Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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Historic Places Wright Here in Mason City

Old-House Journal
Active Interest Media, Inc., September - October 2001, Vol. 29, No. 5
by Richard L. Kronick

This former architectural mecca in Iowa is staging a comeback,
thanks to its musical favorite son.

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When settlers first broke sod near what is now Mason City, Iowa, in the 1850's, they discovered an 8" thick layer of topsoil that proved to be the most fertile cropland on the planet. There is more than dirt under that prairie. At every bend in Willow Creek and the Winnebago River, which meet in the city, are outcroppings of a creamy-white limestone that has become the city's signature building material. In addition, extensive deposits of brick-making clays underlay the area. The capital generated by these resources combined with the religious beliefs of a few leading citizens to make Mason City a star on the architectural map.

Wrightian Laboratory

In 1902 Mason City lawyer J. E. E. MARKLEY sent his daughter to the progressive Hillside Home School near Spring Green, Wisconsin, largely for one reason: The school was run by devout Unitarians, sisters Jane and Ellen LLOYD JONES. As luck would have it, the building that housed the school was designed by the sisters' nephew, one Frank Lloyd WRIGHT.

Impressed with the building, MARLEY hired WRIGHT in 1908 to design a complex in downtown Mason City to contain the City National Bank, a hotel called the Park Inn, and MARLEY'S law offices. In the words of Mason City historian Robert McCOY, the buildings "symbolized the arrival of culture and tasteful opulence" in Mason City.

City National Bank

City National Bank

Park Inn Hotel
circa 1933

The Park Inn was WRIGHT'S preliminary exercise for the much larger Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, built in 1915. Each reads a pair of rectangular pavilions sheltering the main entrance and features broadly cantilevered pagoda roofs. The windlowless City National Bank presented the image of a strong box. It was clad with one of WRIGHT'S favorite building materials - the long, low, so-called Roman bricks.

Sadly, the opulence has faded. To convert the bank to a department store, developers cut plate glass windows into the walls and iserted a mezzanine into its grand lobby.

The hotel has lost much of its original ornamentation and has been closed for years. Both buildings suffer fundamentally from the urban exodus common to cities large and small, a problem being addressed creatively by the Mason City Foundation (more about this later).

In 1908, before the bank-hotel complex was completed, MARKLEY'S neighbors George and Eleanor STOCKMAN had a WRIGHT-designed house built in Mason City. The house is one of the few built examples of the WRIGHT design called "Fireproof House for $5,000," when it was featured in the 1907 issue of The Ladies Home Journal. The reinforced concrete structure is a compact Foursqure with appendages on opposite sides for an entrance foyer and a sun porch. In recent years the house was moved to 530 First Street Northeast, beautifully restored, and is now open to the public.

Moving the Stockman House

Stockman House

Yelland House

By the time he came to Mason City, Frank Lloyd WRIGHT was famous and his services in steady demand. He cracked under fame's pressure, however, and in 1909 he left his family and his architecture practice in Oak Park, Illinois, to slip off to Europe with a client's wife.

These scandalous goings on in Oak Park left WRIGHT'S associates to pick up the slack in Mason City. His chief draftsman, William DRUMMOND, supervised construction of the bank-hotel and also designed a house in 1910 for the Curtis YELLAND family. The wood-framed house, at 7 River Heights Drive, is a good example of the Prairie School motiff called board-and-batten siding, wherein wide and narrow boards alternate to accentuate the horizontal lines of the building.

Achieving the Dream

Because WRIGHT and his followers believed that every house should be fully integrated with the land, they dreamed of designing entire communities rather than just isolated houses. That dream - which now fell to WRIGHT'S most talented associates, Walter Burley GRIFFIN and GRIFFIN'S wife, Marion MAHONY GRIFFIN - was more fully realized in Mason City than anywhere else in America.

MARKLEY law partner James BLYTHE and another leading citizen, Joshua MELSON, hired the GRIFFINS in 1911. MELSON purchased land atop limestone cliffs with potential sites overlooking Willow Creek. BLYTHE held land across from MELSON in a sunny glen. The four developed Rock Crest and Rock Glen as communities fully integrated with nature, reserving the creek banks as private parkland for the homeowners.

