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Iowa polishes its Frank Lloyd Wright gem

This news story was published on February 12, 2012.
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By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune –

MASON CITY, Iowa — This town of 28,000 knew it had something special in the world’s last standing Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel, but it also had a problem. The hotel was a decrepit shell.

(PHOTO: The historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, Iowa, the world’s only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built hotel, reopened last year after years of disrepair, adding to Mason City as Iowa’s home of Prairie School Architecture.)

For years no one quite knew what to do with the building that had slid slowly into decline since its heralded opening in 1910: from a hotel to stores and offices to apartments and, finally, by the 1970s, a shuttered mess.

There was talk of knocking it down. There was a suggestion — and failed attempt — to sell it on eBay. Finally, a group of locals created a nonprofit group and pledged to restore the building to his early glory. The city sold it to them for $1 and bid them luck.

Close to $20 million later — mostly the product of grants and fundraising — they’ve kept their word, and the Historic Park Inn has risen again, re-establishing an unlikely bond between a small Iowa town and our nation’s most iconic architect.

But Wright’s Mason City legacy is much more than one hotel. During his brief time here, the native Midwesterner also designed a single-family house for the Stockman family that has been restored with period-era furniture and is open for public tours.

Also, several of his disciples followed Wright to Mason City to work on the hotel, and they too were commissioned to design single-family houses. The product of such an influx of world-class vision left behind Iowa’s unlikely capital of Prairie School architecture

Until the hotel reopened last year, all Mason City lacked was a centerpiece tying its architectural riches together. Now the Historic Park Inn draws both long-distance travelers and natives to explore Wright’s genius.

“When we heard it opened, we knew we had to stay here,” said Bryan Morrow Way, 69, back in town from Las Vegas for a school reunion.

“You don’t think of someone famous doing things like this in small towns,” said his wife, Kathy, 65.

Driving into town, you’d never know you are entering an architectural hot spot. Mason City’s edges are made of the same strip malls and gas stations you’d find anywhere. But deeper into the city, you begin sensing an inventiveness you rarely see in Midwestern homes in towns of this size. Most stunning, of course, is the hotel in the heart of town, a long, elaborate yellow brick behemoth across from the grassy town square.

The restoration was an exacting effort that knew when to reproduce yesteryear and when to leave things alone. In some hands, for instance, the low-ceilinged lobby would have been gutted and converted to a luxurious space. Here it remains in a simple, stark condition that makes it easy to imagine the original version. In any other hotel, the dark scuff markings in the lounge floor just past the lobby would be appalling; here they’re history, showing Wright’s original vision and layout of the room. Though a little dingy, it’s something you wouldn’t dare replace.

The rest of the hotel toes closer to comfort, if not luxury. Clean and well-appointed in handsome dark wood, it all merges somewhere between elegant and cozy as you’re reminded at every turn you are in a Frank Lloyd Wright space: muted colors, wood trim, countless right angles (even in the light fixtures) and long windows. The common spaces, too, are handsome and engaging.

The sleeping quarters are roomy and comfortable, highlighted by such modern conveniences as bedside lamps with dimmer switches and MP3 docks. Even the bars of soap have Wright-esque recessed ridges.

In truth, you need a night to fully appreciate the hotel and soak up the detail, such as the mezzanine that seems to float above the front desk. Besides, when there’s only one Wright hotel, it becomes more than a place to stay. It becomes an experience.



GETTING THERE: A car is needed to get to Mason City, which sits off Interstate Highway 35 in the north-central part of the state, just south of the Minnesota border. It is 350 miles northwest of Chicago.

EAT: Chop (11 S. Delaware; is a solid steak house with local beef and pork. My favorite spot, which is just across a courtyard from the Wright hotel, was Ralph’s Garden Cafe (5 S. Federal Ave.), which serves a fresh, no-frills breakfast and lunch before transforming into a white-tablecloth dinner destination with a couple of local beers on tap.

STAY: The Historic Park Inn (15 W. State St., 800-659-2220,;, of course. The hotel has 27 rooms that vary in size and layout, but the amenities are consistent. Also, the common spaces are beautifully restored to conditions worth lounging. Rates: $100 to $275.

