What do you get when you combine one wealthy man’s fantasy, an eccentric architect, your dad’s basement, and a dash of mythology? According to my friend Josh, you get the most American place in America.
So, when my buddy Joshua pitched a road trip to the House on the Rock to me on the Fourth of July, I acquiesced.
“You’ll love House on the Rock,” he says in a way that sounds like he’s trying to convince himself rather than stating a fact. "It's the best American monument because it represents both the good and bad of America.”
A brief bit of history: The House on the Rock, which opened to the public in the late 1950s, is the brainchild of Alex Jordan Jr., an eccentric recluse who, legend has it, built the house to spite Frank Lloyd Wright.
Seventy years later, the house is having a second renaissance, thanks to STARZ show American Gods (based on the Neil Gaiman book of the same name), which filmed its season-two premiere at the location.
While the show has brought new fans, House on the Rock already has a sizable cult following, with hordes of visitors gleefully indulging in a five-hour tour inside the windowless, maze-like structure throughout the year.
I ask Josh how many times he has been to this place.
"Five or six times, I think," he replies.
Turns out he’s one of those cult followers.
My first impression? I’m unimpressed.
First of all, House on the Rock isn't a particularly creative name, mostly because it's literally a house on a large rock.
The exterior isn't great either, consisting of carefully groomed and majorly boring landscaping that can only be enjoyed while trekking through a never-ending set of covered bridges leading to the house. Shortcuts? Don’t even think about it. There are no shortcuts to be found here or anywhere in the house.
I am, however, highly amused that the Bavarian-style tunnels of forced outdoor enjoyment were not made for tall people; my 6’3” travel partner attempts to take in the view while completely hunched over in some vain attempt to avoid hitting his head.
We reach the end of the outdoor maze, and head inside. First stop: the infinity room.
Jutting out of the main structure is the most recognizable -- and arguably most questionably built -- part of the house. Appearing like the plank off a pirate ship, the infinity room is basically a tunnel of windows that shrinks from normal size down to the point of a pen in just a few strides.
The room's claim to fame is that it's completely unsupported, a feature that becomes more apparent the closer you get to the pointed side... or when the wind blows. The pirate plank is also covered in glass windows, making it a lovely, sweaty sauna that, if you’re lucky, is filled with other weirdo tourists at the same time.
Enjoy it while you can, because it'll be the last ray of sunshine you'll see for the next five hours.
What lies beyond the infinity room leads me to my second impression: WTF?!
The first few rooms of the main house are interesting if you enjoy looking inside a stranger's home. There's a spiral wooden staircase covered in carvings featuring Genghis Khan, a stained glass table with what appears to be the Mortal Kombat logo, a room of clown-themed piggy banks, and a bunch of boring rooms with carpet-covered walls.
But what begins as a voyeur novelty quickly becomes a five-hour reality.
Minutes soon turn into hours. There are no windows, no shortcuts, no clocks, few visitors, and almost no staff. Just excess upon excess of shit.
There are rooms filled with old doll collections, rooms of old medical equipment, a pyramid of elephants, some crown jewels, a steam traction tractor weighing 39 tons, a horse-drawn hearse, and a bunch of saxophones that play on their own. There's a 200-foot whale fighting giant squid sea monsters. I could go on and on.
There are times where the House reminds me of a larger version of my father’s basement. In fact, I notice a few items that indeed exist in my father’s basement, including a bust of a sailor smoking a wooden pipe and some weird Arabian masks.
Then there’s the grotto.
With burnt orange walls and matted shag sofas, the grotto reeks of 1970s porn set aesthetic. However, the accents of medieval cookwear and hanging stained glass light fixtures add a creepy, handmaiden-meets-TGI Friday’s vibe.
That said, the grotto makes a great backdrop for your new Tinder profile pic.
The carousel was my favorite part, both because of its impressive size (it’s the largest indoor carousel in the world!) and also because it’s adjacent to the exit. Unfortunately, the spinning menagerie of zebras, dragons, and various human/animal combos is sectioned off by an obnoxious metal fence, making the topless mermaids and centaurs unrideable.
As I take in all this random crap, I wonder why a man would spend his life accumulating a stupidly large amount of junk. What seems like a vast and quirky collection of stuff is really a metaphor for something more profound: The House on the Rock is not just a hoarder’s wet dream; it is the embodiment of consumerism, capitalism, and the desire to own crap for crap’s sake.
Josh was right. This is the most American place in America.