Everything at the House on the Rock looked like it belonged in a Terry Gilliam filmexcept that where Gilliam's films are often exasperating because you sense that he is just trying to be as random as possible, the House was genuinely frightening because you sense that its layout somehow made sense in Alex Jordan's mind. Every room was different but conformed to the same aesthetic of collection and collage, aiming for something that was not quite a museum or theme park but more a document to one man's fixations. These fixations include automated orchestras; red shag carpeting; Chinese art in general and Buddha heads in particular; creepy little dolls; leafless indoor trees; and an unhealthy amount of circus imagery. Past a certain point, upon entering an enormous high-ceilinged room where labyrinthine red-carpeted catwalks curve past one another, past mannequins dressed as medieval saints and a fake storefront selling fake jewelry and the world's largest cannon and an automated pipe organ hidden behind a series of baffles and some sort of gigantic whisky still complete with moonshine jars painted with the signs of the Zodiac, when you come to a prominently lit table displaying a collection of electric typewriters and hydraulic equipment, there is nothing to say but, "Yes. The electric typewriters and hydraulic equipment are here." The House forces you to approach it on its own terms.
Alex Jordan's father apparently built the original house as a jab at Frank Lloyd Wright. This is the only part of the complex where you could actually imagine someone living, though even here it's a bit of a stretch. The ceilings are low, the floor and walls meet at odd angles and are covered in shag carpeting, and metal Buddha heads stare at you from unlikely locations, including the back of the fireplace. Tiffany chandeliers are a big deal here, as are velvet couches and statues of saints. It's sort of a make-out pad from hell, where you would take your date if you wanted to seduce her by refuting Euclidean geometry. The Infinity Room, which projects a good hundred feet off the rock into space and stays up by some physical principle that I don't understand, is particularly unsettling.
Most of Jordan's life was devoted to making additions to the House. These giant rooms have been divided by the tour people into the categories of "Nostalgic" (meaning they vaguely conform to some historical theme) and "Eclectic" (meaning nobody knows what's going on). Some of the Nostalgic rooms could almost pass for museum exhibits: the "Heritage of the Sea" room, for instance, features a perfectly respectable collection of model ships and various relics from maritime history, all neatly preserved in glass cases. The problem is that you can't entirely focus on the miniature U.S.S. Wisconsin and the honorable discharge papers from the Navy and the specimens of clinometers and scrimshaw because the room is constructed around a 200-foot sculpture of a sea monster fighting a giant squid. The monster is partially blue whale and partially killer whale and partially something else entirely. A catwalk takes you up around it and into the "Transportation Room," where hot air balloons hang from the ceiling and bicycles line the railings and, for some obscure transportation-related reason, an old man sits on a suspended crescent moon. Then they serve you bratwurst for lunch (I made do with yogurt and a Danish) and it's on to the Eclectic rooms.
Automated music is a big deal throughout the House; I lost count of how many player pianos we saw. But the Eclectic rooms are the pinnacle of Jordan's fascination with the mechanical orchestra. There are four or five different scenes with violins, woodwinds, guitars, drums, and the occasional saxophone, all set into hellish-looking assemblages of pistons and levers that finger their stops and draw bows across their strings and so on. We were not always able to determine how much of the music was coming from the instruments and how much was taped. The drums were obviously being played, because you could see the mallets striking them, but the other instruments were so encased in machinery that it was hard to see what was happening. This part upset me somewhat, because I have strong sentimental feelings about musical instruments; this seemed like the place where bad guitars and violins would go when they died, to have a machine force "Bolero" or "The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" from their bodies for all eternity. Occasionally human figures will enter the mix. The room that plays selections from "The Mikado" contains a series of Japanese-looking mannequins, including an angry character with Toshiro Mifune features who will furrow his eyebrows and glare at you while he beats his giant drum.
But for sheer excess, nothing beats the Carousel Room, featuring the world's largest merry-go-round, which has not a single horse. There are elephants and zebras and roosters and donkeys and lots of centaurs, some with demonic features and some with bare breasts and come-hither expressions, but the simple horse is too ordinary for this carousel. Instead, several dozen carousel horses have been mounted on the walls. The ceiling is strewn with hanging female mannequins who have been given togas and angel wings; each has precisely one breast exposed. I can only assume that the nipples were added and painted for this purpose, since I'm fairly sure that your average mannequin was nipple-less at the time of this room's construction. As for the non-carousel items in this roomthe giant tree, the bear attacking the baby eagleswe had given up asking by this point. The Doll Room and Circus Room were beyond explanation as well, though it's worth noting that the dolls had two miniature carousels of their own (one featuring horses with Buddha heads). Many of the dolls, particularly the creepy wide-eyed ones trapped behind glass, called to mind the little girl in Interview with a Vampire.
We were in there for a good five hours and our final exit into the gift shop came as a deliverance, even if it was selling horrid items like a House on the Rock coloring book for children (narrated by an elf). At least we were back in commercial America. The drive back to Iowa City was another three hours, and my tape deck is broken, so we were stuck with whatever Motown and religious stations my car radio could pick up. Some people went to a poetry reading after we got home, but I was in no shape for discourse of any kind. I made spaghetti and ate some cookies that my mom had sent for Easter and belatedly realized that all of this had happened on Good Friday. This was my first trip to Wisconsin. Demons sprout everywhere.