DO: Mason City is known for two things: architecture and the Tony-award winning musical “The Music Man.” Meredith Wilson, author of the musical, grew up in Mason City and has been honored with The Music Man Square (308 S. Pennsylvania Ave.;, which includes a museum and tours of Wilson’s boyhood home. Otherwise, in Mason City, architecture is king. The Wright hotel alone is worth the visit, but there’s much more Prairie School architecture to see. Touring the Stockman House (530 First St. NE; is a must, but seeing the rest of Mason City’s best architecture also is worth the time. Head to the MacNider Art Museum (303 Second St. SE; and buy a walking tour guide to see the best of Mason City architecture, including the unforgettable Melson House (56 S. River Heights Drive).

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25 Responses to Iowa polishes its Frank Lloyd Wright gem

  1. Larry Reply Report comment

    February 19, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Just so you understand where I am coming from I did not sit behind the scenes on this. I was in contact with at least four of our council at the time and even communicated with the mayor and city administratorabout what I considered waste. If I remember correctly I even wrote two letters to the editor on the proposed waste, one was published and the other they refused to put in the paper, so don”t say I am a after the fact bitcher. I don’t remember seeing much from the rest of you.

  2. Kevin B. Reply Report comment

    February 17, 2012 at 7:59 am


    The “hotel” you referred to in Tulsa is actually the Price Tower in Bartlesville, OK. Designed by Wright as a mixed use office tower, it was recently converted into a boutique hotel. And there are no Wright buildings in Tuscon, AZ, but in Phoenix there is the famous Arizona Biltmore resort. Many mistakenly believe that is was designed by Wright; however it was actually designed by a former assistant of Wright’s by the name of MacArthur. Wright was hired by MacArthur to act as a consultant on the project, and his considerable influence on the finished product is easily seen.

    Hope that helps to clear up some misinformation.

  3. 50 miles south Reply Report comment

    February 13, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    to hell with all the bitching. i applaud the city and organizations involved in preserving iowas history. you simply cant bring it back after its gone. How many of you wish you still had your first car for example? Well…I DO. and you cant tell me that its cheaper to tear down and rebuild. I happened to visit the FLW motel last weekend for the first time. I for one LOVE history and its architecture. And i am not the only one. having been the president of a local historical society, I can understand how hard and expensive it can be. It takes alot of research to do a proper job. Great job on saving Mason citys history

  4. sijr Reply Report comment

    February 13, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    LARRY….P.S. At the time of the vote on the library renovation, it was a published fact that the city needed to put $700,000 in with the $7 million and the streetscape’s $2.3 million, which was to come from the city treasury, was also a part of the package needed to receive Vision Iowa funds. So, Mr. Larry, you did it and knew about it at the time of your vote…don’t try to hide behind “So I guess…”

    • Can I get an AMEN!!!! Reply Report comment

      February 13, 2012 at 4:42 pm

      Preach on bother!!!!

      • Can I get an AMEN!!!! Reply Report comment

        February 13, 2012 at 4:43 pm

        ok, typo… but still, preach on brother!

  5. sijr Reply Report comment

    February 13, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    LARRY…you’re telling me you don’t vote in the city elections? If you did you had a say in how money was spent. If you went before coucil with your pros or cons on the project you would have at least made an effort to voice your opinion. I suspect you are like so many Mason Citians…you let “others” do it and then if it doesn’t go your way, “I had no say in it,” washing your hands of the whole deal.

    • Interesting! Reply Report comment

      February 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      You are either on to something or on something, lol! Either way you nailed it on this one! Alot of complaints after the fact, but when asked, they did nothing to support their position prior to a decision!

  6. Larry Reply Report comment

    February 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    The library I voted for and agreed to. The rest of it I had no say in even though I do pay taxes so I guess I helped pay for it. There are a lot of things in town I would have rather seen the money go to. The water department and sewer issues are just some of the items that need help. Or possibly we could have bought a new fire truck and saved soemones property or life. Downtown is DEAD. Let it rest in peace.

