The House on the Rock by Ken Rosenberger

One weekend in May, Mark Beesley, who has playing host to Ken Rosenberger (Atlanta) and Robert Geraci (Syracuse, NY) lured them--dragging the Flemings in tow with the promise of beer and cheese in Monroe (Wisconsin) to the "world-famous" House on the Rock.  Here is a brief account made by one of the victims, Ken Rosenberger.

The statuary on the road in should have been a dead giveaway, a warning to stay away. Grotesque lizards gamboled happily on metal spheroids, as if Modern Disney had tried to adapt “The Call of Cthulhu” into an animated family feature. It was downhill from there.

The telling phrase in the short documentary playing in the Exhibit Center was something like, “…and he received some financial support from his parents.”  Ah, the many body blows our civilization has been dealt by the trust fund baby, over the years. With their needs already met, they are free to emancipate the rest of us. From that standpoint, Alex Jordan’s nightmarish House on the Rock is relatively harmless.  It’s not a new federal program or a Gates Foundation Global Sustainability Initiative. It’s not even a scruffy and aggressive trustafarian shaking you down for spare change in an Asheville coffee shop, during your mountain getaway weekend. It’s a kitschy attraction well off the main highway, and no one’s forcing you to lay down your $15 (bare bones tour) tariff.   It’s no worse than a lot of what the free market charlatans have on offer. Unfortunately, PT Barnum was right about the birthrate of suckers. The same paying public that has gladly turned Steven Spielberg into an “important” director has made the House on the Rock into the #1 tourist attraction in Wisconsin. 

But in case you get the wrong idea, let me say that the House is awful. I’d call it cheesy, but that’s not really a pejorative term in Wisconsin.  One imagines the eternally-juvenile Chicago entrepreneur Hugh Hefner must have visited the House on the Rock once or twice. Perhaps on a short bunny hop up from his Lake Geneva resort.  Is this where the idea for Mansion West’s famous Grotto was hatched, here in these cave-like rooms, dimly-lit and bestrewn with all manner of expensive gewgaws: automated musical instruments and bare-breasted statues and tacky trimming from floor to low-hung ceiling? A robotized-cello, for instance, offered a particularly monotonous Bolero. I hadn’t expected to be reminded of Bo Derek in rural Wisconsin, but there was no escaping it.

We took the short tour, which was the second-best option, the best choice being to bypass the House entirely and head straight to the the Shoe House--the  monster shoe outlet in Black Earth with  800,000 pairs on sale.

At least the people of Wisconsin—as near as I could tell—seem largely unaffected by the House on the Rock. Leave it for the Iowans, the downstate Illini, the sophisticated Twin-City-ites. After all, the tourist dollar trickles down. Later at lunch, as we were enjoying our veal sausage and Roesti in New Glarus, I looked around at the well-fed and rosy-cheeked faces of our fellow diners in the Glarner Stube Restaurant. Badger Staters are a happy lot, I’m told, and here was all the confirmation one needed. If any of them had been to the House on the Rock, none of them seemed worse for wear. 

The final verdict on Alex Jordan’s obsession: exhibit A in the case for a 100% inheritance tax.


The Fleming Foundation

12 Responses

  1. Rex Scott says:

    Very well written. I hear of these excursions often. Glad you survived.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Great job, Ken. Thank you very much for passing this along

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I invite other regular readers to submit pieces. I should add that Ken only talked about the worst aspect of that day. I’ll try to add a few things.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I am a former Wisconsinite, but I have never been to the House on the Rock. (I do have a small book describing it somewhere in my files.) I have been to Wall Drug in Wall, SD when I was a teen though. Has anyone been there recently? I was most impressed by the shooting range right in the store where you could try out your firearms prior to purchase. I was allowed to buy only a silver dollar on a heavy silver chain for my girlfriend. Apparently she was not impressed as I never saw her wear it. Who knew girls did not like stuff like that?

  5. Robert Peters says:

    My son was married in Wisconsin and still lives there, married. A some point during the three days of rehearsal supper, wedding breakfast, the ceremony, and the after action, I was invited to go to the House on the Rock, not too far from the wedding venue. Upon my arrival with a gaggle of guests from the wedding party, most of whom I did not know, I immediately ascertained that I should have remained at the resort for a nap. My first mistake was that I had not drive myself; I had to wait two long hours until the driver of the vehicle broke the thrall of the enchanted place. My second mistake was being with the good folks I was with. They were delighted with each detail of the place. I managed to get through the two hours by imagining that I was back home on Hardwater Lake on a hot and sultry July day fishing for bream while dealing with alligators, water moccasins, wasps, mosquitoes and willow limbs slapping me in the face, looking forward to the frying of fresh fish that evening.

