Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rock On, Historians

There was a time in American history when people who had too much money and not enough medication focused their energy on cultural matters rather than politics.  That was, all things considered, a better time.

The House on the Rock is a relic of that golden age of American culture, when men were men, women were women, small furry grey mammals were small furry grey mammals, and nobody thought twice about the fact that there was an unhinged lunatic running around the world buying kitsch on a Biblical scale in order to stash it in a house he was building by hand way up on (as advertised) a rock, out in the middle of nowhere in central Wisconsin.

I was there yesterday as part of an academic exercise.  I kid you not.

The history department for all of the various campii in our system gathers together every so often to resolve various matters of academic interest, exchange ideas and suggestions for classroom strategies, and say the sorts of things that need to be said but cannot really be committed to paper or electronic records.  My attendance record at these things is quite poor, as it is for most things that require me to leave my house and be sociable, but this year both opportunity and obligation lined up and I went.

On the whole it was a fine time.  I got to hang out with people who share my general bent toward history, many of whom have been doing it longer than I have.  There were any number of good ideas and suggestions, a few chances to socialize (as much as historians are capable of socializing, anyway – alcohol was involved), and the comforting reassurance of colleagues who understand the stress of working for a system that is currently under furious assault from the Teabagger elites.

As part of this meeting, someone managed to get the House on the Rock to let us have a tour of the place.  We watched a short presentation given by one of the staff members – someone who apparently knew and worked closely with the founder of the place – and then they let us loose to wander about and take in the sights.

It’s a difficult place to explain to people who’ve never been there.

The first thing you go through is the House, which looks the sort of place where Elvis would live if he and Frank Lloyd Wright had married sometime in the mid-1970s.  It’s full of odd and uncomfortable angles, shag carpeting, tight turns, narrow halls, low ceilings, sitting spaces tucked into every conceivable corner (none of which look at all inviting), and an astonishing amount of random artifacts situated in exactly the wrong place from an aesthetic point of view.  There are also maybe a dozen full-size pneumatically powered orchestras scattered around the place, and if you feed a token or two into the little red box in front of them you can get them to wheeze and clatter through their respective tunes.  They range from bedroom scenes (complete with the kind of padded ceilings that call to mind either 17th-century Versailles or Miss Cinnamon’s House of Exotic Adventure on the tackier side of Las Vegas) all the way up to a two-story lacquered black and red Mikado scene.  There is also a vaguely Christmassy sort of room that plays “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies.”  Because why not?

On the other hand, there is the Infinity Room, which is a long space cantilevered over the ravine and built more or less in a triangular shape that appears to recede to a point at the end.  You walk out as far as you’re allowed and then you can look down to the floor of the ravine, maybe 60 feet below, and it’s actually kind of cool.

And then you go into what are euphemistically called “the Collections.”

They used to make you buy a single ticket for the Collections, but these days they split it into two pieces so you can escape halfway when the place finally overwhelms your ability to handle it and you have to flee.  I’ve been there three times now, and while I did technically get all the way through it the first time I will admit that this only happened by sprinting at nearly full pace through the last four or five of the nearly thirty rooms, carefully looking only at my shoes and singing loudly enough to drown out the noise of the place.  I haven’t gotten anywhere near that point since.

So I can only really speak to the first half of the Collections is what I’m saying here.

It’s hard to overstate just how much of an assault on the senses the Collections are.  Everywhere you look there is just an astonishing amount of Stuff – lining the walls, arranged along the floor, hanging off the ceiling – on a wide variety of scales, and every time you turn a corner new vistas of clutter and kitsch open up before you.  There’s a room full of cars, including several classic roadsters and some behemoth from the 1960s that was completely covered in ceramic tiles by a tasteless and tacky man.  There’s a room built around a life-sized model of a sperm whale engaged in mortal combat with a giant squid (presumably also life-sized), and you circle the whale on a gradually ascending ramp that goes around all four walls of the room and is lined with model ships ranging from fifteen inches to fifteen feet in length, perhaps a hundred of them, maybe more, about half unlabeled, as well as nautical artifacts and more scrimshaw than is probably legal.  There’s a recreation of a Victorian market street, complete with a dozen or so psychotically overstuffed storefronts, that ends with a calliope straight out of R. Crumb’s nightmares – the full-sized mechanical soldiers moving jerkily in time with the music are seriously creepy.

The first half of the Collections concludes with the Carousel Room, which contains a carousel (naturally enough) that proudly advertises itself as having more electric lights than any other carousel in the world, all of which are turned up to 11.  It spins wildly on its axis, so the hundreds of phantasmagorical carved figures ranging from dragons to naked women go by in a blur.  The music blares.  And overhead, like some deranged cross between The Birds and The Book of Revelation there is a vast flock of mannequins dressed as angels, most of which have acquired clothes since the last time I was there, though not all.

The last time I was there we took the girls – who were maybe 7 and 4 – and our friend Matt, who was visiting from out east.  I was a bit ahead of him when we got to the Carousel Room so I didn’t actually see him when I heard him clearly say “Oh.  My.  God” in the tones that you’d expect from a man confronted with unbridled insanity.  We took the opportunity to escape at that point.

As did the history department.

If I recall right, this means that both times we missed the room with the full-sized ships’ propellers, the wreaths of tympani, and the network of black catwalks that made the room look like something out of Tim Burton’s last therapy session.

I’m not sorry.

Honestly, though, if you get the chance you should go to the House on the Rock at least once.  It’s just one of those places you’ll remember forever, no matter how much you drink afterward, and it really is something to experience.

But once is plenty.


Julie Morris said...

I first when there when it was just a house on a rock.
I think it cost 50 cents and if you signed the guest book your next visit was free. It was a great place for a teenager. We sat on the uncomfortable benches and looked at books and just in general made ourselves at home. We took our kids back in the 70's and we thought it's time we took our granddaughters who will be 11 & 13 when they visit this summer. After reading your post though I'm not sure if I'm up to it.

David said...

Well, it is a challenge, but it is fascinating from a certain point of view. You can't sit on the benches or read the books anymore - they're all blocked off - but the House itself is fairly quiet and I suspect that your granddaughters will find the Collections right up their alley at their age.

They're very friendly there, and the split tickets for the Collections is wonderful.

Please don't let me discourage you from the place. It's overwhelming, bizarre, loud, and quite possibly hard evidence of a disturbed mind, but it's definitely worth visiting.