  7. sijr Reply Report comment

    February 13, 2012 at 11:51 am

    OH, LARRY…You are correct that the money, $9 million of it, came from Vision Iowa whose funds come from gambling. However; don’t forget that had the voters not approved the more than $7 million rehab of the library, for which you are paying tax money, the city would not have received the funds. So, sure, if we hadn’t gone for the money someone else would have…but you also wouldn’t be paying higher taxes. By the way, city council chipped in $700,000 toward the library and about $2.3 million for streetscape…where do you think those funds came from?

    • Oh Larry and sijr Reply Report comment

      February 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      Exactly! We got a great price on the projects! Had we not went after the VI funds and tied it to the appropriate projects, those same projects would have cost us alot more! See the big picture! Those projects in full or partial would probably have went through anyways. Thank God we had a way to defray some of those costs.

  8. Observer Reply Report comment

    February 13, 2012 at 9:34 am

    As a young lad, I became aware of the different architectures that surrounded me. And the differences were not hard to notice. When sis moved to Oak Park, my visits were punctuated with looking at the various different homes Wright produced.

    The sophomoric research into architecture and the history of the area, opened my eyes to the destruction going on else where of, perhaps not significant, but good examples of well planned and produced buildings. That trend increased in the 1990’s.

    When I located in Iowa, I was disappointed to see that same trend was followed. Tear it down and put in something cheap and modern. Ones with less character. It makes me at least grateful for my experiences.

    • 50 miles south Reply Report comment

      February 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm

      no kidding about something cheap and modern. My 105 year old art deco home is still way better than the house my mother had built after the tornado in 2008. throw it away today, and buy it again tomorrow is wastefull and why we have such high landfill rates, taxes ect

      • Observer Reply Report comment

        February 17, 2012 at 1:09 am

        Art Deco, nice! I recall riding trains from Chicago that were designed in an Art Deco theme (I believe it was a lounge or diner). One of the most ornate works of art on wheels.

        Of course then there is the Palmer House, where I stayed after my Prom (hey, if your going first class, go all the way). I have gone back there a number of times to just look at it’s beauty. Built in 1879 or something like that.

        I envy you.

  9. Larry Reply Report comment

    February 13, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Yes, we have already paid a lot for this. They did the street scape and parking to support it and if I recall correctly, Vision Iowa State funds are funded by state taxes. It is not, never was free money. There is no such thing as free money.

    • Oh Larry... Reply Report comment

      February 13, 2012 at 10:03 am

      Vision Iowa funds come from gambling revenues. If we didnt get the money it would have went somewhere else. We got some work done for a very discounted rate. Yes, we matched some funds to get the work done but imagine if these funds werent available or someone else got them!

  10. sijr Reply Report comment

    February 12, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    JACKPOT…Do you really believe FLW was in Mason City to oversee the construction of a $3,000 home. And the person the Globe claims was in Mason to supervise the construction of the hotel had actually quit FLW a year earlier over FLW’s failure to pay him. I have never seen any documentation that he was ever in Mason. He was famous enough even the Globe would have covered his being here. There would be documents signed by him in the city archives, etc. etc. There is no question he designed the hotel…he was famous for drawing up plans the night before they were due. The question is who was in Mason to oversee the hotel’s construction and was it completed as he designed it? You may recall that FLW ran off to Paris to be with his girlfriend, leaving his wife and children behind in Chicago at the time the hotel was being constructed and didn’t return until well after it was completed. There is no evidence he ever visited the site.

  11. Hmmmm Reply Report comment

    February 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Nice Job getting it done Wright on the Park. Even with all the hate in Mason City, you did a great job.

    • Echo Reply Report comment

      February 12, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      I dont think there was any hate in Mason City it was about priorities and many did not believe this should be one. Many people still think it cost to much and does not bring enough return back.

  12. Larry Reply Report comment

    February 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Mike-If you think we did the right thing, why don’t you pay for it??

    • What Reply Report comment

      February 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm

      Have you paid any thing yet? I don’t think so!!!

  13. sijr Reply Report comment

    February 12, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Personally, I’d rather stay in his hotel in Tulsa, his only skyscraper (19 stories high) or the one in Tucson.

  14. Mike Hahn Reply Report comment

    February 12, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Congratulations Mason City. As evident by this feature, you did the right thing.