The 1912 house that the GRIFFINS designed at 56 River Heights Drive may be the best example anywhere of integrating a house with its natural setting. Viewed from across the creek, the limestone house appears to be a supernatural extension of the cliff, culminating in over-sized voussoirs that project from the upper-storey windows. It's easy to see why the house's local nickname is 'the Castle.' Due largely to MELSON'S contentious personality, this was the only house the GRIFFINS designed in Rock Crest, although in 1914, local architect Einar BROATEN designed the Prairie-style DRAKE house for a site on MELSON'S tract.

Melson House, 1989

Walter Burley &
Marion Mahoney Griffin

Blythe House

Rock Glen fared better. Between 1912 and 1914, the GRIFFINS designed the PAGE and RULE houses near the north end of the development and the BLYTHE house around the corner; each presents a different image.

The massive PAGE House stands on a base of rough limestone. The stucco RULE House has thick piers at the corners, surmounted by recessed art glass windows. The exterior surface of the concrete BLYTHE House is embossed with a pattern that suggests the pre-Columbian art of Central America.

As with WRIGHT, a sudden change in circumstances ended the GRIFFIN'S relationship with Mason City. They moved to Australia in 1912 when Walter won the competition to design the new capital city, Canberra. WRIGHT associate Barry BYRNE continued their work in Rock Glen, designing three houses along the street of the RULE House between 1915 and 1917.


Many other houses in Mason City are worth a look. One is the BAYNARD House, an Arts & Crafts bungalow designed in 1909 by Joshua MELSON and directly across the street from his castle. Also worth finding are two more Prairie-style houses by Einar BROATEN at 811 N. Adams Avenue and 521 N. Washington Avenue. The creekside 1908 WAY House, a graceful exercise in Queen Anne-Shingle Style, was designed by E. R. BOGARDUS. The Queen Anne house at 314 S. Pennsylvania is noteworthy as the boyhood home of Mason City's favorite son, Meredith WILLSON, composer of The Music Man - and therein lies a tale of urban development.

Downtown Revitalization

Rock Crest-Rock Glen may be replaced by the Music Man Square as the most visited architectural wonder in Mason city. As its name suggests, the square pays homage to Meredith WILLSON'S most famous play. Scheduled for its grand opening on WILLSON'S 100th birthday, May 18, 2002, the complex is an ambitious amalgam of tourist attraction, convention center, and arts center developed by the Mason City Foundation. The centerpiece, which opened this spring [2001], is an indoor Disenyesque streetscape that brings to life the Main Street of WILLSON'S River City. Across the "street" from the shops, a facade made up as the River City High School Auditorium is actually the entrance to the convention center. Behind the shops are several theaters, a museum of WILLSONIA (yes, there are 76 trombones), and a music education facility dedicated to the children of Mason City. The Mason City Foundation's next strategic move will be to restore the nearby Park Inn to accommodate tourists downtown. Some historic preservationists wondering how to breathe life into old buildings could take a lesson from Mason City.

Historic Lodging

While you're in the Music Man Square area, visit Marjorie's Tea House (320 S. Pennsylvania Avenue), a restored Queen Anne where you can order either meals or high tea. For a good map and detailed descriptions of Mason City, lookf for The Mason City Walking Tour Guide (1994) by Robert McCOY, edited by Jim SMITH. You can find it at the STOCKMAN House (641) 421-3666), operated as a museum by the Cerro Gordo County Historical Society.

If you want to stay in a B&B near Mason City, there are some lodgines within less than an hour's drive.

The Cupola Inn, 20664 Claybanks Drive, Nora Springs IA 50458. (641) 442-9272. www.angelfire.com/ia/cupolainn    A large renovated chicken house (sorry, no chickens), complete with a reconstructed cupola, in the barnyard of a working farm where cows may low you to sleep. Breakfast is delivered in an egg basket. The rooms are decorated with quilts, crocheted doilies, and other authentic heirlooms made by the proprietor's ancestors. 4 rooms.

