The Crystal Palace & The House on the Rock
ANNETTE TELLS TALES What Do We Have in Common With Victorian Farmworkers? Being Surprised.
An eccentric house that's now a tourist attraction. That was the subject I planned to write about for you. That was it.
If you're a Neil Gaiman fan (I’m not), or a Wisconsinite, you may have heard of The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
No? Okay. If you're a Californian, think Winchester Mystery House. If you're a Brit, Sir John Soane's Museum. If neither rings a bell, that gives you some idea of the level of The House on the Rock’s fame: it's a maybe you've heard of it kind of place.
You’re more likely to have heard of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and if not? Well, you have now.
The House on the Rock, Wisconsin, July 19, 2021, 11 a.m.
I did not come to The House on the Rock alone. My agreeable spouse HWSNBNOTI (He Who Shall Not Be Named On The Internets, or Hoosen Benoti), and our offspring, Hoosen, Jr., a discerning college student, came along for what we all hoped would be a mildly diverting experience, all secretly entertaining vague hopes of a late lunch afterwards.
Reception area, The House on the Rock. Does this look perfectly normal to you? It does, right? Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021.
After the ticket purchases, we were shepherded into a dismayingly extensive exhibit about the life of Alex Jordan, the otherwise unremarkable man who built the house we were about to see, a man who only traveled once overseas (to the Netherlands, for a total of 48 hours) and even then, rushed home asap to his little apartment in Madison, WI.
I just couldn't get excited about poring over such a large, fawning display about some clearly very nerdy bloke who had done one impressive thing in his life, and even that was something I had yet to be impressed about. I gathered that he was an eccentric architect/collector, and that was about as much as I needed to know, thanks.
If this first exhibit was supposed to be an orientation, it was both unnecessary and unsuccessful. Nothing, honestly, could have prepared any of us for what actually happened at The House on the Rock.
The House on the Rock, Wisconsin, July 19, 2021, 4 p.m.
As we staggered shell-shocked to the exit, a lovely old staff member asked us sweetly, “Did it meet your expectations?”
We all just sort of exclaimed agog things at her.
And then we emerged, blinking, into the sunlight.
Dazed, I turned to Hoosen and Hoosen, Jr. “What did we just do? What was that?”
A Change of Plan for Annette
On the hour-long drive home, we didn't really talk about The House on the Rock. We were all uncharacteristically beyond words. Even days later, as I write this, my powers of description and interpretation remain inadequate to the task. I worry that if I get it wrong, you'll think I'm making much ado about nothing. I'm worried that if I get it right, you'll think someone slipped acid into my Pepsi. So I just decided to scrap the whole thing, and scramble to find another topic for this post. I picked up a book about an event held nearly 200 years ago….
And found my theme.
The Crystal Palace, London, June 12, 1851: Morning
The visitors stood there in staggered silence. Whatever they had expected to see, this was not it. It was far and away beyond the scopes of their imaginations. It was unbelievable.
No, I'm not writing about Hoosen, Hoosen, Jr., and me at The House on the Rock, although I could be.
I'm writing about a large party of farmworkers and their families, most of them on their first ever visit to London, from the neighboring county of Surrey. It was June 12, 1851, almost exactly 170 years ago.
These people were uneducated. But, please note, they were not stupid. Uneducated people often seem stupid, simply because they are uneducated, just as their “betters” intend, all the more easily to hold power over them.
I don't doubt that the farmworkers were aware of Chartism, a movement in the past two decades that marked a rising call for democracy. This came in the wake of the massive and devastating impact of Britain's Industrial Revolution, the world's first, with its catastrophic effects on ordinary people. I imagine they knew of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six farmworkers like themselves who had been cruelly banished to Australia a few years earlier for trying to join a union, and who had since been brought home after a petition signed by 80,000 Brits. The world was changing, even if these folks’ view of it from rural Surrey was obscured.
Like most supposedly “stupid” people, these were intelligent people from whom education had been kept, whose world was deliberately made small, whose experience and grasp of life beyond the fields in which they worked was limited at best.
Yet now, in 1851, all the powerful people the farmworkers knew in their small corner of England, led by their determined clergyman, had decided to open a tiny door for them to start to see what they had been missing.
Back home, the farmworkers’ local church was so impressively large, it was nicknamed “the Westminster Abbey of Surrey.”
But compared to the massive church-like structure in which they now stood, their Surrey church was puny and mundane.
Nothing they had seen before ever in their lives had prepared them for the Crystal Palace, the massive, glittering cathedral of cast iron and glass in which they now stood amazed. This giant greenhouse, designed by a man who normally designed actual greenhouses, was the purpose-built home of the Great Exhibition of Industry of All Nations (but mostly Britain, honestly).
