A famous architect and (no) trouble in Mason City

Mason City, Iowa, is almost halfway between Des Moines and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The small city of 27,000 offers a wealth of opportunities to celebrate music, art, and architecture. So what else would you expect from The Music Man’s River City? First, let’s visit Mason City’s signature attractions.

I have visited Mason City more than once, but Visit Mason City hosted my most recent visit. As always, my opinions are my own.

Park Inn Hotel, Mason City
The Park Inn Hotel in Mason City is the last Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel still extant.

1. Historic Park Inn Hotel

Most hotels are simply a place to sleep. However, the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City is far more than a place to sleep. It’s the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel. J.E.E. Markley was part of a Mason City group that desired to build a new bank and hotel. Markley’s daughters were attending a school that Wright had designed. Because the school impressed him, he hired Wright to build the hotel. Markley and others intended the new building to house a bank, law offices, and a hotel with a restaurant. The bank was on the building’s east side. Its blank brick walls are topped with a bank of windows, providing a secure feeling for customers. The hotel was also carefully crafted with Wright’s signature concepts: compression and release, cantilevered roofs, natural light, and open floor plans. The building opened in 1910.

However, the womanizing Wright soon wore out his welcome in Mason City. After he designed the Mason City hotel, he ran off to Europe with a former client’s wife, Mamah (MAY-muh) Borthwick Cheney. He abandoned his wife, six children, and his practice. They spent a year in Europe before moving to Taliesin in Wisconsin. Her husband granted her a divorce after a year, but Wright’s wife refused divorce for many years. The scandal made Wright obnoxious in Mason City. After contractors finished a Wright project, he would return to the site. If he approved, he would install an autographed red tile. Mason City refused Wright’s return; therefore, the Park Inn’s red tile is missing.

Roxie’s reliable report: From Central Park, Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with his signature porkpie hat and elevator shoes, looks across the street at his hotel. The words “Frank Lloyd Wright” are copyrighted, so the statue is titled “American Architect.”

Related: Proclaim that “I’m always Wright” with this T-shirt.

The Park Inn’s death and resurrection

The original hotel plan offered 43 10-by-10-foot rooms with shared bathrooms. Since air conditioning was unavailable, Wright designed louvers in the doors for ventilation. Of course, the louvers also admitted noise, light, and tobacco smoke.

A new hotel opened down the street with more amenities. Many potential guests preferred the new lodging. The skylight began leaking, so remodelers removed the skylight room and the mezzanine. In 1926, the bank closed. More remodeling ensued, which obscured Wright’s original design. Until 1972, a variety of businesses occupied the lower floors.

In 1972, the owners turned the building into apartments and the building spiraled into an eyesore. Eventually, pigeons colonized the upper floors. Wright’s refusal to use rain gutters enabled rain to erode the building’s limestone foundations.

Mason City didn’t know what to do with the hotel. The city even tried to sell the building on eBay, but that failed. Finally, the city sold the building to Wright on the Park for $1. The nonprofit raised $19 million to rescue the hotel. It reopened 101 years after its first opening, in September 2011. The bank side of the building is now an event space. The hotel’s first floor offers a restaurant with a bar and meeting space in the basement. In addition, the hotel provides hour-long tours several days a week.

Roxie’s reliable report: In 1915, the Imperial Hotel opened in Tokyo, Japan. Wright’s design looks much like the Park Inn. It survived an earthquake and World War II, only to be demolished in 1968. Preservationists saved its lobby and reconstructed it at an architecture museum.

View of City Park from the Park Inn Hotel balcony
Morning view from the balcony. “American Architect” is at the lower right and the Civil War Memorial is partially obscured behind a tree at right-center.

What staying at the Park Inn is like

Wright preferred to obscure a building’s front door. The Park Inn is no exception. Look for it beside the east end of the balcony. When you enter, the lobby is airy, but the front desk ceiling is uncomfortably low. That ceiling is the floor for a light-filled mezzanine above. The door louvers are now closed, but the design is still visible. The building does have an elevator, but I took the stairs. Vertical slats enclose the stairwells, mirroring the door design. To provide 21st-century room amenities, each of the 27 rooms is unique. The plushest room is the one that formerly housed the law offices. My room was on the top floor and my morning sky view was magnificent.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Look for the Wright-inspired carpet designs. They vary throughout the hotel.

The mezzanine seems to float above the registration desk. A grand piano graces the space, and I was tempted to test the acoustics and sing. But I refrained. The mezzanine is adjacent to the Ladies Lounge. In Wright’s original design, salespeople would show shoppers their wares in the lounge. He designated a room nearby for a storage place. The lounge opens onto a balcony with umbrellaed picnic tables, perfect for relaxing. The cantilevered roof provides plenty of shade to enjoy park views.

