Iron and Lies (Wisconsin II of II)
When the Kohler Arts Center invited me to visit some of the art environments in Wisconsin they are responsible for maintaining as a part of their Road Less Travelled exhibition series, I asked my friends from Wisconsin where I should go. But they all told me I had to go to this place that isn’t officially recognized as a legitimate art environment: the House On The Rock.
It is an enormous property that a guy named Alex Jordan Jr packed full of artifacts and art pieces and I kept on being told how it has to be seen to be believed. My friend Wayne told me, “I don’t think that anything can actually prepare you for the scale of the place.”
This place also has a crazy origin story. According to the story, Alex Jordan’s father, an architect, was showing some plans to architectural superstar Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright insulted the plans and Jordan Sr’s architectural skills which he responded to announcing he would have his revenge by putting a house up on a rock near Taliesin.
That would be an amazing story… if it was true. But it was made up by Syd Boyum, who won an actual medal declaring him a “World Champion Liar” in 1976.
What really happened was, after failing to start up a blackmail scheme involving taking pictures of his girlfriend seducing married men, Alex Jordan’s father forced him to open up his mountain highway house to the public. Legend has it Alex Sr stood outside with a paper bag himself to collect admission fees.
Alex Sr died in the early 1960’s, leaving Jr with full control to do whatever he wanted with the place. Which was to make it bigger.The House On The Rock had expanded to a number of buildings filled with collections of collections. It was also a gold mine. By 1977, he was pulling in $97,000 per year on quarters put in the music machines alone.
In 1978, the authorities came poking around, questioning the authenticity of some of the labels Alex had attached to some of his pieces. Alex never admitted to lying, but still took down some of the labels like that one claiming that the automated mechanical orchestra was built by bored prostitutes. He also signed a document saying that he would never do it again.
In the show I talk about how visiting the House on the Rock feels like spending time with three American icons: Walt Disney, P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump.
The Trump comparison isn’t simply about the con-man history, the dishonesty or the hyperbole. It’s the whole aesthetic; this whole overwhelming dedication to MORE; the relentlessness of the fake and a determination to control what is real.
Syd Boyum didn’t introduce Alex Jordan to Frank Lloyd Wright but he did introduce Alex to the other character in this story: Tom Every, later to be known as Dr. Evermor, the creator of the Forevertron.
Alex had a lot a people like Tom Every who helped him with his work on the House On The Rock. It was such a huge space with so many visitors and Alex was always adding new rooms and attractions, so he needed a large team of craftsmen. Some of them like Tom Every made the mistake of thinking of they were creative equals.
Tom was a long time admirer of The House On the Rock, so it was incredibly exciting to him to befriend Alex and work on it himself. Working on it was the happiest time of Tom’s life. He even gave himself a nom de plume for his work with Alex: Dr. Buildmore. You can see a lot of Tom’s style in The House On The Rock if you know where to look
.There’s some debate as to what exactly caused Tom and Alex’s falling out. Some seem to think it revolves around Tom’s Epicurean BBQ and an offer Alex made for Tom to run it in the House on the Rock’s food court and split the profits, which would have been enormous.
But it seems that what really happened was all Tom’s fault. He didnt pay his subcontractor’s taxes and Alex cut ties with him when the IRS came to collect. It was a crushing blow. Tom lost the family house and spent some time in jail. It was the end of Dr. Buildmore. But it was also the beginning of Dr. Evermor.
DR. EVERMOR’S FOREVERTRON
Tom built the Forevertron has a way to escape from all his pain. It’s hard to describe the end result. It kind of looks like an abandoned iron playground built by aliens from another planet or mad scientists from the future. There are gazebos, towers, spiraling staircases. A delicate glass egg rises from the middle creating the illusion that the whole thing might just take off into space like a rocket.
Next to the Forevertron, the House On The Rock feels like a bunch of shit in a bunch of rooms.
Those of us who care about art adore the Forevertron, but none of us can be sure what’s going to happen to it. Tom Every lives in a nursing home now and he doesn’t own the land where it sits.
The other place… Pfft! We dont have to worry about its future. In a way, the fake origin story has come true. It’s the most popular art environment in Wisconsin, despite the fact that the offical arbitors of cultural don’t acknowledge that. Who cares what college professors think of you when you’re making millions of dollars? They’ve even got a whole building that I can’t help but think is designed to look like a middle finger to Frank Llyod Wright’s Taliesin which is only a few miles away.
And now, they have Neil Gaiman.