasses.

  5. See, your succinct discourse on safewords, followed up by delightful travelogues like this – you are genius. Truly.

    That being said – holy hell! I can’t imagine living in a place like this. Seriously – there must have been so many WTF moments going through this place.

    However, the true-to-scale replica of the kraken/blue whale fight might just be worth the trip.

    BTW, was the random, pseudo-Victorian Christmas kitsch part of the house, the original collections, or just placed there by staffers with the same tone-deaf sense of design?

  6. I went there several years ago as well. It’s one of the many definite things that sparked an interest in defining my own spaces and things in it.

    Totally worth the drive, IMO.

  7. I went there several years ago as well. It’s one of the many definite things that sparked an interest in defining my own spaces and things in it.

    Totally worth the drive, IMO.

  8. I was a tour guide to the Winchester Mystery House. I love that house. It’s the epitome of Victorian Architecture. I can talk about that place for hours! My favorite times were when I closed up the house at night and I was the only one on the property. It’s very beautiful.

  9. Sarah Winchester was actually quite intelligent and devised some clever acoutrements (sp?) in that house. She had absolutely no architectural education, believe the ghosts of all the victims killed by the Winchester rifle were haunting her, and still managed to be much less chaotic and more practical than this guy!

    They bill the house as spooky and wierd, but it’s actually not really. The local architecture schools have their classes visit the house when they study Victorian architecture.

    • I’ve always had tremendous respect for real architects. A good architect is part artist, part engineer, part materials scientist, part mathematician, and part physicist, and that’s not an easy combination to find.

  10. You forgot the giant cavern with the full-sized carousel and CHARIOTS WITH WINGED MANNEQUINS HANGING FROM THE CEILING.

    I love that place ^_^

    — Andi 😀

  11. You forgot the giant cavern with the full-sized carousel and CHARIOTS WITH WINGED MANNEQUINS HANGING FROM THE CEILING.

    I love that place ^_^

    — Andi 😀

  12. ditto all of the above.

    read ittttt….

    i have a signed copy that you cannot borrow. I live about 2 hours from this house and have never been because all my friends either don’t have cars or go only once a year and forget to invite me, and when i remind them they say “oh i just went last month and i can’t go again so soon!”

  13. That’s a good question, and I really don’t know. The house, except for the Infinity Room, is windowless, at least int he conventional sense–there are windows, but you can’t see trough any of them. There are also religious stained-glass windows in unexpected places, most of which aren’t on an outside wall, so I suspect the guy who put this all together had a religious streak of the fluffy bunnies and Jesus variety. It’s quite possible the Christmas stuff was part of his Grand Master Plan(tm), and equally possible it was put there by the current caretakers; I have no clue.

  14. I’ve always had tremendous respect for real architects. A good architect is part artist, part engineer, part materials scientist, part mathematician, and part physicist, and that’s not an easy combination to find.


  15. How very interesting! I just recently moved to the SFBA. Work paid for someone to give me an 8 hour area tour, and my tour guide person mentioned the WMH, but was rather down on it, saying it was an overrated tourist trap.
    Nice to hear some support on the other end. I think I’ll arrange to go see it and decide for myself. You still have “keys”? 🙂 Always fun to hang out places when noone else is around – all sorts of additional activities become possible/less-problematic.


  16. Phew! I was really curious what the TV show was (and figured it would get answered in the comments 🙂 Must check out the really hot chick. One might argue that deciding to watch a TV series because of a “really hot chick” is kinda “missing the point”, but oh well. 🙂

  17. I’m not in CA anymore and the keys stayed at the office 🙁

    The problem is that it’s touted as a silly haunted house, and from that perspective, it is an overrated tourist trap. It’s not haunted in real life and it’s not the cheesy/scary of Halloween haunted houses. If you go there expecting that, you’ll be disappointed.

    But from the perspective of one of the most classic examples of a bygon era, with all the money and beauty it entails, complete with an appreciation of an important part of Californian history, it’s a beautiful spot and one I think everyone should visit if they’re anywhere near it. Think the scenes of all the First Class travelers from the movie Titanic and you’ll have a better idea of what it’s about. Throw in the sad and tragic dignity of a clever, intelligent woman, frought with grief over the loss of her husband and daughter, and subjected to the trappings of her society, and it becomes all the more elegant for its melancholy beauty.

  18. Okay… I was beginning to think Gaiman made that part up. I’ve wanted to see this place ever since reading that book, so thanks for the tiny glimpses of what it’s like.

  19. The series itself is fair-to-middlin’. The character in question appears, from my exposure to the show, to have two roles: she shoots lots of people, and she complains about being kicked out of a group of law enforcement types, membership in which group allowed her to shoot even more people. This is the character:

    The law enforcement group is called the League of Psychotic Bastards or the Peacekeepers or something like that. Apparently, they’re all sociopaths, and their members get kicked out (and shot) for doing things like bonding with the folks they’re supposed to be shooting, which apparently means talking to them before shooting them.

  20. HOUSE ON THE ROCK!!!

    I haven’t been there in years! I keep telling hubby he needs to see the place (esp since his dad was a Frank Lloyd Wright-worshipping architect), but we never seem to have occasion to go up to Nowhere, Wisc.

    Thanks for the pics and commentary. There’s so much weirdness, one could devote an entire travelogue to the place. 🙂

  21. HOUSE ON THE ROCK!!!

    I haven’t been there in years! I keep telling hubby he needs to see the place (esp since his dad was a Frank Lloyd Wright-worshipping architect), but we never seem to have occasion to go up to Nowhere, Wisc.