    Roesti in New Glarus is another matter. On my paternal side, we are descended from Rhineland Franks and stoic East Prussians from Königsberg. I spent a year in Austria and twelve years in Germany; so, New Glarus, when I make the tortured drive from Louisiana to Wisconsin once a year, is a most welcomed Germanic oasis with just enough fauxness to remind one that Germany it ain’t; but then Germany ain’t Germany any longer either.

    Mr. Rosenberger, I hope to see you this summer!

  6. Ken Rosenberger says:

    I hope to see you as well, Mr Peters. Once again you have managed to weave a good story into one of your comments. I hope you are spending some time writing your memoirs. I would imagine them to be in the vain of A Wake for the Living. Even if you never published them, what a treasure trove for your family.

    I wish you had been with our little group on your maiden voyage to the HOTR. Good company, great conversation, pretty scenery, and Roesti too. The refreshment stops on the ride home and the spread laid out by our estimable host at Journey’s End put the cap on a memorable day. If anything makes me an American patriot it’s the enjoyment of so many different regional offerings (the HOTR notwithstanding). We have so many fine little destinations to provide an excuse for a group of friends to hit the road together. This is the diversity that really is our strength in flyover country.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I interpret the theme here to be about what communities do to turn themselves into tourist destinations. Hence my comment about Wall. I recall seeing signs in London and Athens in the 70s with the mileage to Wall Drug.
    Annapolis is fairly successful (if you can call it a success to be crowded with tourists) in this endeavor. The Naval Academy is here. Every year they have week-long sailboat and powerboat shows. Also many other activities to attract outsiders.
    Recent attention has focused on the city dock area which floods more frequently now due to sinking of the land common on the east coast. A large area is a parking lot. So the issue is to enlarge nearby parking garages and dedicate the lot to something else. That is the issue: what to use the area for. Leading idea is a park. They recently called in someone who was long-time mayor of a southern coastal city for his advice. He may have some good ideas. Only time will tell.
    My wife and I seldom go to the downtown and city dock area. If it gets more crowded with tourists we will be less likely to go there. But at least we do not have homeless people sleeping on the streets.

  8. David Wihowski says:

    I have lived in Wisconsin for three fourths of my 60 years and have avoided The House on the Rock for reasons unknown, though in retrospect I would most likely attribute it to the fact that the only people who have given it favorable reviews were the same sort of people who rave about the most recent blockbuster movie or popstar or trendy ethnic restaurant. Thankfully a large portion of the Wisconsin population usually just visits distant family members or goes “up north” for their vacations. “Going up north” is a cliché among Wisconsinites living in the southern or urban parts of the state; it always means going camping, going to a family cottage (often jointly owned by several members of a family), or renting a cottage on a lake somewhere north, or sometimes merely west, of where they live. The activity normally includes cooking outdoors, napping in hammocks or camp cots, hiking or biking in the woods, evenings around campfires, excursions to a local ice cream parlor, fishing, boating, swimming or waterskiing for those who can afford a powerboat. Some of my best childhood vacation memories come from our family visits to my uncle’s cottage (actually an old, small trailer house) in the woods.

  9. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Mr Wihowski, I appreciate your memories of Wisconsin. I got the distinct impression that Wisconsinites have found many worthy pursuits to occupy their time, that don’t involve the HOTR. I would say that in avoiding the homogenizing forces of the present day, Wisconsin has better than most states kept hold of their own sovereignty. But then I live in Atlanta, which is no better than LA (where I spent the 80s and most of the 90s) these days. Even the genteel Georgia accent has been trained about pretty much everyone.

  10. Jacob Johnson says:

    A very amusing read to a former four year old fascinated with that poorly maintained robotic cello.

  11. James E. Easton says:

    Giving that I dislike Frank Wright’s designs, I have never been to HOTR and intend never to go there. Our daughter in law graduated from SIU Med School that weekend, more proof God answers prayers, and we were unable to join our visitors until after their trip to Wisconsin.

  12. James D. says:

    I’ve toured Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob many times. While the settings are spectacular, the architecture is putrid and the engineering is worse. Fallingwater began falling down almost immediately. The reinforced concrete cantilevers never worked and have been suspended by steel guy wires for decades. The crumbling concrete is constantly patched and replaced. The windows are barely functional and many (most) have been replaced and are rarely opened. The interior is designed for midgets, and I don’t say this from the point of view of an obese, ugly American. I am tall, so I’m used to having to duck through doorways and shimmy around counters, etc., but the interior of the house is incredibly confined. Doorways and points of ingress and egress are blocked, with limited sight lines and features blocking one’s view. It is an amazing contrast for a house to be set in a limitless wilderness, but for the home to be a low ceiling sardine can. With a crowd in the house, it induces claustrophobia. I wonder if it was intentional.