The Surrey folk were still looking around at the amazing, incomprehensible sights (Elm trees growing inside this enormous greenhouse! The huge machinery! The bizarre clock!) when they noticed a disturbance nearby. People were cheering, and the crowd was parting to allow through … Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Right there. In person.
The farm families’ day out had just started, and, already, their heads had exploded.
The Crystal Palace, London, June 12, 1851, Morning
When they were in London that marvelous summer of 1851, the Queen and her husband Prince Albert visited the Crystal Palace daily, strolling through the thrilled crowds of visitors. This monarchy was all about spectacle anyway, since it no longer had any meaningful power. So the Queen and her German husband, who longed for acceptance in his adopted homeland, were in their element. They had become part of the greatest show on earth. And it was a show that Albert had devised and directed.
Now, after much debate, the working classes were admitted. The cost of admission had been reduced from a pound on opening day (240 pennies) to only a shilling, twelve pennies, but that was almost a whole day’s pay for a farmworker, who typically had a family to support. Still. It was a start.
The House on the Rock, Wisconsin, July 19, 2021. Sometime.
Leaving the tedious displays about Alex Jordan, our little party of three walked past glass cases containing a model of a Viking ship, some Asian dolls, and other assorted kitsch.
At the foot of the long sloping hallway, a staff member, an older man, asked to see our ticket. “That's the last time you'll need it,” he said cheerfully,
He should have explained that by “it” he meant our sanity.
The house immediately lived up to its reputed eccentricity. It was perfect for a Wisconsin winter, with multiple living rooms and a huge book collection. Comfy, long built-in sofas in front of large stone fireplaces in cosy sitting areas. The rock itself, trees even, built into the open-plan house. A three-story bookcase housing all that lovely reading. Ceilings so low that even I, an absolute shorty, brushed my head. Everything was frozen in a weird version of the early 60s, like the Kennedys’ Camelot on pot.
Most far out was the Infinity Room, an apparently unsupported prong sticking out from the house into space, tapering off to give the illusion of, well, infinity.
Okay, that’s nice. By now, I had already mentally labeled The House on the Rock as a novelty, an especially grand postwar American roadside attraction. The post for Non-Boring History was writing itself.
I also knew that, what was his name, Alex Jordan housed his random collections of kitsch somewhere here, and, in fact, had already seen samples in the women's restroom in the visitors’ center, creepy dolls in glass cases. But aside from the peculiarity of being displayed in the loo, these didn't interest me at all. Not my thing.
So now, I had an expectation for our day: Mildly enjoy the eccentric house, whip through the hallways of glass cases filled with Jordan's kitsch collections, and grab a late lunch in Spring Green. All set.
I didn't yet know that I knew nothing.
Surrey, England, June 12, 1851, 5 a.m.
The kindly rector of Surrey's answer to Westminster Abbey was the organizer of this visit to the Great Exhibition, and he must have put a lot of time into it. Each villager paid one shilling and sixpence per family member, which didn't cover the actual cost: Local gentry pitched in, and tenant farmers gave their workers the day off. All of this took visits by the rector to take tea, explain, persuade. Now, his plans were about to come off.
Now, the farmworkers, their wives, and kids met on the village green with their gentry chaperones, including the rector, who led them in prayer, and delivered a stern lecture about behaving well and being credits to their villages, which I'm going to translate as don't get drunk, don't get loud, please don't embarrass me.
If the farmworkers resented the rector's patronizing tone, it's not recorded. Deference to authority was still a powerful force in the English countryside in 1851, even as factory workers pushed back against bosses in the towns.
Now, the excited party climbed into wagons for the trip to the railway station, and there, for the first time in the lives of most of them, they boarded trains. Most had never been to London before.
It can be hard to restore our sense of wonder in this modern age. For billionaires used to buying any experience they care to try, it seems that the drive for novelty now requires personal trips into space in ridiculous rockets.
The rest of us, for whom relative poverty, COVID concerns, or both, have narrowed our range of new experiences, there's always TV, or day trips to, say, state and national parks for the more adventurous.
Those farmworkers, though. Never been to nearby London. Never been on a train. And then, within hours of leaving their hamlets and villages in Surrey, finding themselves in a vast greenhouse called the Crystal Palace, surrounded by incredible sights as far as the eye could see, and clapping eyes on the Queen herself. Before they could be organized into tour groups to be led around the experience, they were already gobsmacked.
The House on the Rock, Wisconsin, July 19, 2021, Sometime
As expected, over-the-top displays of Alex Jordan's collectibles in glass cases awaited us as we continued through the hallways at The House on the Rock. Ancient firearms, dozens of them. I was already plotting our late lunch.
