ABOVE: Details from the lounge at the Historic Park Inn hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1909. Photos by Karen Melvin
Iowa’s “River City” has the last extant hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Business was booming in Mason City, Iowa. In 1909, a group of local businessmen decided to develop a street corner to meet three needs: a new hotel, a bigger building for the City National Bank, and offices for their corporation. They turned to the era’s hottest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The previous year, Dr. G.C. Stockman had hired Wright to design a house; his neighbor’s daughters attended school in Wisconsin, where Wright’s home, Taliesin, is located. After Stockman’s house influenced the town’s business community, Mason City accumulated a rare concentration of Prairie School architecture. At least 32 houses, plus the Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank building, were built in the style between 1908 and 1922 (and now 17 are on the National Register of Historic Places, while eight more are contributing properties to a historic district).
The Rock Glen and Rock Crest National Historic District is an enclave of single-family homes situated along the banks of Willow Creek five blocks from downtown, and the largest concentration of Prairie School homes in a natural setting in the world. The area also features Usonian houses, and includes five designs by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, two by Francis Barry Byrne, and others by William Drummond and Einar Broaten.
The Stockman House—the first and only private Prairie School house by Wright in Iowa—is a museum today. Tours begin at the new Interpretive Center, inspired by a Walter Burley Griffin design, which offers architectural exhibits and gift shop.
In addition to Prairie School design, Victorian, Craftsman, and bungalow houses are well represented in Mason City. Commercial structures dating from 1892 to 1940 include the Brick and Tile Building at State and Delaware streets, and the Mason City Public Library designed by Chicago architects Holabird and Root in 1939. The Len Jus Building on North Federal Avenue has an extremely rare sheet-metal façade.
Settled in 1853, the town had several names before locals settled on Mason City. At the confluence of the Winnebago Rivers and Calmus Creek, it has, however, always been known as River City, its nickname to this day. Meredith Willson, Mason City’s favorite son, created the beloved Broadway musical The Music Man, which is based on places and people here. Meredith Willson lives on at The Music Man Square, where his personal memorabilia and a replica of the original movie streetscape are on display. Every year, Mason City hosts the Mason City Band Festival.
Mason City is also the boyhood home of Bil Baird, master puppeteer. The largest collections of his work, including the puppets featured in The Sound of Music, are on display at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum.
The Surf Ballroom & Museum is an American cultural icon. The original opened for business in 1934, with a $1 dance on a 120′ hardwood dance floor. Located across the street since a 1948 fire, the Ballroom is still the atmospheric place to cut the rug.
Wright left Mason City as construction was about to begin. (The Park Inn Hotel, which became the prototype for his Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, is Wright’s only remaining hotel.) The architect went back to Illinois, deserted his wife and six children, and left for Europe with Mamah Cheney, the wife of a client. The scandal concluded his Mason City career.
After years of neglect and disrepair, the Historic Park Inn Hotel (as it’s known today) was restored by the citizens’ group Wright on the Park. In 2010–11, the building underwent a $20 million renovation. This boutique hotel and conference center offers 27 guest rooms, with no two alike. One historic suite was restored to 1910, complete with wall-mounted sinks, an original clawfoot tub, and a full-size brass bed. Historic Park Inn, Mason City, IA: (641) 422-0015, historicparkinn.com
Twelve years ago, the Mason City Foundation renovated the 1896 Decker House to function as a bed-and-breakfast inn. It’s located next to Music Man Square near the MacNider Art Museum and the Stockman House; it is also close to the Rock Glen neighborhood and Meredith Willson’s boyhood home. The Decker House B&B, Mason City, IA: (641) 423-4700, thedeckerhousemc.com
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