I recently went to House on the Rock for the first time in my life. As someone who has lived in Wisconsin for almost thirteen years now, I have to admit that a trip to one of Wisconsin’s most famous tourist attractions was long overdue. To be honest, I’m not sure why it took me this long. It’s not like it would be difficult to convince people to go with me or that I was uncertain about whether or not I’d enjoy the trip. I just sort of never went. Like how I never went to a local branch of a coffeeshop chain I’ve long enjoyed since settling in one place after college. I don’t have a good reason, I just never went. I never felt like going during a time when I had the opportunity to go and I never felt the inclination so strongly that I made an opportunity to go, despite visiting a state park near House on the Rock many times.
Having now gone, I can say that it was pretty much like I expected. The descriptions in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods always made me think the space had more of a “warehouse” feel to it than the sort of carefully arranged collection of oddities that actually occupies the space. It was exactly as much of a trip as the book made it seem, though. Sure, there wasn’t a conflict of gods happening throughout it, but it definitely felt like the place a bunch of modern gods would show up in. What made up for that loss was actually the context the foundation tried to provide at the visitor center near the start of the walk-through.
I don’t remember many of the specifics from the various informational placards, but a few things leapt out at me and the general sense I got from said placards informed the way I saw the rest of the collection. Despite the clear eccentricity of the collection being a selling point, the descriptions of the collector, Alex Jordan, seem to have been sanitized in order to avoid offense to the more conservative leaning folks of the world. Even though Jordan clearly lived a non-traditional life, so much of the truth seems to have been scrubbed away in order to make the origin of this collection “more palatable.” Given that it has been decades since Jordan passed away and so much of his life was clearly sanitized, I can only wonder what else inside the displays has been changed so as to be “suitable” for all audiences. Which feels ridiculous given the number of artistic presentations that include topless or nude women. Somehow all that was fine, but admitting that Jordan had a romantic partner who he never married but still lived with was unacceptable. They had to call her his “companion and friend.” Hogwash.
Because I had already seen so much clear sanitization of the history of the man who built the collection, I couldn’t help but wander through the aging, slowly decaying collections and wonder what else has been altered to be more palatable. Every open space that seemed like it should have held something was a place for my imagination to fill in a blank and the strangeness of the collection that remains set a very high bar for how weird or strange something must have been to warrant removal. Sure, it’s possible that parts of the collection have merely broken and been removed rather than left to collect dust like so many of the music machines, but it’s difficult to trust that nothing beyond the history of the man was sanitized.
I’m not saying it wasn’t a nearly incomprehensible experience. It was, and still is, difficult to determine if I enjoyed it or merely survived it, but I had this thought in the back of my mind that maybe there was something missing. That maybe things had been pushed in a “safer” direction, despite the clear disregard for safety in the collections at large. I mean, I was pretty much blinded by a bunch of lights and mirrors in one section of the walk-through, forced to rely on the voices of my friends to guide me through it as I shut my eyes against the vertigo-inducing sight of all that lights stretched out by the mixture of astigmatism and faint blurriness in my dominant eye (a result of my on-going eye problems that only comes up when looking at specific types of lights that aren’t terribly common and every single LED anything ever) and none of the music machines had any sort of notice about how loud or quiet they’d be.
I don’t have much to say about the collections. I feel like I’m not yet in a place to share my thoughts in that regard (I need to go through there another time or two to figure those out), but it definitely left an impression that maybe this sort of thing was way more unique before the internet. Half the sites I used to visit before social media turned the internet into like five websites had a similar feeling to walking through House on the Rock, and most of them didn’t sanitize the history of the person who created/curated the odd collections. I guess I left there with a lot to think about, but mostly in regards to the way even the eccentric are sanitized for general consumption rather than about how strange the experience was.