In pastoral southwest Wisconsin, it’s six degrees of Frank Lloyd Wright.
BUCOLIC SPRING GREEN, Wisconsin—with its rolling green hills and amber bales of hay—was once the home of two ambitious architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps America’s most famous designer, and one of his students, Alex Jordan.
While Wright’s name may be more widely known, Jordan’s residence at Spring Green actually receives more visitors than Wright’s nearby home, school, and studio, collectively known as Taliesin. In the early 1940s, Jordan, an architect whom Wright had dismissed from his school, began designing a vacation home, perched atop a sandstone spire, just down the road from his former teacher’s estate. Jordan’s son, Alex Jordan Jr., eventually took over the project and turned the flamboyant structure into a full-blown roadside-attraction. The House on the Rock opened to the public in 1960.
At the gift shop near the entrance to the House on the Rock, two items are prominently displayed: film and aspirin. Some advice: stock up. While trudging along the two-and-a-half-mile tourist trail of model ships, marionettes, and musical instruments, you’ll want to preserve not only the memory—but also your sanity.
After Jordan Jr. completed the House on the Rock, he spent the rest of his life filling it. Today, the claustrophobic home seems hardly habitable, stuffed as it is with rare books, Asian art, and eerie automated bands (of the 35-some on display, one plays a whiney Bolero, another the Godfather theme). Its low ceilings, carpeted walls, sunken seating, and musty scent give the home the dim, spooky feel of a David Lynch movie set in a ’70s bachelor pad.
Jordan, it seems, aimed to outdo the Smithsonian. He added 16 outbuildings full of doll houses and circus memorabilia, suits of armor and chandeliers—showing no restraint when it came to all things tacky. Somewhere between the 200-foot-long faux sea monster and the world’s largest carousel, even the healthy and hale will weary. Before your children grow antsy and your elderly mother collapses, though, be sure to check out the “Infinity Room,” a glass-walled cantilever that juts 218 feet over the Wisconsin River valley, giving visitors an amazing (and unnerving) look down on the treetops.
Numerous billboards advertising “HOTR” surround Spring Green, casting something of a shadow over the area’s other attraction: Wright’s sprawling estate. Who would have thought that the work of a monumental egoist could come off as modest? At the time of its construction, in 1911, Wright’s home attracted its share of attention. The Wisconsin-born architect had left his wife in Illinois, taken up with his mistress, and returned to the rural parcel owned by his mother’s family. He built a house on the forehead of a hill and named the place Taliesin—Welsh for “shining brow.”
Over the next 70 years, Wright continued to tinker with the property, using it as a lab for his design ideas. He added a school, chapel, barn, and other buildings—all unified by restrained proportions and horizontal planes that mimic the area’s sedimentary stone. Tours offer insights into Wright’s personal life, marked by healthy doses of both success and tragedy, and also reveal the home’s restoration-related needs (the eroding driveway, mossy roof, and flaking paint) that presumably drive high ticket prices ($45 for a two-hour house tour; $75 for the entire estate). A few moments in Wright’s serene studio, though, are well worth the expense, as the room’s wide windows offer a panoramic view of the countryside. The studio is furnished with Wright’s original desk, lamps, books, and drawings; the colored pencils are still sharp, as if the great architect had just finished sketching moments before.
During the third weekend of October, southwest Wisconsin hosts an extensive Fall Art Tour, but local artisans sell their wares year-round in downtown Spring Green studios and shops. No Rules Gallery features nature-themed handmade jewelry. Cabochon Gems and Designs, a maker of elegant rings, earrings, and pendants, inhabits an elfin-like stone cottage. Art on 23 Gallery specializes in hand-blown glass. For a broader assortment of gifts, try Panacea, which carries everything from note cards and wind chimes to herbal supplements, or 43/90 North Earth, with self-help books and yoga mats dubbed “gifts for the everyday goddess.”
When you tire of touring, stop at the Spring Green General Store. The former cheese warehouse now contains a counter-service café—but don’t expect typical small-town Midwest diner fare. The changing menu includes such hip vittles as hummus sandwiches and veggie burgers.
Your best bet for evening entertainment is the American Players Theatre. This amphitheater in the woods—with comfy, padded seats—features works by Shakespeare, Wilder, and Shaw, such as Measure for Measure and Arms and the Man. Equally pleasant is the short walk through the trees to the stage and the breezes that rustle the leaves as actors deliver their lines. Just be sure to take advantage of the complimentary bug spray.
Still, architecture is the real show around Spring Green. While weary tourists in search of a whirlpool may settle for a local B&B, a stay at the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Seth Peterson Cottage—the only residential work of Wright’s that is available for rental—is an architecture buff’s sweetest dream. The secluded cottage is bounded by Mirror Lake State Park, and guests may not sleep much between taking in the glorious lake views and studying the home’s angular architectural details, formed in wood, stone, and glass. If the $275 per night price tag is too steep (or you can’t get a reservation—bookings must be made well in advance), the cottage is open once a month for $2 tours. Either way, it’s money spent Wright.