    Thanks for the pics and commentary. There’s so much weirdness, one could devote an entire travelogue to the place. 🙂

  22. The Xmas stuff was part of their Holy Hallelujah it’s CHRISTMAS! (well, something like that) celebration. They bring out all the Christmas Kitch in November and December. It was just.. odd. Not cool Victorian angels or ornaments, but like plastic santa kewpie dolls and dimestore holly glasses.

  23. I LOVE the House on the Rock. then again I have spent most of my adult life in new construction open floor plan houses and that winding path thing I LOVE.

    The man who built it was an obsessive compulsive collector.

    try to go take the full tour during the summer months, there is a fantastic garden and you get to see his ENTIRE collection that includes dolls, doll houses, carousels, weapons, royal jewelery, an entire maritime museum (was not his personal collection of model ships, sorry), as well as a collection of pipe organs that would give the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s prganist heart palpitations. cant forget the cannon that was the size of a ship, and the life size mechanical orchestra and the life size elephant pyramid. I think there is even a new collection of cars and model planes.

    it is a fascinating place to visit, and a lot more comfortable if you are under 5’5″ tall as thats the height of the doorways in the house lol.

  24. Yup, and his descriptions do not do the place justice. Frankly you have to see it. Human words and photography can’t quite encompass it’s… ummm… Well I’m not sure what… but something…

    It’s wierd… really really wierd… It’s like your crazy grandmother’s attic on several psychotropic drugs…

  25. We didn’t make it to it – they only let us do the first half of the tour (main house and streets of yesterday) since we got there late. Next time!

  26. my roommate runs weburbanist and i showed him this post, thinking he’d be interested. not only was he interested, he wants to know if it would be okay to use some of these photos on his blog (giving you credit, of course.)

  27. my roommate runs weburbanist and i showed him this post, thinking he’d be interested. not only was he interested, he wants to know if it would be okay to use some of these photos on his blog (giving you credit, of course.)

  28. I don’t know if this speaks well or ill of me, but this is exactly the kind of house that I would build for myself if finances were of no concern. Well, except that all of my decor would consist of weapons and various bits of technology, and my fireplace would have a life-size bronze cast of Bill Gates standing in the middle (with Bill Gates’ real charred body entombed within).

    I’d also have less than half of the house accessible without passing through some hidden passage or another, and most of it would be either underground or carved out of the rock.

    Maze of twisty passages FTW!

  29. I don’t know if this speaks well or ill of me, but this is exactly the kind of house that I would build for myself if finances were of no concern. Well, except that all of my decor would consist of weapons and various bits of technology, and my fireplace would have a life-size bronze cast of Bill Gates standing in the middle (with Bill Gates’ real charred body entombed within).

    I’d also have less than half of the house accessible without passing through some hidden passage or another, and most of it would be either underground or carved out of the rock.

    Maze of twisty passages FTW!

  30. Oh, it’s great. one of the main themes is that Gods exist and derive their power based on how many people believe in them, and how strongly. So the old gods like Loki, Kali, Thoth, Anansi and all them are losing their power because people nowadays put more faith in things like the Internet.

    Good times.

  31. Hello! I’m randomly commenting on an old post, I know, but this is the most goddamn amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I want to take the Miller brothers there and have wild gay brain sex with them. Desperately. I start saving now.

    Also, I’m a friend of a friend (joreth), and I was directed here and to you other various sites. Do you mind if I friend you?

  32. Hello! I’m randomly commenting on an old post, I know, but this is the most goddamn amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I want to take the Miller brothers there and have wild gay brain sex with them. Desperately. I start saving now.

    Also, I’m a friend of a friend (joreth), and I was directed here and to you other various sites. Do you mind if I friend you?

  33. Another Roadside Attraction!

    Nabil and I just went here this past Tuesday, based on your crazy review.

    it was awesome! We couldn’t help but imagine that several nooks would be perfecto for 70s swinger parties.

    Also, the rest of the tour! The other displays were super cheesy, but also awesome. Enormous carousels. Elaborate parlours full of self-playing instruments. Cannons and weird guns and scary circuses and mannikin orchestras and creepy dollhouses. A five-story high display of a whale-monster fighting a squid-monster. And this huge incomprehensible steampunk room full of spiralling stairs and billows and giant roomsized self-playing organs and nameless shifting copper vats and tubes.

    Some was very cheesy, much was very steampunkish.

    Thanks for reviewing this place! I never would have gone otherwise.

    SO CRAZY.

  34. Another Roadside Attraction!

    Nabil and I just went here this past Tuesday, based on your crazy review.

    it was awesome! We couldn’t help but imagine that several nooks would be perfecto for 70s swinger parties.

    Also, the rest of the tour! The other displays were super cheesy, but also awesome. Enormous carousels. Elaborate parlours full of self-playing instruments. Cannons and weird guns and scary circuses and mannikin orchestras and creepy dollhouses. A five-story high display of a whale-monster fighting a squid-monster. And this huge incomprehensible steampunk room full of spiralling stairs and billows and giant roomsized self-playing organs and nameless shifting copper vats and tubes.

    Some was very cheesy, much was very steampunkish.

    Thanks for reviewing this place! I never would have gone otherwise.

    SO CRAZY.

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