Next up, something I was a little more interested in: Victorian novelty coin banks. But then more creepy bloody dolls. Still no info labels. I was getting a bit bored. But I was also still intrigued. I knew there was something more to this place, I had read reviews, but what was it again? A carousel. That was it. Huh. Not a thrilling prospect.
And then we arrived in a darkened, indoor, Victorian street of shops and houses. This was a bit random, but impressive, reminding me at once of the Victorian Street in England's York Castle Museum.
Except . . . on closer inspection, this Victorian Street was … slightly off. Not quite real enough. Like a Victorian English/German/Italian/New Orleans Street meets Harry Potter's Diagon Alley meets slight insanity. And why were all the stoves in each display the same, huge, ornate, and potbellied? This was a little creepy. Almost no labels anywhere. Whatever it was trying to be, this was no museum.
And this, folks, marks the last point in the tour at which my photos and descriptions can give you any kind of real impression of The House on the Rock. Things now began taking the first of many surreal turns.
The Crystal Palace, London, June 12, 1851
A machine for making envelopes that could be operated by two kids, and produced an envelope every second. A scale model of the Liverpool Docks. A Swiss Army style knife with 1,851 blades.
But the Great Exhibition wasn't designed just to impress or instruct. The potted plants, banners, crystal fountain, all were intended to make the visitors’ day spectacular.
The House on the Rock, Wisconsin, July 19, 2021,
At the top of the Victorian Street, a huge automated mechanical pipe organ, featuring moving animatronic musicians, Victorian soldiers. Was this some brilliant creation from Victorian Central Europe? I had never seen anything like it, but then I freely profess my ignorance about most things.
A short dark hallway, and then . . .
“Oh. My. God.” The boys joined me and gasped. A massive four-story hall. And at its center, a huge whale (was it a whale?) under attack by an equally enormous octopus.
And each level rising above us was surrounded by galleries of dozens of model ships. On the ground, a large sculpture of cartoon-like fish called The Octopus’s Garden, just like the Beatles song.
This was a lot to take in. I tried to make sense of the map. Just then, someone popped a token into the Octopus’s Garden and it played… The Octopus’s Garden.
The pictures just can't… We just couldn't. We sat stupefied. After a few minutes of this, Hoosen, Jr., a sensible lad, consulted the map, and announced that there was a restaurant on the premises, that he was starving, and that we would have to skip some of the next displays to get to the food. We sped past detailed model ship after model ship, scrimshaw (ivory carvings, some real, maybe, some fake, but which was which?) culminating in a model of the Titanic. With icebergs.
Another huge hall. A large neon sign for a doughnut shop, but as we approached, I saw it was glass cases full of more stuff.
An ice cream counter. Thankfully, it was real. People were eating ice cream cones. A snack counter like something from the 70s selling a dismal array of pizza slices, hot dogs, cookies. But there was nothing else. It would have to do. We didn’t know where we were, in any sense.
I assume lunch was provided for the farmworkers in the Crystal Palace, because Schweppes, the sole caterer for the Great Exhbition, was expensive and, by all accounts, provided terrible food and service. Because of course they did.
And then Hoosen, Jr. , more cheerful for having been fed, however badly, said, “You realize we're only halfway through this place?” He wasn't bored, you understand. He was amazed. We all were.
Well, we weren't going to quit now. Everything had stopped making sense. It was hard to know how to discuss it. We ate our lunch mostly in silence, next to several massive posters for magician Carter the Great. I tried to look him up on Wikipedia. I couldn't get the wifi to work. Was Carter the Great even real?
“What's the absorbing question of all time?” I asked the boys as they inhaled their pizza and hot dogs.
They looked at me as though the place had driven me insane. Fair enough.
“According to that poster for Carter the Great,” I said, “The absorbing question of all time is Do the dead materialize?”
Look, I realize that some of you are about done with the weirdness of the place I’m trying to describe. But really, is it any more bizarre than paying a huge sum to visit Florida, only to find yourself asking a giant bipedal mouse for his autograph? Or pretending you're in a runaway mine train?
Or touring a giant greenhouse in London in 1851 looking at furniture made from coal, and a combined piano and violin that one person could play simultaneously (yes, that was one of the American contributions to the Great Exhibition) ?
Anyway, there were loads of friendly and apparently normal staff at The House on the Rock. This was reassuring, as was the ample supply of very real restrooms. If we had indeed been kidnapped by a cross between Willy Wonka, a Bond villain, and Demons from Hell, it didn't quite feel like it.
