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Mistaken identity

On occasion my own stupidity astonishes me. I’m gullible. There are times I find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. And sometimes I just get the wrong end of the paper plate. Like thinking that the House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, was a controversial creation by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I couldn’t have been  more wrong.

Having just missed the last tour the day before, we drove back the following morning in plenty of time to make the 11 o’clock first tour of the day. As we hung around the visitors centre, it soon became clear that Wright’s wasn’t the mind behind the madness. It was Alex Jordan’s. And who, in the name of all that’s ever been draughted, was Alex Jordan, we wondered and why had I given up a day in Chicago to tour the one and only thing he ever designed or built? A house that has been called the tackiest place in America. A house that some call creepy? A house that others say is evil?

IMG_3587 (800x542)The story has it that Jordan’s father wanted to build a parody of FLW’s work in the shape of a Japanese house. Jordan took over the project from him and the original house came to be, a warren of low-ceilinged, dark IMG_3594 (800x589)IMG_3593 (800x600)IMG_3610 (800x600)rooms, lit with lamps that look like Tiffany lamps but are not. In fact, lots of stuff looks like other stuff, but isn’t. It seems Jordan took great delight in fooling people and would pay more for a good forgery that he might for the real thing. The place has no freestanding furniture or designated bedroom and while certainly intriguing and different, it’s not built to live in. It’s a house, not a home.

I was enthralled. I still haven’t decided if I liked it but it certainly made an impression. Every nook and cranny has something to look at. The lighting is poor though and the carpeted ceilings take some getting use to. Seats are built into walls. Trees and waterfalls vie for space with pianos and double-bases.  Random collections of musical IMG_3607 (800x600)instruments play tunes like the Hungarian Rhapsody. It’s all very surreal.

The house itself is accessed by a long wooden walkway that wends its way through the treetops high above the ground below. The view is magical. Especially in winter.

IMG_3598 (800x600)IMG_3637 (800x600)IMG_3612 (800x600)IMG_3656 (800x600)As Jordan added bits and pieces, people passing by started asking for a look around. And he started charging 50c for the privilege. He used this money to indulge his obsession for collecting things, sending staff around the world in search of oddities to add to his retreat. (Where was I when he was hiring?) If he spent three nights in the place, that was it. And while I liked its quirkiness, it would he horrible to heat, terrible to read in, and way too dark for sanity. But it is certainly something.

As we went from room to room walking in procession along the winding corridors that seemed subterranean, I was struck by a sense of displacement. I usually have no trouble imagining myself living anywhere. I have a fondess for stately homes and can lose myself in IMG_3664 (800x600)IMG_3658 (800x600)IMG_3661 (800x600)fantasies about holding court around a vast dining-room table without much trouble, the overwhelming sense I had here was one of extreme loneliness. Jordan called it a retreat and it is just that – a retreat – somewhere to escape to, to be alone, to lose yourself in. And get lost I would. Never the best at
orientiation, I was completely lost and didn’t know which way was up.

The lamps, the blue-glassed windows, the stained glass, the stones, the rocks, the trees.  My favourite room in the whole place though, wasn’t the library. It was the infinity room. At 218  feet long it has 3264 windows
and  extends unsupported for about 140 feet over the valley below about 15 stories high. Now this was a room I could spend time in. If it had a chair. Or a couch. I’d even settle for a beanbag.

IMG_3620 (800x600)IMG_3624 (800x600)IMG_3704 (800x600)IMG_3713 (800x600)IMG_3717 (800x600)IMG_3725 (800x600)I imagine though that it could get a little hairy in high winds and I’m not all that sure about the glass floor at the end – looking through that was a little head-wrecking. But it is absolutely stunning. Breathtaking.  Even if it wasn’t FLW.

But the house was only the half of it. The madness continued. In 1971, Streets of Yesterday opened. This indoor re-creation of old time America is a nostalgic look at how things used to be. There’s a hotel, a cinema, a theatre, shops, houses, and what’s claimed
to be the world’s biggest carousel. There’s fortune-telling machines, French postcard viewers, cobbestones, and trees. There’s all sorts of stuff you can try out with tokens. And because we were only getting half the tour (it being winter), we got our
tokens for free.

The full tour can take a day and is miles long – literally – dotted with restaurants and cafés. The complete attraction experience. While I thought the house was mad, this was bordering on twee. Not quite there, but it’s just one angelhair of candy floss away. And it’s all down to one man’s determination to build stuff people would want to some see, an attraction tailored-made for middle America. Frank Lloyd Wright it ain’t but  it’s certainly something.

