Wednesday, May 31, 2017

House on the Rock: The Carousel Collection (part 1)

The Carousel.
So, unless you live in the Midwest or you've read Neil Gaiman's American Gods, you may not have heard of "The House on the Rock" (HOTR) which isn't far from the city of Dodgeville in Wisconsin.  It was built by a man by the name of Alex Jordan, and since there's so much information on this guy out there, I won't go through too much.  Just know that they don't call this place a museum, they call it "The Attraction".  And when you start watching YouTube videos and looking at images of the place, and learning some of the secrets about it, I'm sure you'll start to see why it is definitely an "Attraction."

The largest part of this attraction, one that brings quite a few folks there (including myself) is the "world's largest carousel" (or at least it used to be, I haven't looked up to see if there's any with more than the 269 animals on this one).  What's odd is, unless you're a carousel enthusiast as I am, you may not find it more than a curiosity as no one (at least except for Neil Gaiman) gets to ride it, it never stops turning, and there isn't a single horse on it. that's one of the first lies they tell you, as there are actually dozens of horses on the carousel - they're all cleverly hidden up at the very top where you can't see them except in the darkness, their shadows and an occasional feather peaking out from a hole cut into the ceiling in the upper catwalks.  The miniature horses are hidden by a carpeted overhang that hides the upper workings from view, and were probably produced en masse by the workers at the HOTR.  You will see similar miniature horses on the doll carousels, but more about that in a different blog.

The second reason that 'there aren't any horses' on the carousel is that many of the strange and wonderful creatures started off as horses at some point.  The most obvious ones are some of the zebras, but then nearly all of the centaurs and other oddly mixed creatures were either created by mixing other pre-existing ship's figureheads with horses bodies or they were added by the staff.  The most bizarre of which I believe are the twin "knight" centaurs who have bodies of women and helmets on their heads, but the eyes under those helmets make them look like strange, expressionless aliens.  Maybe Alex thought everyone would be looking at the breasts on these things rather than their faces.  Even one of the employees commented that he was "very particular about getting the proportions right" on the female bodies...didn't quite care about the rest apparently.

The rest of the animals are either real carved animals from other carousels that Alex collected over the years, or carved by the staff (the bulldog is featured in many of the shop's many souvenirs and I haven't been able to find out any information about it).  Or some of them may have even been duplicates and replicas.  I saw quite a few Dentzel animals on the carousel including cats, rabbits, bears and ostriches.  There's no real way to tell which ones were the 'real' animals and which are copied, as I'll show you here in a moment, because all of the real animals were stripped and painted in the "Alex Jordan style".

Plaques in the Welcome Center.
 In the Welcome center, you'll find some of the other information about the carousel.  It speaks of Alex deciding to build a carousel, collecting up hundreds of animals and horses and then ultimately deciding not to put the horses on this huge carousel but only animals.  It vaguely mentions that the base of the carousel came from one he purchased and then modified to the six plus row carousel.  (I say "six plus" because some smaller animals are added outside of the outer row standers, plus it moves so fast it's hard to count!)  The information you read here is all you'll pretty much find except for a random small plaque lit near the carousel itself that mentions how many animals, how many lights, and what year it was installed.

If you try to research this carousel, you'll actually come up with a lot of very strange blanks.  I was actually pretty surprised that all of my carousel resources have virtually no mention of the machine, even of it being fabricated, it's just simply not there.  I tried posing the question to the group to see if maybe someone had a hush order put on it, or perhaps they just didn't see it as a "real" carousel.  People commented on wanting to "see it" or "I love looking at it when I go to HOTR" but no one had any information on it!

Thankfully I did run into one helpful staff member who worked at the house when he was a teenager and remembered a few details that the displays didn't mention.  He said that it was a carousel bought from Detroit, MI and that it originally had only three rows.  Some of the animals even used to go up and down at one time.  He said he would be sent on errands by Alex with a large sum of cash to go buy up as many carousel horses and animals as he could find.  He also mentioned hours upon hours of stripping paint off of the garish carousel horses.

There's even a mention briefly in the welcome center's files about an "artist" named Mark Miller who created the style of painting for the carousel.  The fellow we talked to said didn't paint but had learned to dowse the horses in paint stripper and work layer upon layer off.  So the staff put in a lot of man hours into this thing followed by hours by the artists like Mark.

What I find is odd though, carousel websites don't even mention the restoration efforts of Alex Jordan's staff anywhere either.  It's rather a whole huge 'shush shush' thing.

Possible Parker carousel horse circa 1900's.