We pressed on. Next up? The Music of Yesterday.
Every time we arrived in a new room, there was another group of self-playing instruments, mechanical musicians, each more bizarre than the last. I think the Japanese-themed orchestra playing Danse Macabre may have broken me. No, wait. This did, later in the whole, bizarre trek. A huge orchestra of life-size automatons rising unnaturally up the walls of a large hall, heads turning, eyes blinking, and then they begin to play (although Hoosen, the musician, says only some are, it’s still creepy),
The world of mid-Victorian England, of mass consumerism, prosperity, and social stability, which started with the Great Exhibition of 1851, was not unconnected to The House on the Rock. No, really.
Mid-Victorians, people from 1851 (note the date, not a coincidence) to 1875, the kind of people who invented cast iron coffins with glass faceplates, lovers of so much weirdness, would certainly have appreciated what we saw, nearly two centuries later.
Another turn in a dark hallway. Another “Oh, my God”, this time from Hoosen, Jr.
Nobody can ride this carousel. It just turns, quickly, furiously, never stopping. It's supposedly the world's largest, but you can't ride it. Does this make any sense? Look at the video. The guy with the phone gives you some perspective. It's huge. It just is. Enormous fake birds suspended overhead. To leave, we walk into a monster’s craw.
On we go into yet another massive hall, with its spiral ramps. Another huge bright pink carousel, this one multi-story, far taller yet smaller than the first, reaching from floor to high ceiling in the dark, and this time, it’s ridden by sinister Victorian dolls. Great towers of drums and whisky stills (whisky stills!) loom over our heads. Across massive walls gallop row after row of carousel horses, escaped from the fairground. Enormous pipe organs blast, and, look, there’s a small Victorian hat shop! Why not?
It's all tumbling together now and we are swirling around and around in Alex Jordan's head….
“It's like we got our sense of wonder back,” Hoosen marveled. “I feel like I'm eleven again.”
Suddenly, natural light. Coffee mugs. T shirts. Cash registers.
We're in the gift shop. We have walked two and a half miles. It took five hours to visit The House on the Rock, and we skipped much of it.
The Crystal Palace, London, June 12, 1851
It's 4 p.m. twelve hours after they awoke, and the tired farmworkers, their families, and their minders are gathered to leave the Crystal Palace. They march in formation, three abreast, men, women, and kids, a mile and a half to a school owned by the Church of England, where the adults are treated to beer, and the group sings the National Anthem.
There doesn't seem to have been a gift shop at The Great Exhibition, which actually surprises me. The nearby Thames Tunnel, the first in history to mine under a river, and opened only a few years earlier, was lined with souvenir stalls. Indeed, the Thames Tunnel, which cost several lives to build, existed only as a spectacle, since it had yet to develop a practical purpose.
People did buy Great Exhibition souvenirs, mind, I just don't know where they bought them. Commemorative medallions. Ashtrays. Plates. Were these keepsakes beyond the means of our Surrey farmworkers in 1851? Perhaps. But they were tantalizingly within reach. A day was coming when people could afford such pretty things.
For better or for worse, their world was starting to look like ours, a change that began for them the day they took a train to London, and saw the Great Exhibition.
Just last week, I reminisced to Hoosen, Jr. about my childhood visits in the 1970s to the Noah's Ark fun house at a little amusement park in the seaside town of Great Yarmouth. All I can recall now, apart from the sense of wonder, is that the last things we all saw before leaving Noah’s Ark were caged birds and a Dalek from Doctor Who. It made no sense, none of it, but that was its appeal. Now, in the 21st century, we demand consistency, predictability, and logic in our popular entertainments, and something has largely been lost: Creativity, novelty, imagination, and the experience of being genuinely startled by spectacle.
Yet we still crave the disorientation of experiencing something new, of having our complacency shaken up. Even now, our world harks back to the world of the Surrey farmworkers, every time we hand over the price of admission, and give ourselves over in hope of spectacle. For all our 21st century education, we three, at the House on the Rock, were as gobsmacked as Victorian farmworkers, as stunned into silent wonder as they had been.
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Visit The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin, an easy drive from Madison’s wonderful, easily-navigated airport. Arrive early, come on a weekday, don't come hungry, bring dollars for extra tokens, wear comfortable walking shoes. First, consider whether this is suitable for your kids. Or you.
I warmly recommend Michael Leapman, The World for a Shilling: How The Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation. This thoughtful and entertaining popular history opens with the story of the Surrey farmworkers. for which I thank him.
I wrote in detail about my time travelers visiting the Great Exhibition in A Different Day, A Different Destiny. Don’t assume my novels are only for kids. I have lots of adult readers. :)