Blue Belle Inn, 513 W. 4th Street, St. Ansgar, IA 50472 (877) 736-2225. www.deskmedia.com/-bluebelle    Climb the stair of this 1896 Queen Anne to overlook the maple-filled yard with flower garden and fish pond. Cuisine at the candlelit meals, served on heirloom china, may be German, English, French, Italian, Scandinavina, or American country. About 30 miles from Mason City. 6 rooms.

Clear Lake (800) 285-5338 www.clearlakeiowa.com    The shores of this glacial lake, only about 12 miles from Mason City, offer numerous B&Bs as well as other lodging.

Richard KRONICK is a writer and architectural historian based in Minneapolis.

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The Des Moines Register
Des Moines, Polk County, Iowa
by Amy LORENTZEN, The Associated Press
date clipped off article

Iowa group to renovate WRIGHT-designed hotel

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Frank Lloyd WRIGHT enthusiasts are claiming victory in their effort to restore the architect's last standing hotel, a northern Iowa landmark that has fallen apart over the past few decades.

The Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, designed by WRIGHT and completed in 1910, has been used as a hotel, apartments and even a strip club. It fell further into neglect while city officials searched unsuccessfully for a way to maintain the historic structure. Now, a private group has taken over the effort.

"It certainly has been an eyesore, it has had a very, very checkered history over the past 40 to 50 years," said Ann MacGREGOR, executive director of WRIGHT on the Park Inc., the group behind a planned $18 million restoration.

The hotel is the last remaining of six designed by WRIGHT after the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was demolished in 1968. The Park Inn Hotel will have 20 suites when it reopens to the public in early 2001, MacGREGOR said.

The restoration has caused discord in the city that was home to "The Music Man" creator Meredith WILLSON. His boyhood home has been made into a museum, and there's a life-sized replica of "The Music Man" movie set in downtown Mason City.

Some wonder why the hotel designed by WRIGHT, considered by man to be America's greatest architect, hasn't had the same support.

"There are naysayers for this project. . . who don't appreciate or understand the architectural, historical nature of this property," MacGREGOR said. "They question what it will do for downtown Mason City."

Market analysis shows there is a demand for such a tourist destination and a hotel management company based in Fort Atkinson, Wis., has been hired to ensure things operate smoothly she said.

Former Mason City Mayor, Jean MARINOS, also believes the hotel will help economic development. The group plans to invite presidential candidates to the hotel during the Iowa caucuses and hopefully host a televised debate.

"Five years from now, when this hotel is up and running, we'll really have some great opportunites in the downtown for small businesses to come in," MARINOS said.

The hotel made national headlines in 2004 when the City Council put an ad on eBay to sell it for $10 million to anyone who promised to restore it. When that failed, WRIGHT on the Park stepped in and the city signed over the deed.

"It wasn't that they didn't want (the restoration) done," MARINOS said, "it was just they didn't want the city to do it."

WRIGHT enthusiast have been in a race for funding. The state of Iowa came through with about $8.2 million through its Vision Iowa program, and various federal and state historic grants and donations will pay for much of the work. There's only about $2 million left to be raised.

"I think we've moved mountains in a relatively short period of time," MacGREGOR said.

Alaina SANTIZO, the program manager for Vision Iowa, said state officials believe the project will draw tourists from across the country.

"This historic gem will be restored to its original splendor, while providing modern amenities that will appeal to today's travelers," she said in a statement.

Born in Richland Center, Wis., WRIGHT was part of the Prairie School, a residential architectural movement that stated in Chicago and spread through the Midwest. He came to Mason City in 1908 after two local attorneys hired him to build new law offices and sandwich them between a hotel and a bank for added revenue. WRIGHT also built a private residence in Mason City called the STOCKMAN House that's now a museum.

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Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Saturday, September 10, 2011

Park Inn holds Skylight Ball

Guests enjoy cocktail hour at the Skylight Ball.



  Photographer Paul Nixdorf takes a picture of Jeff and Jean Bergo of Mason City near the red carpet at the Skylight Ball at the Historic Park Inn in downtown Mason City.

Globe Gazette photographs by Jake Rajewsky




  Transcriptions by Sharon R. Becker, April of 2011; updated October of 2011



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