This horse sits between the welcome center and the hallway that leads down to the "attraction" itself.  Not quite sure what type it is, (my first gut instinct said Parker, but I'm not professionally trained on identification) and you can see that it most likely is missing a real tail (although some on the walls still have real horse hair tails) and there was some repair work done to it before it was painted.  You can get a good look at the detailed painting that went on here.  I really wish there would have been a better record of the painters and artists who worked at HOTR as they were pretty decent restorationists even at a time where that was only just becoming a thing.  Many horses like this one would have been carted around to various carnivals all over the country and would have been beaten up pretty badly.  For a horse to have been restored even to this level would have taken hours of labor.

Well, maybe the reason this carousel isn't mentioned anywhere is it's really impossible to tell except for in a few odd instances whether the animals are real or all replicas.  The carousel never stops spinning and the horses that hang on the wall around the room are too far up to touch.  There are a few smaller animals that are touchable (for photos) and they are definitely replicas as a knock on them gives a nice hollow sound that's more plastic than wood.  The only other reason I seem to think some of them might be replicas is the sheer sameness of them.  The two in the lobby as you walk in to buy tickets are nearly identical.

 Obviously they are painted differently, but look closely, besides the tail being in a slightly different position and the forelock coming up on one and not the other, almost all of the other details that separate them are painted on.  I'll post another further down that has similar features to the white and black horse to the left here.

Dentzel replicas in the lobby.
This is the best introduction to the "Alex Jordan" style carousel horse.  They are by all restoration standards, pretty perfect.  As mentioned in the plaques above, they were painted black to start, then lighter shades are applied in coat after coat.  I'd imagine it was sort of a 'dry brush' technique that I'm familiar with in doing miniatures.  The white horse you can see more of the black and you can see how the mane stands out on both.  Doing it this way, the bridal and saddle stand out even more because of their bright colors.  Many of the horses that are on display, even ones hung high up in the rafters almost impossible to see, have quite a few details painted on them.

I think another reason this technique was used is because of the way that Alex lit the "attraction" as everything is dark, light mostly with red or hardly at all.  When lights shine up on these animals the colors appear even brighter, casting dark shadows on them.  Of course, in daylight they look beautiful as well, and I'll post a few that are kept well away from most eyes that still have a ton of work put into them.

Admittedly, much of this is conjecture as there really aren't a whole lot of people left from that era who worked with Jordan and I really didn't get to talk to the worker there a whole lot since he only knew as much as what he remembered as a teenager.  Most of it occurred in the 1977-1980 time period, and the carousel was opened to the public in 1981.

Christmas Horse.
 Here's the reason why I have doubts on the complete authenticity of the carousel horses at the HOTR.  As you can see from the next two horses, they too (even the pegasus that had wings added) are the same carving as the one above.  Most likely they are all from an original Dentzel carousel horse (the top knot and strong features being my reason for thinking so) that Alex duplicated and then they just decorated the horses in a handful of different styles.  He must have liked this one a lot otherwise, why would these standers be unique in that they didn't ride the carousel?

Pegasus in the hall of innovation.
Not only are these four from the same mold, there's one to the left of the "Christmas Horse" to the right, as well as almost every single standing horse figure on the carousel itself (including three or so centaurs, another pegasus and another made into a unicorn) are all these exact same mold.  The centaurs are unique because they later added some extra armor or cut off their heads, but you can still see the rings and ribbons on the body and the tail is in the same position on all of them!

I'm fairly certain that just one of these animals are the real one.  Heaven knows which though!  Perhaps it doesn't even exist anymore, having been molded into oblivion.

It's entirely possible that there is a Dentzel carousel workings under the lights and weirdly shaped animals.  There aren't any "missing" carousels we know of from that period that came from Detroit, but there was one from Missouri that they lost track of in the 1960's and it had menagerie animals on it.  But, there's no way to tell as all of the outer panels have long been stripped off of the carousel.  Perhaps within the meticulous notes kept by his accountant there's mention of it, but I doubt that anyone would be allowed access to them to find out for sure.

Since I took hundreds of (oftentimes fuzzy) photos of the carousel itself, I found myself attracted instead to some of the ones that didn't make it.  Or maybe they were just more copies?  One that hangs near the plaques that talk about the carousel is one of the Dentzel cats.  These two are more examples of identical copies and at least for the one below that reside in the cafe area for you to climb on, they are most likely both fiberglass.  There are two or three more on the carousel itself.  Usually they did come in pairs but as you can see, the carvings are exactly the same.
Dentzel cat reproductions.

I got to sit on the one below as there are a few different animals that are "touchable".  At the time I didn't think much of it but I did tap it to see if it was fake and heard an obvious hollow sound when tapped.  The other animals in the room were quite possibly the same.