Food and drink from the Park Inn Hotel, Mason City
An old-fashioned from The Draftsman with a charcuterie board from Markley & Blythe

When you get hungry, visit the Markley & Blythe Restaurant or go to the Draftsman, a basement bar, in the evening. Relax to the live music. At Markley & Blythe, try the duck pot pie followed by bone-marrow bread pudding. I recommend the Draftsman’s charcuterie board and their beer-battered Iowa cheese curds.

Stockman House, Mason City
The Stockman House was Wright’s first house design in Iowa.

More Wright stuff in Mason City

Wright designed Dr. George and Eleanor Stockman’s house in 1908, before his “spiritual hegira” to Europe with Mamah Cheney. The Stockmans’ home was Iowa’s first Wright house. The cantilevered roof over the first-floor entrance is reminiscent of Wright’s 1935 masterpiece, Fallingwater. Wright had published his Fireproof House design in the Ladies Home Journal the year before, and this house followed that pattern. The house is a Foursquare design with an entrance foyer and sunporch on opposite sides. Since Stockman’s home was also his clinic, Wright made the front door easy to discern.

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A near-death experience

Initially, the house was next to the Methodist Church. By 1987, the house was unkempt. A pole supported the cantilevered roof. The house’s final occupant died, and the family tried to sell it at an auction. However, the church’s lone bid was less than the reserve price. The church wanted to raze the building to build a parking lot. Citizens formed the River City Society for Historic Preservation to save the city’s historic structures. After considering three sites (PDF), they settled on a place on the outskirts of the Rock Glen Historic District. The Robert E. McCoy Architectural Interpretive Center shares the grounds and All Stockman House tours begin there. McCoy was a preservation society board member and Wright scholar.

Roxie’s reliable report: The preservation society first saved the Civil War memorial in City Park.

Related: Wright designed his only Kansas projects in Wichita.

21 Rock Glen, Mason City
Walter Burley Griffin designed Harry D. Page’s house at 21 Rock Glen.

More Prairie School in Mason City

The people may have disapproved of Wright’s lifestyle, but they still liked Prairie School Architecture. Even though Wright was the style’s most well-known proponent, he was not the sole proponent. Those who had worked with Wright-designed structures in Mason City after he had departed. Eventually, Mason City’s Rock Crest-Rock Glen neighborhood would feature several Prairie School houses. The neighborhood became the world’s-largest collection of Prairie-style homes surrounding a natural setting. Look for the Usonian house on your tour.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Obtain self-guided walking tour information or book a docent-led tour from Wright on the Park.

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Grammy winner knows about trouble

Mason City native Meredith Willson left Iowa for the lights of Broadway, but he never forgot his hometown. The hit musical “The Music Man” was his “attempt to pay tribute to his home state.” The musical won numerous awards, including the initial Grammy for Original Cast Album.

Willson came by his skills naturally. Willson’s mother Rosalie taught music lessons. The Meredith children excelled in music. For a time, both Meredith and his older brother Cedric played in John Philip Sousa’s band. Cedric later left the music business to become a successful engineer. Their sister Dixie could have been a harpist for the Minnesota Symphony, but instead, she chose to teach and write. Her short story “God Gave Me 20 Cents” became a movie. When Meredith outshone his sister, she was jealous.

Dixie’s jealousy was not the first disruption to the Willson family dynamic. John Willson was not pleased when Meredith arrived. He felt that a daughter and son were enough children, and he generally ignored Meredith, his youngest. John and Rosalie divorced in 1920. John had fallen in love with this employee Minnie, who was half his age. After the divorce, John and Minnie married and moved into a house behind the Willson family home, where Rosalie still lived. Rosalie did not want to see the new couple and blocked the view with a new garage.

Related: Support live music with our T-shirt.

Meet the Music Man

From his birth, Meredith seemed destined to go big. He weighed 14 lbs., 6 oz., at birth, the largest baby ever born in Iowa. When he was 10, he was playing the flute in the local band. Five years later, he had his first paying job — in an orchestra. He played with Sousa’s band when he was 19. He helped bring sound to movies and composed movie scores in his early 20s.

In his 30s and 40s, he had several national radio shows in his resumé. He started writing “The Music Man” in 1951. The show later won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Music Man” was still on Broadway in 1958 when Willson began writing “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” It opened in 1960. Hugh Jackman stars in “The Music Man” revival currently on Broadway. His last musical “Here’s Love” included the classic Christmas tune, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”

Roxie’s reliable report: Willson also wrote the “Iowa Fight Song.”

Music Man Square in Mason City
Music Man Square

It’s hip to visit Music Man Square

At Music Man Square, Willson leads a massive band playing “76 Trombones” during the 1962 North Iowa Band Festival. His boyhood home is on one side of his sculpture and the Meredith Willson Museum is on the other. Admission includes both buildings. In the house, Dixie’s bedroom displays her books. Meredith’s greatest hits are on the piano downstairs. His Suite for Flute, “The Second Flight of the Bumblebee” is on a music stand in the boys’ bedroom. The docent called the composition “nearly unplayable.” A picture of the Willson boys in the local band is on the dresser.

