The Theatre organ Console from the House on the Rock
Photographs and story courtesy of Peter Beames of Australia
I visited the House on the Rock.....
I had heard about this place for several years. Everyone said that it is a "must see". I had only seen a picture of the theatre console and did not really know what else was there. This trip I made it out there (between the two nights spent at the Organ Piper Pizza in Milwaukee).
I expected to find few, if any, other people there but found large areas of crowded car parks after driving past numerous giant flower pot urns covered with giant lizards, dragons and other creatures.
The place is AMAZING. I walked through fairly quickly, generally only stopping for detailed looks at the musical stuff, and it took 3 1/2 hours. You could take much longer. I generally only took photos of the musical stuff and still went through 2x36 rolls.
The original house is facinating with all sorts of strange nooks and crannies and a wierd collection of furniture and art, some of which must be very valuable and other things are just "interesting".
The ceilings are all very low and are carpeted so you do not bump your head. The "Infinity Room" tapers out for 140 feet over the valley, with no support whatsoever.
The tour then continues through the maze of other buidings linked together nearby.
There are collections of "EVERYTHING", ivory carvings, model sailing ships, dolls, cars, British crown jewels, silverware, toy circuses, guns, cash registers, stained glass etc, etc, etc, an 80 foot carousel with all sorts of animals, except horses, and lots of musical things.
There are numerous automated instruments like disk music boxes and orchestrions plus many animated orchestras and bands with pneumatically operated bows and fingering etc on all kinds of instruments from the violin family to the brass, reed and percusssion instruments, with and without lifesize dummy players. In the circus area there is a circus wagon with about 40 players plus a full 80 piece orchestra around the walls. These all move with the aid of 2300 pneumatics. SOME of what you hear (mainly the percussions) is what you see, but much of the sound is faked.
The organ room is impressive, but mostly fake. The theatre console is based on a Wurli "French" console, but with 3 stacks of 5 manuals within the horseshoe of countless stop-tabs (most of which would require VERY long arms to reach). There is also a classical console in which you can see it started as a 4 manual drawstop console which has been expanded in all directions to 8 manuals and many drawstops and tabs. There is a third console which is curved on the outside as well as the inside. This curves over the top of the bench with many tabs and 2 VDU screens in the horseshoe. This console (I believe) has never done anything. Some parts of the other 2 used to control something but, apparently, nothing has worked for some time.
There are many giant fake pipes and many (100+) ranks of wood and metal pipes mounted enchamade around the walls and ceiling which I am sure would not do anything. I saw a real set of 32' Diaphones and 2 large chamber areas filled with things which should have been playable (except for many missing and damaged pipes). There is a Z-tronics relay in it. I believe that Dave Junchen was involved with this instrument at sometime. The only sign of life was the occaisional shutter opening with much air noise. I would guess there were 40-50 ranks in the chambers. There would appear to be great potential for restoration and use of this "instrument" with the employment of a modern playback system.
Unless you are a fanatic for authenticity, or hate exce ss, this place would have something to amuse/amaze/astound anyone.
One question kept coming to me.......WHY?
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I am a Pittsburgher transplanted to La Crosse, WI and like you am an organ enthusiast. I also was dissapointed in "The House on the Rock." I felt that everything there was an elaborate hoax, a sham, and a dissapointment. Most of the stuff there could not function if its life depended on it, and that which did function had not been tuned in AGES!!!!! If the stuff that did work were tuned and restored it alone would be fascinating.
I am a novice player, but am interested in finding the nearest Schlicker Organ to me... I live in La Crosse, WI (The southwest end of the state) Do you know if there is a schlicker organ in ther area?
I would greatly appreciate any help you can give!!!
Ken Lundgren wrote ....
I agree that much of what you see and think you hear at House on the Rock is a hoax. I observed that too, the last time I was there. The Pipe Organ room is the most obvious, because you can actually see that most or all of the pipes are not connected to anything.
I know a man who is a professional automatic instrument rebuilder who spent some time restoring the instruments at the House on the Rock sometime in the 1970's. After I observed the Pipe Organ room I began to wonder about everything else, so I asked him about that. He told me that he knows for a fact that the instruments were authentic and actually working originally because he worked on them. (The Pipe Organ room was not built at that time.) But he said he also knows for a fact that much of it is not working now. For instance, the Blue Room, which is the automated orchestra, used to be based on an orchestrion behind the scenes, and that instrument has been sold. The music is now electronically synthesized. I assume that what they discovered is that those instruments really could not stand up to continuous use day after day, and that maintenance became prohibitive.
He also said that Alex Jordan, who built the house, was a master of illusions and deceptions.
Ken.Lundgren@zenithe.com (Ken Lundgren)
As I'm sure, many of our readers would like to know, recently there has been some recent revival of theatre organ at House on the rock. After the owner (now deceased i think) contacted the arts council who contacted the state assembly men who also talked to congress, who passed the matter back to local politicians, put out a vote in the last election wether to raise taxes or not in order to devote some of the money towards restoring "House on the Rock". After the community voted yes to the tax hike (99 1/2 yes, 1/2 no) the local governement gave a grant of 6.78 million in funding for the project. After contacting several builders for bids on restoration, two companies were chosen for the job (seeing one company wouldn't be able to do it alone), however one of them went out of business (after 100 years of being in the field) and has forced the second company to take over the restoration as a whole. As we can't release the name yet of the builder (until he realizes what he is in for), we can tell you what work is planned:
1. installation of a sub-basement Echo division complete with quater
length 32' English Post Horn
2. replacing all the regulators in the solo chamber with schwimmers
3. an addition of a XI Mixture
4. rebuilding of all chest work
5. re-wiring and rebuilding of all 3 consoles to control main organ including one with tracker action to allow for a more precise feel of the instrument being played (including quadruple pneumatic assist for coupling of all ranks to great)
6. installation of Midi to allow for record/playback, special couplers (1 1/3' great to great, etc.) and touch screen stop tab rails (eliminating those rather noisy electric stop tabs actions) to provide for a new state of the art 267 level memory.
The completion of this project is expected around fall 2002 at which time the organ will have a gala tea party and rededication concert. All will be invited to see the instrument for themselves.
Any questions or comments can be directed to me Joe McCabe
Date: Wed, 31 Mar 1999 20:05:37 -0800 From: Chris Feiereisen Subject: House on the Rock Hi Jerrell, I helped move over 100 ranks to the 'house' for Alex Jordan, now departed. There is a paperback out called "House of Alex" with much information about Alex and insight into his character. I recommend it highly. All that I knew of Alex is accurately set down in this book, as well as many other things that I had not learned through the years I knew him. Chris Feiereisen 1801 Johnston Drive Manitowoc, WI 54220-1332 (920) 684-1444 7:30 to 9 a.m. or p.m.
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