It’s not until you reach the room with the giant whale wrestling a squid that you realize the sheer magnitude of the madness into which you’ve descended. Squid, sea, whale, all double life-size, roaring up out of the concrete floor in an anonymous pole-barn in the Wisconsin prairie. It was all constructed over a half century by a madman with too much money and barely enough sense – a true hero, no doubt, to the tourist trap industry. This seems like the man who really gets the “trap” part of tourist trap. Once you leave his house, with its low, rocky ceilings, perilous, overhanging infinite room, and copious amounts of sex couches, you enter a series of windowless tunnels (corridors? hallways?) with seemingly no exits, only an ever longer stretch of insane, outlandish festishism, mysticism, and impractical American-ness, from the hulking Streets of America exhibit all the way to the churning, musical merry-go-round surrounded by a chorus of nude angelic babes. It’s staggering. At the end (if there even is an end – we skipped the third exhibit), you stagger out into the sunlight, the blinding rays like acid wash for your eyes. Good god! you think. Life goes on! The world isn’t just a miasma of merry-go-rounds and music boxes and rooms filled with string instruments playing themselves like some Haunted Mansion from hell.
At $25 a pop, a visit to House on the Rock sounds absurdly expensive when all you know is that you’ll be touring some rich dude’s weird house he built out in the middle of nowhere. Taliesen is right down the road, and at least that weird house was built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Architect with that kind of street cred, I know my cash will be well spent. But the House on the Rock simply doesn’t sound as promising. And, at first, it isn’t. You pass through a pleasant garden, complete with waterfall and koi and a dragon sculpture earnestly spitting water into the pond. There’s an exhibit about the man, the architect, the name I have forgotten who crafted this whole experience over the course of a lifetime. Naturally, we skipped it. Who wants to look at some stale dioramas of Wisco prairie life when there’s a house to wander through! A house on a rock!
The house itself is like a Hobbit sex den – ceilings no higher than six feet, velvet cushion benches everywhere, immense walk-in fireplaces and stoves seemingly the central driving interest for this architect of madness. Perhaps he loves to host an orgy next to a great boiling stew? He certainly has the space and the cauldrons. Some rooms had no clear design purpose – a stained glass table, a bench, another bench, a sex couch, a rock wall. I think, ideally, anyone coming into his home would have spent the day munching on extremely potent mushrooms.
Let’s just hope the extraordinarily high guests stuck to the orgy sofas and didn’t wander into the more…intense exhibits. For a person who might already be watching the walls melt, stumbling into the tightly packed madhouse of raucous self-propelled musical instruments might pulp one’s frontal cortex. It starts off gently enough, with the Streets of America, a genial recreation of a storefront-laden, seemingly prosperous town from the late nineteenth century. There are a few minor toys and a wonderful fortune-telling booth that produces cards reading, “What can I say about you, you are just so GOOD.” At the end of the street lies an immense organ machine, farting out some pleasant marching band tune. It all feels like a steamboat ride down the Mississippi, finding yourself in Mark Twain’s America just in time for the Fourth of July parade. It all really has nothing to do with future exhibits. It’s primarily a taste-test – can you fathom that one man created this? An entire fake street in a warehouse? Simply because he could? if you can accept this rich man wasting his money, then you’re safe to move on.
Because the very next room features the fifty-fucking-foot tall whale sculpture. Yes, it is three stories. If you climb all the way to the top you can almost walk through the whale’s massive, gaping maw. If such an experience doesn’t kill you (and it’s not unreasonable to expect that it would), you’ll find yourself moving on to another vast warehouse containing an ice cream parlor, a series of unrelated automobiles, and what is proposed to be a Rube-Goldberg machine, despite the fact that it remains motionless. The ice cream parlor closes earlier than you might expect, but forunately this misfortune is assuaged by the next warehouse, which contains all the music rooms. By that, I mean rooms filled with musical instruments that play themselves. Watching a violin, stood upright in a chair, attached to a series of motors and saws and pulleys that crank out surprisingly decent music, one is struck by the situation’s remarkable similarity to torture. The violin is trapped, strapped to the chair by these crude devices, constantly tugged and pulled at in unnatural ways so as to produce something resembling music without the longed-for interference of man. All thanks to a bunch of fat midwesterners, dropping a handful of tokens into a red box. The bastards. Don’t they know the instruments’ anguish? But then The Nutcracker Suite whirls into action and the fat midwesterners laugh and howl and point and their children sigh and fart, eager to leave this stupid music with no beat, no Rihanna, because they know the next room contains the merry-go-round.
The merry-go-round. If you can even term it as such. It’s round and it goes, but it’s certainly not merry. Draped in nude angels and angled mirrors like a heavenly car accident, the merry-go-round lures you in with its promise of music and fun, then traps you with sex-crazed mannequins dangling from the roof. Gentle spinning as it sprays music, the machine is far more reminiscent of a retro-future torture device than it is of an enjoyable carnival diversion. Clearly it is here, in this room, that the creator of this place finally lost touch with reality. The giant whale I can understand in some way – huge things are cool. But a whirling death organ such as this could only seep from the mind of a deeply troubled soul. Fortunately, by the time you make it this far into the House on the Rock, your mind has reached the saturation point – it’s all just lights and noise and oh thank God an exit sign. Sigh of relief because you’re free…but the real world does seem just a tad diminished once the tour is over. Maybe that’s why the kooky old millionaire kept building – he couldn’t stand the idea of the bland real world ever creeping in around the edges.