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We planned, Wisconsin laughed

I was excited. Very excited. The day was planned. A lunchtime catch-up with a cousin I’d not seen in years in Wisconsin Dells, followed by a visit to the Clown Museum in Baraboo. And then on to Spring Green to see the House on the Rock, the Franklin Lloyd Wright masterpiece. It didn’t get much better.

I have fond (and not so fond) memories of rooting in the lining of my bag to see if I could conjure up another quarter in some vain attempt to make good on my losses in Vegas. I wouldn’t have thought myself able to pass a slot machine or a roulette wheel or a Caribbean Stud table without stopping to place a quick bet. A couple of years ago, in Vegas, I discovered that the casino gene had left me, so when my cousin suggested meeting  for lunch in the Ho Chunk  Casino in Wisconsin Dells, I didn’t have to clean out my wallet and leave the credit cards at home.

IMG_3532 (800x600)IMG_3534 (800x600)Waterfalls running indoors beside escalators. Eagles suspended from a blue-cloud ceiling. All running  to the background music of slot machines and the heady smell of cigarettes and beer. I came, I saw, I ate, I chatted, and I never laid a bet. A minor miracle.

Wisconsin Dells needs to be seen in summer when the boats are running and you can get a full view of the amazing rock formations. Add that to the fact that my cousin’s hubby is a dab hand at making brandy old fashioneds and I can see a reason to come back.

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IMG_3547 (600x800)Next stop was Baraboo, the winter home of Ringling Bros., and Barnum and Bailey circuses from the late 1880s to the end of WWII. Where is Dr Who when you need him… I’d happily go back in time to say, 1904, and come visit then. It must have been amazing. All those exotic animals, off-duty clowns, acrobats with nothing but trees to swing out of… just imagine the craic in the pub on a Saturday night. I was like a child. So excited. But all for nowt. The place was closed up. For the winter. I was gutted.

IMG_3549 (600x800)“What began in 1959 with less than an acre of land, six old circus wagons and a boatload of passion, has now become an internationally recognized and respected institution encompassing 64 acres, 30 permanent structures, seven winter quarters buildings along Water Street, plus the Ringling Bros. Circus Train shed complex. Circus World is Wisconsin’s National Treasure.” This I got from the website. The rest I saw through the windows and fences. Cruel, I thought. So cruel, to be on the outside looking in.

IMG_3550 (800x600)Yet another reason to go back to Wisconsin in summer. The 4th Annual Big Top Parade takes place in July… mmmm…  And while I’m in the vicinity, I might just check out the summer clown workshops at the clown school. Never too late to entertain thoughts of a career change.

IMG_3553 (800x600)Baraboo looked like an interesting little town but it was too damn cold to walk around. With temperatures at the minus level, the wind had a bite to it that would break through the downiest down. We stayed just long enough to snoop around the buildings, bump into the local alligator, peer through a few windows, and satisfy ourselves that there was no way we were getting inside.  Later investigations revealed that Bradbury Robinson, he who threw the first forward pass in football history, grew up here. And we missed out on visiting Aldo Leopold’s shack (actually a rehabilitated chicken coop) – a historic monument that dates back to the 1930s. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel. As I added yet another note to my mental list of places to revisit, we soldiered onwards, to Spring Green.

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Wisconsin is flat. And famous for its cheese. They’re big into cheese. Green Bay Packers fans are known as cheeseheads because they wear hats that look like blocks of cheese. Whatever curdles your whey, I say. We passed many old barns in chronic states of disrepair and as I wondered aloud why they were left standing, I learned that it’s from these barns that the ever-so-expensive furniture made from distressed wood gets its start. Yup. The barns are left standing to age the wood. Could it be that natural aging that ups the price? Can a price be put on the humidifier effect of Wisconsin air?

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We pulled up to the House on the Rock [having been denied a view from the road because the scenic look-out was closed (?)] knowing from the website that it wasn’t open but hoping that we might get to see it from the outside anyway. We were fast becoming old hands at sneaking around. But we saw cars. And people. And when we made to park, an attendant came over and told us that they’d just closed. The last tour had been at 3pm! So much for updating your website, lads! I can’t tell you how unimpressed I was. I could see the programme for the next few days reshuffling itself as I wondered what I was prepared to give up so that we could drive back the next day to see it all. I really wanted to see it – in part because I quite like FLW and in part because of my late friend Rex who had been heavily influenced by the architect when he designed and built his house in Kentucky. I figured I could pay homage of sorts. So I mentally gave up Chicago…

It had been a good day, even if Winsonsin was closed. I’d caught up with my cousin, passed up on a bet, added Clown School to my bucket list, and would know the way back  tomorrow.