Wright Here in Mason City
Everything's up to date at the last standing Frank Lloyd Wright hotel
By Arnold Berke | From Preservation | Spring 2012
In the deep green of a Midwestern summer, Mason City, Iowa, seems to be nodding off from the heat. The sun bears down, and breezes are absent. But downtown, facing the public square called Central Park, one building swarms with construction activity.
The Historic Park Inn—the last standing hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—looks like it has just been built but is in fact a century old. On the day of my visit in early August 2011, the inn is a week away from welcoming guests.
Its long restoration is wrapping up. Workers pilot boards through squealing saws and fiddle with light fixtures, railings, and windows. Debris fills roll-off trash bins; dust floats sun-flecked in the air. Inside, flooring installers maneuver rolls of carpeting from foothills of unopened boxes, as carpenters and painters rush to complete trim and finishes and a supervisor checks items off lists taped to guest-room doors.
“In six years, we have moved mountains,” says Ann MacGregor as she guides me through the commotion, clearly relishing the results. MacGregor is executive director of Wright on the Park (WOTP), the nonprofit that carried out the lion’s share of a project whose implementation challenges rivaled its architectural ones. This is a proud moment for her group—and for Mason City, a town that claims not only this landmark but also a house by Wright, an enclave of houses by his followers, and the inspiration for the beloved Broadway musical, The Music Man.
In the early 1900s Mason City was booming. Brick, drain tile, and cement making, as well as meatpacking and farming, fueled the local economy. Four railways linked the north-central Iowa town to the world (Chicago was but seven hours away). With business growing, attorneys James
Blythe and J.E.E. Markley proposed a new building to house their Mason City firm, incorporating a hotel and a bank for added revenue. Daringly, they hired Frank Lloyd Wright as architect.
Thanks to Chicago-area commissions such as the Willits House and Unity Temple, Wright was raising eyebrows for a bold new style that spurned historical precedents drawn from Europe in favor of forms, materials, and colors inspired by the American landscape. He was the leader (but
not sole practitioner) of what would become known as the Prairie style, which flourished from around 1900 to World War I. Though used mainly for houses, including the one by Wright in Mason City (see sidebar), the mode worked equally well for commercial structures, such as the Blythe and Markley complex.
The Park Inn and City National Bank opened in September 1910. Its form expressed its functions. The bank stood as an imposing box facing one street, and the hotel—more varied, houselike, and welcoming—faced the other. Low hip roofs with wide eaves, shared materials (narrow buff brick, limestone, terra-cotta, art glass), and repeated motifs unified the composition. Horizontality, a Prairie school hallmark, prevailed. (Wright amplified the effect by deeply raking horizontal brick joints and filling vertical ones.)
The design was exotic for Mason City, “like putting a spaceship in the middle of this little Midwestern town,” says Randall Cram, president of Bergland + Cram, the restoration architects.
The bank’s entrance, guarded by cubical lanterns, recalled an ancient temple. Inside, its hall rose two stories, lit through high windows and dominated by a teller’s cage bearing bronze statues of Mercury by Richard Bock, Wright’s long-time collaborator and friend. The god symbolized “the money power,” Wright wrote in The Western Architect, “the all powerful domineering spirit of the time.” Skylights brightened directors’ offices, and at the rear loomed a wide-arched vault. The law offices occupied a recessed “waist” between bank and hotel.
Hotel guests entered a tall lobby with large windows facing Central Park. The low-ceilinged reception area opened to a lofty dining room, a spatial compression-and-release typical of Wright. A skylit art-glass ceiling crowned this “sumptuous nook,” as the Mason City Globe Gazette called it, while a mezzanine above offered views and space for musicians to serenade diners. Upper floors held 43 guest rooms, plus a “ladies parlor” that opened to a balcony overlooking leafy Central Park, a two-acre square that since 1874 had served as the hub of town. (Gentlemen enjoyed a cellar lounge, illuminated through a window well.)
The Globe Gazette praised the “marvelously well planned hostelry [where] … with the bungalow effect in the architecture, a guest feels that he is living in one of those delightful Craftsman homes.” The Mason City Times declared the bank “a classic. There has been nothing before built like it.” Wright himself likened it to “a strong box on a large scale … an honest pioneer in a field where wasteful pretense and borrowed finery are used to characterize and give distinction to enterprises which are in themselves simple and dignified.”
History was far less kind. The structure’s life as architecturally and functionally intended proved brief. After the early-1920s farm crisis deflated the “money power,” City National failed. New owners bought the bank space in 1926 and converted it to retail, inserting a new floor of offices above, destroying the bank and most of its facade. “Bastardized beyond belief,” says MacGregor.
The hotel prospered until 1922, when the Hotel Hanford opened nearby, offering larger rooms and (unlike the Park Inn) private baths. Business waned, and revival attempts brought about management changes and major renovations. Some features, like the mezzanine and the dining room’s art-glass ceiling, were removed; others were covered up. By 1970 the hotel lobby was a penny arcade, and, after years of decline, the hotel ultimately folded in 1972.
“ It had a checkered past,” says then- WOTP president Jean Marinos. “One of my associates remembers, as a little girl, her mother telling her to go to the other side of the street, not to walk in front of the building. It was that bad.”
The hotel limped on as apartments and offices, but poor upkeep wasted the structure. One owner, working in 1999 with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and a Wisconsin developer, proposed housing, but that plan fizzled because of rising costs and other obstacles. In
2000, the city, increasingly concerned about the hotel’s future, bought it and entrusted the Mason City Foundation with its care. With state and federal grants, the foundation replaced the roof and began repairs—the first group to score progress. But timing and financing doomed that effort, too.
