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?
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.