There is one other cat on the carousel that seems to have been carved by someone else, but I haven't been able to figure out whether it was by an 'original' carver or not.  There doesn't seem to be many other carvers who added cats, but quite possibly as the plaques mention, it may have come from Mexico or Europe.  I don't have a clear picture of it unfortunately as it was about three rows back and you get a one second glimpse of it before its whisked away around the machine.

Another odd creature you'll see throughout are dragons.  There are a few of these on the carousel as well, but none of them are "original" by any means.  If they were original at some point, it was only in the form of the carousel horse (or more likely hippocampus which is part horse part fish) body.  Look carefully at these two dragons and you'll see the horse hooves, saddle and collar are both the same.  The tails have been added and so have the trio of heads.  They're at least uniquely different and even the wings are subtly different in the two dragons.  The top dragon is in the welcome center and the other is in the hallway leading down to the attraction.  One dragon is more European and the other more Asian in detail.

Dragons in Welcome Center and Walkway to the Attraction.
The dragons on the carousel itself are different still from these two.  One is a copy of another I'll be speaking about below, and another is just a single headed dragon with a tail like the one below but larger wings.  I'm actually surprised that more of these dragons were not on the carousel itself, but perhaps they wanted to use these as show pieces.

A few other animals were treated like that too, as you'll see below, these animals are similar to ones on the carousel but have special features.

"Hidden Santa" St. Bernard.
Besides the cats and horses there are quite a few other animals that reside off the carousel.  The first is a St. Bernard, which I believe is at least initially from a PTC carving.  I'm not entirely sure as even though it says "1890" it was most certainly a repaint.  The worker pointed out that this one was painted to have a "hidden Santa Claus" in the front above the collar.  Do you see it?  Santa's beard is above the collar, his face is brown and the tongue of the dog is his hat.  Don't worry if you don't see it...I don't really either exactly although my husband said he saw it right away.  I feel like it was a "happy accident" and the imagination of someone who spent far too much time in the carousel room with the loud drums ringing in their ears!

Touchable Wolf in Cafe.
Another odd figure was this wolf that you can find in the cafe area (with the Dentzel type tiger behind it identified by the way it's whiskers form a straight line between nose and neck).  I haven't seen unusual wolves like this one before as the only one I've seen was a more recent carving and the neck and muzzle looked a bit less oddly proportioned.  It could be that this was one of the original carvings they procured or made for the carousel (there is another like it on the carousel itself, I seems to be three or four rows back).  I have considered whether the creators of some of the more unusual and strange creatures created this wolf and the squirrel below.

The squirrel is one of the strange hidden gems in the carousel room.  It sits behind a horse an near a donkey that moves its head next to the St. Bernard.  I don't have a good clear shot of any of that however as the corner where the squirrel was almost pitch black.

In all of my research though, I have found no information on squirrels, although it's quite possible to have come originally from a kangaroo sculpt.  The way the feet sit on the ground and the elongated neck and slightly long ears give that clue.  However, they re-purposed it to hold the acorn and have a large, fluffy tail.  It's an odd sculpture though as it looks sort of 'off' and uncompleted, more like it was created with clay or something other than wood.  The underbelly looks almost like you can see the base of the kangaroo tail.  Perhaps it's hidden in this corner because of those defects.

Hidden Gems covered in Dust.
Above the squirrel to the left is a carousel horse that was oddly in one of the darkest corners of the place and I felt rather sorry for it.  Later on I took a picture of it from above.  (Please excuse the mermaid breasts in the photo...meant to crop those)  As you can see, even the horses hidden away in dark corners have tons of detail painted on them (lots of flowers usually) but kept in the dark I guess they don't think to dust them very often.  I think they must clean them sometimes because otherwise there would be a bunch more dust after 30 plus years!

Dentzel Bear and Goat.
Other carousel horses have much of the same treatment as this one you see.  Even when they're hanging high on the walls in the rooms above the carousel and in the adjoining doll carousel rooms.  In the picture on the right here, you can see the horses hanging above this the forgotten one on the floor.  There is also a Dentzel bear hanging there as well as a mermaid (there are quite a few mermaids scattered throughout as well as centaurs). Well, maybe I was wrong about dusting...  The camera flash really shows off the details of the horses, but also the dust!  I feel rather sorry about these poor souls hanging out on the walls being glimpsed only briefly by those people walking through the attraction.

I'm fairly certain that many of these horses were replicated too, but I haven't pinpointed any for certain yet after perusing the pictures for awhile.  Maybe these jumpers (inner row horses typically and moved on the polls up and down) may actually be originals.  Although some of them seem to barely be hanging by wire which might mean they're lighter than the typical wood counterparts.