In 2005, by default, the city again took ownership. “They put out a plea to anybody in the community to come forth and take on the project,” says MacGregor. “That’s when WOTP was formed, because a group of us had been watching for years about what was not happening.”
“ It was difficult at first,” says Marinos. “Lots of people just didn’t see it happening.” The naysayers, MacGregor recalls, “would ask why we would spend millions of dollars on ‘that pile of rubble’.” But WOTP forged ahead—raising money and nailing down exactly what a restoration should yield come opening day. Their vision: a hotel filling the whole structure, facades and public spaces well restored, and guest rooms Wright-like yet spacious. Carrying out that ambitious plan required owning the entire complex. In 2006, the city transferred the hotel to WOTP, which in 2007 bought the bank for $550,000. For the first time in 80 years, the property was under one ownership.
Funding the more than $18 million project, says Marinos, “was, is, and continues to be very complicated.” But ultimately fruitful, with grants from state and federal agencies, foundations, corporations, and individuals—the state’s Vision Iowa program gave the largest, $8.2 million—plus preservation and New Markets tax credits.
Fundraising meant collaborating with the community at large. WOTP tied its Vision Iowa bid, for example, to other civic goals—public library remodeling, streetscape improvements, and building an interpretive center at the Stockman House. Applying together on one application, they won money for each. “One key to our success,” says Lee Weber, a WOTP founder and president of the River City Society for Historic Preservation, “was the project appealed to people concerned with downtown development, economic development, or overall community progress as strongly as it appealed to those mainly concerned with preservation.”
Bergland and Cram researched drawings from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. “Lots of hours at the microscope and magnifying glass,” says Scott Borcherding, the firm’s interior designer, who collaborated on the project with lead architect Martha Huntington. “The drawings were on the lean side,” says Cram. “But with the master-builder concept of the architect, you’d conceive an idea and work out the details as it’s being built.” Filling in some of the blanks, professional paint analysts used 49 plaster core samples to tease out historic colors. “Tearing stuff out,” says Borcherding, “we uncovered the lobby floor—the original terra-cotta and white tile.”
Keeping such materials was a priority. Wood trim and floors were restored, as were the five double French doors opening from the ladies’ parlor. Most of the bank windows’ metal grilles were remounted; they had been used as a patio handrail 10 miles away in Clear Lake, likely taken by someone involved with the bank’s 1926 redo. MacGregor remembers the day the lobby’s big (14-by 3-foot) and weighty art-glass window was removed for restoration. “It took five guys on ladders,” she says, “and we were standing at the back of the lobby, holding our breath.”
Much of the colorful terra-cotta ornamentation on the hotel, ruined by sandblasting in the 1970s, was replicated, the buff brick cleaned, and matching brick made to rebuild the bank facade. Andersen Windows, Inc. donated 72 new guest-room windows, and tile remaining in bathrooms was matched. Even the long-lost mezzanine was rebuilt. Some features were simply unmasked—like boarded-over railings and the bank skylights, hidden above a false ceiling.
But where was the dining room’s artglass ceiling? Just blocks away, it turned out, installed in the ceiling of a house built in 1914 by James Blythe. The house is now owned by local Wright expert and WOTP cofounder Robert McCoy, who surmises that Blythe installed the panels in his home when the hotel was remodeled. “I didn’t know what they were,” says McCoy, “until I looked at the bank’s panels and said this is the same kind we have at home.” Restored by Clear Lake artisan John Larsen, they were reinstalled in their original location, now called the Skylight Room.
Other surprises were less felicitous. Wolf Meier, then project superintendent for Henkel Construction, found the usual signs of a century-old structure showing its age. “We got some people from Minneapolis to shore the building up,” says Meier. “When we tore up the footing, I was taking brick off with my fingers—that’s how rotten it was.” The architect and contractor decided to replace the entire north and east foundations.
Walking through now, one would never imagine the Historic Park Inn ever looked so grim or that its comeback took such worry and work. It feels like a large and welcoming Prairie school residence, a Wrightian nest with something to ogle at every turn. The corridors have kept their old rhythm of louvered doors, even as the guest rooms were merged into 27, each with an added bath. (Two guest rooms retain their 1910 size as a “historical suite.”) And room rentals have been steady. “People from 48 states and 22 countries have stayed here,” says Tracy Knebel, general manager for HPI Partners, an affiliate of Stoney Creek Hospitality that runs the hotel.
But the restored hotel isn’t just a place to stay. WOTP’s mission is to own, preserve, and maintain this landmark—and tell its story. The group offers tours, runs a speakers’ bureau, and displays period photos in hallways and history brochures in rooms. “We’re also developing a K-12 school curriculum on the hotel, Wright, and the Prairie school,” says Marinos. “All benefits of preservation—from economic development to greening—stem from education.”
The inn is also a social and business magnet for locals, who meet, dine, and party in its many public spaces. The bank, now an event space, is popular for weddings; replicas of the Mercury statues adorn its portals with arms outstretched in welcome. The city center should also benefit, says Knebel. “We’re hoping this will be the nice spark to get activity back downtown.” Indeed, the Historic Park Inn may be the first real shot in the arm in years for the once-bustling business district. Already, the hotel is peopling the streets, and new restaurants and shops are trickling back in.
In 1999, Wright specialist Jonathan Lipman told the city council, as Marinos relates: “It’s like finding a Picasso in the attic. Most towns would die for something like this, and you’re not doing anything? This is your Picasso—take care of it.” Mason City has met that challenge with vision and style.
Arnold Berke is the former executive editor of Preservation.
Arnold Berke is the former executive editor of Preservation.
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