The 1912 Streetscape from “The Music Man” movie is the first section of the museum. Enjoy an ice cream treat in the old-fashioned ice cream parlor and buy a souvenir at Mrs. Paroo’s Gift Shop. Stroll to Madison park and look up to see the 76 trombones on the ceiling. A discreet door sends you to the Meredith Willson Museum. Watch a documentary, then explore Willson’s life. Enter his New York office, and view his awards and other memorabilia. In the back, learn about Willson’s contribution to adding sound to movies. Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie, “The Great Dictator,” plays continuously in the back of the museum. Willson wrote that movie’s film score.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Before you enter the museum, look for the musical staff and notes on the building’s foundation.

Related: Explore a music icon at the Surf Ballroom, a few minutes away in Clear Lake.

MacNider Museum entrance, Mason City
Note the brickwork on the MacNider Museum’s entrance.

The Sound of Music” meets “The Wizard of Oz” at the MacNider Art Museum

Burr Keeler, the President of the Mason City Brick and Tile Company, designed his 1921 English Tudor house to show off his company’s products. In 1964, Gen. and Mrs. Hanford MacNider bought the house and stipulated that it become an art center. Two years later, 2,500 people attended the grand opening. It bore Charles H. MacNider’s name, who was the general’s father. After it opened, the center expanded several times. World-renowned puppeteer and Mason City native Bil Baird and his wife donated puppets and a gallery for them opened in 1981.

Lonely Goatherd puppet at the MacNider Museum
Enjoy The Sound of Music’s Lonely Goatherd characters at the MacNider Museum.

Baird’s most famous puppets appeared in “The Lonely Goatherd” scene from “The Sound of Music.” The “Goatherd” characters are not the only famous characters on display. Baird and his troupe performed “The Wizard of Oz” for 188 performances Off-Broadway in 1968 and 1969.

Related: Experience Oz in Kansas.

Baird rescued NBC when Apollo 12 had technical issues.

Roxie’s reliable report: When the Apollo 12 crew erroneously aimed their camera at the sun, the video was useless to the networks streaming it. NBC turned to Baird in desperation. Baird created marionettes to illustrate the astronauts’ commentary.

Mr. Eggwards
Mr. Eggwards was 2016’s People’s Choice Award winner. He is permanently on display in Mason City’s Sculpture on Parade.

Walkable Mason City

Music Man Square is part of Mason City’s walking tour. Mason City’s architecture is not the only reason to walk around the city. Check out the 1.7-mile River City Sculptures on Parade walking tour. The artists loan their sculptures to the city for a year. From June to September, people vote for their favorite sculpture. The winner receives the People’s Choice Award and the city buys it for Mason City’s permanent collection. Those who enjoy another one of the sculptures may buy one. That means the amiable Mr. Eggwards will not get in trouble from falling off his wall. The king’s horses and men will not have to put him back together again.

Bike rack and repair station
Bike rack and repair station

Roxie’s reliable report: Mason City is very walkable and bike-friendly. Look for the city’s bike support stations.

Brick Furniture sign
Brick Furniture in Downtown Mason City gets into the Wright vibe.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Look for the Wright-inspired murals all over Mason City. You’ll find them everywhere — even on city electrical boxes.

Wish You Were in Vegas Bloody Mary
The Wish You Were in Vegas Bloody Mary at the Blue Heron

Where to eat

Obviously, you’re going to dine at the Park Inn’s eateries, but we have four more suggestions.

1) Blue herons decorate the Blue Heron Bar & Grill because the owner’s mother liked the bird. Her art collection adorns the restaurant. To continue with the blue theme, order The Black & Blue, a burger topped with crumbled blue cheese, seasoned with blackened seasoning. Drink the Wish You Were in Vegas Bloody Mary. After you eat, investigate the mural on the restaurant’s exterior.

2) The Northwestern Steakhouse has been serving top-quality Iowa beef since 1920. The restaurant broils the steak Greek-style, making them tender and mouthwateringly juicy. I savored the luscious lamb chops, and the restaurant also serves chicken, shrimp, and walleye.

3) The Quarry & Tapas Bar is on the bank side of the Park Inn. Try the jambalaya penne pasta and the gringo tacos. If you’re lucky, live music will be playing at the Principal Pavilion outside the restaurant.

3) Mason City’s brewers don’t serve food, so eat first. Then hoist a glass of craft brew at Fat Hill Brewing and Mason City Brewing.

Ya got no trouble when you visit Mason City

Definitely take some time to enjoy Mason City’s music, art, and architecture. Midwest culture is alive and vibrant in this North Iowa city.

The Midwest is full of wonderful, fascinating places to visit. Learn more.

Related: Explore the Bridges of Madison County.