Atlas of the unusual: Exploring America's man-made wonders
A palace made of corn, eerie stone monuments and a pack of wild ponies: These unusual man-made masterpieces are so strange, they’re begging to be visited (and Instagrammed).
The world has no shortage of natural wonders. From the aurora borealis, to the Great Barrier Reef, to the electric blue flames of the Kawah Ijen volcano, planet earth's most dazzling displays will always steal the show. But what Mother Nature boasts in beauty, mankind can match in weirdness. For your inspiration/amusement/head-scratching entertainment, here are nine unnatural wonders that make us wonder…what were they thinking?
1. House on the Rock - Wisconsin
Tim Burton doesn’t live here, but he should. Perched on Deep Shelter Rock overlooking a forest between Dodgeville and Spring Green, this 1960s home/entertainment attraction is the most surreal place you’ll ever visit. It’s a hoarder’s heaven. A weirdo’s paradise. A bored road tripper’s delight. The stuff nightmares are made of. And, most definitely, the country’s wackiest assemblage of rooms and experiences collected under one roof. A young architect named Alex Jordan, Jr.—described in a 1991 biography as "a shadowy figure as reclusive as the late multi-millionaire Howard Hughes”—began constructing the house in 1945, continuously adding eccentricities to the complex for several decades.
Lose your marbles gazing out the 3,000 windows of the Infinity Room that juts out, unsupported, 15 stories above the valley floor. Get mesmerized by 20,000 lights and 182 chandeliers as you ride round the world’s largest indoor carousel. Ogle at galleries filled with oddities like a fiberglass sea monster as long as the Statue of Liberty is tall; a re-creation of an early twentieth century American town; more than 200 ship models; musical instruments that play themselves and much, much more. We could keep going, but just know it’s perfectly acceptable to get lost in this collection of curiosities for hours…even days: It’s also a luxury golf resort and inn.
2. Wild Horses Monument - Washington
Locals call it the “Wild Horses Monument.” Students at Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and Whitworth universities in Spokane see it as the “thank God, we’re halfway-ish to Seattle” marker during boring five-hour drives home over the holidays. But “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies” is the actual name of this installation of 15 life-size, steel horses standing frozen mid-gallop atop a plateau overlooking the Columbia River and Vantage Bridge.
When Chewelah sculptor David Govedare starting creating the ambitious project in 1989, he envisioned a massive 36-foot woven steel basket, tipped on its side by the hand of “Grandfather spirit” as part a divine, gift-like gesture. The basket never came to fruition, but the quick quarter-mile hike up to the steel stallions is well worth it. Viewing the sculpture from a distance is even more goose bump inducing—the dark silhouettes appear real as they canter over the horizon. As one ZOZI employee who attended college in Eastern Washington will attest, “the horses are a welcome sight after miles and miles of desert and irrigated farmland along I-90.”
3. The Mitchell Corn Palace - South Dakota
The world consumed nearly 40 billion bushels of corn last year according to data from the World of Corn. And according to an Iowa State University study (they would know) one bushel of corn contains about 90,000 kernels. This means the world is eating approximately A BOATLOAD of corn kernels each year. Pay homage to America’s king of crops at the World’s Only Corn Palace, a century-old agricultural shrine that attracts nearly half a million people annually for basketball games, galleries, shows, meetings, banquets, proms and of course, the annual Corn Palace Festival. Festooned on the outside with elaborate patterns of grains, native grasses and 13 different shades of corn, this moorish revival building looks like Aladdin’s palace, if one of his wishes was to live in a corn castle on the South Dakota prairie. Return each year to bask in all the kooky, husky glory of this “folk art wonder” as much as your heart desires: Its exterior is stripped down regularly and adorned with new murals designed around a different theme.
4. Orange Show Monument - Texas
If you’re constantly extolling the virtues of citrus fruits, this tangible tribute to the benefits of proper nutrition will be your main squeeze. In 1956, Houston postman Jeff McKissack began constructing The Orange Show to honor his favorite fruit, encourage people to eat more oranges, be healthy, work hard and live a long life (is it just us, or does he seem like the nicest person in the entire world?) The result: A 3,000-square-foot folk art environment with a maze of winding walkways, a wishing well, pond, several arenas, exhibits and balconies—completely architected and hand-painted by McKissack himself. Today, this eclectic ode to oranges serves as a venue for promoting visionary arts and expression of all kinds, regularly hosting festivals, concerts and art programs open to the public.