And even though I am aware of their being European centaurs, they almost all were of a certain war hero and not a cowboy like the one you see to the left, or the pirate above the mermaid!  Most likely this was a copy of another centaur and changed to look more recognizable for Americans.  Others similar but different are spread throughout the carousel itself as well as our goat friend at the bottom.  You can see him from two different angles in the photo above and to the left.  He's a typical Dentzel (again) and the only difference from him and the ones on the carousel itself are the ones on the carousel have exaggerated horns that are almost twice as long.

Here's a peek at the other animals that aren't on the carousel (I particularly liked this photo since you can see the drums and ridiculous angel mannequin.)  To the far left bottom you can see another one of the Dentzel rabbits.  There are two more on the carousel as well as one that has a carrot in its mouth that I can't find a carver reference that matches it.  There is also a rooster and a kangaroo.  If you notice the features on the kangaroo (I wish I had a clearer shot of it) you can almost see the squirrel having come from this particular carving.  The face is almost the same, and then if they had added sloppy details to the collar, you can see where it may have come from.

PTC style dragon in the circus building.
As mentioned above, there was one other type of dragon on the carousel and that's this PTC dragon.  The Philadelphia Toboggan Company created quite a few dragons for their menagerie machines but often they were too scary for young children and not too many people bought them.  This one isn't very scary with the softer, horse-like features and it even has front "hooves" which distinguishes it from other maker's dragons.  I have a photo of one in a book I own and the tail and hooves are identical.  As you can see in the background, there is also another tiger like the one in the cafe.  Behind it resides a lion, an ostrich and a camel, all from other carvers.

Mark Miller's Initial White Mare.
I haven't even begun to show pictures of the actual carousel itself, that is just how massive this collection is!  I will show shots of the carousel itself in part 2.  These horses just come out so much clearer since they weren't constantly in motion.

The unfortunate thing about all of this, is since there isn't any information on these horses online but for what has been published by the house and a few authorized biographies, there's not much about the artists behind the hundreds of horses.  The only name we have is Mark Miller, and there was only one small nod to his name in the horses themselves that I could find as I'm unsure if he signed any of them, this white mare on the left has a very distinguishable "M" scrawled on its saddle blanket.  I wonder perhaps if this artist was tired of them calling the painting the "Alex Jordan Style" and rather it should have been called the "Mark Miller Style" as if he did most of these horses he must have been painting non-stop for quite a few years.  I think, rather, that he may have developed the style, taught a few skilled painters, and then perhaps finished off the detail work on some of them himself (like on the white mare).  Some of the fine flowers and other detailed paintings on the sides of the horses look like they were done by the same artist.  A few had the feel of other artists, but they all had extensive paint jobs done on them that would rival any carousel you see today (minus a few of the exceptional restorations that have been done).  It's just a pity that they hang upon black walls, mostly hidden from sight, collecting decades of dust.

My theory is, if the HOTR were to ever close down, there would have to be a serious consideration by the carousel horse collectors and auctioneers as to which horses were real and which were reproductions as well as what the significance of the paintings done to even the reproductions would have on value.  The market might be flooded with "fakes" that were painted beautifully, or it could be flooded with real carousel horses that were restored beautifully.  It's really quite hard to tell.  I do hope that the HOTR will stay around for many generations, but things looked a bit bleak as most who worked there were well into retirement age and it was fairly quiet the majority of the time I was there.  Would the carousel collectors be excited to see this collection out?  Or would something terrible happen to all of the hard work, either distributed out all over or destroyed by time if it were to quietly shut down and just get closed up as is?

It's a question I hope not to live to see the answer to, as I would really hate to see "vidoes of the shut down HOTR decay..." start showing up on YouTube.  I'd also wonder though, if finally the carousel would be brought out into the daylight and whether carousel enthusiasts would finally decide that they could talk about the horses and animals there.  Maybe the taboo of not talking about it would finally change if collectors started looking for the "Mark Miller/Alex Jordan Style' painted creatures.

In Part 2, I will be sharing some of the less fuzzy photos of the carousel in motion.  I hope that if you enjoy carousels as much as I do you'll come back when I post them as well!  Please pay a visit to the HOTR as it's a good way to spend an entire day and discover some of the things I won't even be posting here!  Thanks for sticking with me to the end and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed putting this together to share with you.

 (Disclaimer:  The proceeding article was written by merely a fan of the HOTR, and I'm not making any money off this blog and am using this merely as conjecture and to share it with others to hopefully get more interest in this awesome place!  The images were taken not for professional purposes but for my hobby and the handful of people who actually see this blog.  The photos are not for sale nor print, they are just to look at and you can take some of your own if you go yourself!  In fact, PLEASE GO SEE THEM YOURSELF!  This place is is awesome, even if you just go see the second/third section to see just the carousel horses, you'll be well rewarded.  I'd love to be able to share this with more carousel enthusiasts and maybe we can finally get more information on this awesome place.)

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