Monday, March 28, 2005

House on the Rock

If you're ever in Wisconsin, you must visit House on the Rock. Built by Alex Jordan, a budding architect who Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed with the declaration, “I wouldn’t hire you to design a cheese crate or a chicken coop”, House on the Rock is a sprawling monument of obsessive collections and shambolic claustrophobic architecture built upon a 60-foot chimney of rock.

I have been putting off this entry for weeks now.
There is so much to describe about this place, it’s quite impossible to put it into words.

One of the main attractions is ‘The Infinity Room’, which is a ridiculous tapered glass structure that juts out from the rock and dangles precariously 50 feet over the forest. The structure is very frightening, especially when every heavy footfall from fat tourists makes the ramshackle structure shake.

After crawling through the low ceilinged, carpeted corridors dimly lit by Tiffany lamps, you eventually come out to the real attraction- the automated music machines. There are about 20-30 of these marvels, some with such stunning craftsmanship featuring whole doll orchestras banging out the Bolero and the Hungarian Rhapsody.

Since these machines were built in the 1940’s, they are in various states of disrepair. A lot of sour notes are squeezed out, the music phases in and out of time, the dead drum heads sound like suitcases. Sometimes most of the music is pre-recorded and piped in with just one lonely out of tune automated instrument trying to keep up. It is truly a sonic feast, especially when more than one machine is struggling to fart out a song.

Here are four field recording mp3s from these great machines. The House on the Rock giftshop sells CD's of the music, but it is very sterile, very in-tune, not very interesting.

House on the Rock Automated Music 1
House on the Rock Automated Music 2
House on the Rock Automated Music 3
House on the Rock Automated Music 4

Further into the labyrinth, you enter the carousel room, home of the largest carousel in the world which features 239 grotesque carousel beasts rotating at a ridiculously fast speed. There is a cacophony of piped in music accompanied by a rolling thunderous white noise produced by cherubs suspended from the ceiling banging away on dead tympani drums. Hundreds of topless winged mannequin angels rotate overhead on what seem to be medieval torture devices.

Read more about House on the Rock
See more pictures of House on the Rock
House on the Rock website

UPDATE 4/24/5
WFMU's "Beware of the Blog" posted a brief entry on The House on the Rock and reader/listener Todd D. wrote in with this great explaination and description:

Hi from Madison, Wisc. Alex Jordan is a fascinating character - even more so when you dig beneath the official local tourist lore. He built the House on the Rock as a personal Bali Hai/ Space Age bachelor pad/ Shangri-La. He brought underage girls from Spring Green to party and parlayed money made from patents on inventions into hanging out with movie stars and politicians, blackmailing them with compromising photographs, using that money to become a slumlord in Madison to make money to buy tons and tons of weird crap (a suit of armor for an elephant, a carousel horseman of the apocalypse with a bouquet of heads on the saddle, the world's largest collection of angel wings, etc.).

Don't miss the scenic overlook under the House on the Rock that sits across the valley from eternity needle thing. Coolest smoke spot in south central Wisconsin. THE best thing about the House though is seeing the tourists go from enthused in the first half hour, to confused midway through the seemingly endless maze of bizarre crap, to totally annoyed by the end of the four hours it takes to go through the menagerie. Everyone leaves pissed off.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, this is Domenica again, you posted a comment a few weeks back. I went with my parents to see this place 1989 or 1990 and it changed my life and The House on the Rock has been one of the most important objects to have shaped my consciousness and inspiration. And you have the music from it!! That place was so wonderful to me, and I especially like the Oriental room, which you have a picture of, because I liked the music. Thank you so much, your blog is the best I've seen yet for real!

10:54 PM  
Anonymous OddioKatya said...

Planning a tour of mechanical museums in the NE USA this summer. I hadn't intended to be in Wisconsin, but now I feel compelled. Love the mechanical music. Thanks for the heads up!

You know about the Musee Mecanique in San Fran, CA? That one blew my mind when I was small. So many happy memories, so many cool relics. 1 or 2 or 3

4:23 PM  
Blogger Fatty Jubbo said...

thank you for the links Katya! A friend has told me about this place, but I had not actively sought it out on the internet. (i must plug her photos- she travels to various theme parks, mostly abandoned)

domenica- thank you, I'm glad yr enjoying the site!

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

It appears that my other comment was deleted, as I cannot find it on here. Nonetheless, the important thing is that most of the large mechanical music displays are fake, and the instruments just mime along with a synthesized MIDI-type track played through speakers. Oftentimes, the electro-pneumatic percussion actions are very crudely built and operate poorly compared to the fine, effective actions with excellent repetition found in theater organs and real orchestrions. This explains the time lag between synth and percussion. As a matter of fact, in the "Blue Danube" music machine, the drums were about a full beat and a half behind the music! So were the shaker chimes in the top, which is why they sounded out of tune. I would guess maybe 1/3 or so of the actual real automatic music at the house has been restored. Next time you go, look for the "Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina" on the second floor of the Heritage of the Sea building. It is behind sliding glass doors in a salon-type environment. You must ask an employee on hand to play it for you. It is a real genuine antique, which actually plays 3 violins (one string each) and piano with realistic expression! then, in the transportation are a large fairground organ and an Encore automatic banjo (which actually plays a 4-string banjo). These have all been restored to nice playing condition. I would like to know where you got the "1940's" bit. Practically no mechanical music was being built in that decade due to the war and the fact the popularity of the instruments had died off about 1930 or so, and wouldn't be revived until the 1950's. Please don't diss the whole field of mechanical music based on the House on the Rock. (especially the bogus machines). I am glad someone mentioned the musee mecanique; they have some nice playing coin pianos and orchestrions, some of them with hot music loaded on the roll frames!

Now please go here and look around:

4:45 AM  
Blogger Fatty Jubbo said...

andrew- your previous comment is on the reposting of this post which appears HERE

I was not dismissing mechanical music at all. Whereas I do love and appreciate the machines in their intended prestine condition, I also love the broken down, out of tune aspect of the mechanical music I witnessed at House On The Rock. This is not ironic mockery either- I genuinely like the chance aspect of eventual decay and I love the sound of something familiar sounding slightly off.

well- the "1940s" bit comes from complete ignorance on my part and a lazy lack of research. I wrote this thing when I first started the blog- I wasn't too meticulous and didn't think anyone actually read it.

Thank you for sharing all your knowledge of these machines.

5:08 AM  

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