Doug Moe: House on the Rock, and the mind behind it, still indescribable

Doug Moe: House on the Rock, and the mind behind it, still indescribable


A reader sent a note the other day mentioning that some of her co-workers had recently toured the House on the Rock, the weird or wonderful — take your pick — tourist attraction near Spring Green.

"They all found it fascinating in a really creepy kind of way," she wrote.

The House on the Rock, with its blend of unique architecture and vast, widely varied collections and exhibits, is often described as indescribable.

My correspondent added, "The group was disappointed to discover not a bit of information on the mind (twisted they felt) behind the project."

She concluded, "It seems like a book opportunity to me."

As it happens, this month marks the 20-year anniversary of the publication of the authorized biography of Alex Jordan, the mind responsible for the House on the Rock.

I'm aware of the anniversary because, well, I wrote the book.

The story behind the book isn't as weird or wonderful as the House itself, but it had its moments.

The book's genesis was another book, "House of Alex," written by former State Journal reporter Marv Balousek, who later became a friend of mine and now lives in Nashville.

Marv's book, which was excerpted in the State Journal, was an expose. Published in 1990, the year after Jordan died, it described personal and business shenanigans on the part of the House on the Rock creator, who was famously publicity shy.

How shy? When "Ripley's Believe It Or Not," a prime-time network show, did a segment on the House, Jordan ignored multiple interview requests. The show's host ended the segment standing in front of the World's Largest Carousel, a favorite House exhibit, and saying, "Thank you, Alex Jordan, wherever you are."

The new hierarchy at the House — Janesville businessman Art Donaldson had purchased it from Jordan in 1988 — didn't like the Balousek book and were in a hurry to publish their own.

They contacted me at Madison Magazine and asked if I could produce a manuscript in six months. Full of the folly of relative youth, I said I thought I could.

They didn't insist that I ignore Jordan's shortcomings, but the understanding was that the authorized book would not be an expose.

Within those parameters, it was an interesting six months. I did more than a dozen interviews, first talking to Don Martin, who over three decades worked on nearly every House exhibit, and who, like virtually everyone else, described Jordan as a complicated mix of hubris and shyness, cruelty and kindness.

Longtime House manager John Korb told me, "Alex was undoubtedly the most complex man I've ever known."

Korb made available a taped interview he'd conducted with eccentric Madison artist Sid Boyum, an off and on friend of Jordan's for six decades who claimed the impetus for the House on the Rock was a snub of Jordan's father by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

I even managed a short interview with Jennie Olson, Jordan's longtime companion who inherited the bulk of his considerable estate. She was polite but not forthcoming.

The book did not contend for any prizes, but I still get mail about it, and familiar names pop up now and then. Just a few years ago, Tom Kupsh, a House on the Rock sculptor I interviewed for the book, published a book of his own, a biography of Tom Every, a metal artist who once worked at the House and today is better known as Dr. Evermor.

It was about a decade ago that a young Minneapolis woman, Amy Thompson, got in touch while working on a documentary of Alex Jordan. She saw parallels between Jordan and the filmmaker David Lynch. The House let her film inside, but as far as I know, the documentary has yet to appear.

On a personal level, I do feel I've left one stone unturned. Greg Burke, the general manager two decades ago, gave me a flashlight tour in the cold and dark of winter, but the fact is I have never visited the House on the Rock when it was open. Maybe this is the year.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.


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