5. Georgia Guidestones - Georgia
No worries if you haven’t got the time or capital to scale Mount Sinai. Stateside, Elbert County has its own set of stone-inscribed moral canons. Largely shrouded in mystery, the main consensus about this controversial harbinger of doom is that it (1) contains a post-apocalyptic message for humanity, (2) bears some relation to the occult, and (3) is very heavy. In 1979, a man under the pseudonym R.C. Christian hired the Elberton Granite Finishing Company to erect the 230,000-pound, 19-foot eerie enigma from six granite slabs, arranged in astronomical alignment like a modern Stonehenge. Engraved on each monolith is a set of 10 tenets in different classic languages like Egyptian hieroglyphics and Babylonian. “Let these be the guidestones to an age of reason,” the top stone declares.
Prepare to be [insert here: pensive, reflective, intrigued, confused, creeped out...all of the above?]…then snap a few photos of you looking like a prophet.
6. Lucy the Elephant - New Jersey
Josephine Harron Park in Margate City is the only place in the world where you can be inside an elephant and live to tell the tale. Measuring in at six stories, this towering wood-and-tin pachyderm was constructed in 1881 by a young engineer and would-be entrepreneur named James V. Lafferty, who hoped his behemoth tourist attraction would lure new homebuyers to the Atlantic City area. Talk about real estate #goals. A century plus later, inquisitive visitors are still climbing the long spiral staircase to the howdah on Lucy’s back for 360-degree views of the sandy southern New Jersey coast. Explore the grounds and admire this National Historic Landmark for free from below, or take a guided tour of the tusker for $8.
7. Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron - Wisconsin
Throw “Star Wars,” “Dr. Seuss,” and “Transformers” together in a blender and you’ll get Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron. What sounds like a Disneyland ride is actually the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world—a monument of salvaged artifacts from the 19th and early 20th century, towering 50 feet high and weighing a whopping 300 tons (that’s about 60 adult elephants, in case you were wondering). A few of Forevertron’s most notable components include two Thomas Edison dynamos from the 1880s and the decontamination chamber from the Apollo 11 spacecraft.
Assembled in the 1980s by a former demolition expert named Tom Every, Forevertron even comes with its own alter-ego backstory: A Victorian inventor named Dr. Evermor (a.k.a, Every) built Forevertron with the ultimate goal of propelling himself “into the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam.” Evermor even assembled a giant telescope adjacent to Forevertron, so the haters who didn’t believe him could watch his ascent. Aptly described by one observer as “a virtual museum of disappearing technology, lovingly given new life,” find this hodgepodge alloy masterpiece in Dr. Evermor’s Sumpter Art Park, which also contains a tea house gazebo, a mystical bridge, 60-foot insects, a band of musician birds and giant “UFO.”
Fun fact: Back in the day, Tom Every worked as a freelance artist at House on the Rock, collecting artifacts and developing displays for owner Alex Jordan. Birds of a feather...
8. The Big Blue Bug - Rhode Island
Big Blue Bug Solutions is every insect’s worst nightmare. And their monstrous, winged mascot, Nibbles Woodaway, is every insectophobe’s worst nightmare. Perched atop the building of Providence’s premier pest control business, this 4,000-pound, 58-foot-long critter welcomes (or looms above) all who drive by on I-95—you don’t even have to take a detour or leave your car to see it (talk about the American dream, eh?) Created in 1980, Nibbles’ reputation has grown to match his size, which is about 928 times that of an actual termite.
9. Philadelphia's Magic Gardens - Pennsylvania
Downtown Philly is synonymous with cheesesteaks, Eagles football and a 2,080-pound liberty bell. But less than two miles from that very tourist-trafficked liberty bell, a funky folk art venue bedazzled in 3,000 square feet of glimmering glass beckons visitors to explore a mystical outdoor labyrinth and hidden art galleries.
In 1994, an activist, mosaic artist and Philly native named Isaiah Zagar began crafting the Philadelphia Magic Gardens with the goal of transforming bleak and vacant areas of the city into prosperous community art havens. For 14 years, Zagar and friends built and decorated galleries with fanciful found materials—anything from kitchen plates to glass bottles to bike wheels and thousands of gleaming mirrors. Today, visitors can peruse the gardens to marvel at folk and visionary art from around the globe, take a craft workshop, hear a jam session in the labyrinth or enjoy a guided tour through this sparkly urban oasis.
While the U.S. has myraid wonders, they aren’t limited to the au-naturale. From unconventional art environments to visionary sculptures, these intriguing man-made creations will leave you transfixed in a whole new way.