Not-so-small-town Architecture

Mason City, Iowa is a small town. Population only 28,000, give or take. So you might not expect it to be an architectural hotbed that would attract incredible specimens not only from Walter Burley Griffin and other exponents of the Prairie School, but also from the master of that school, Frank Lloyd Wright himself. But it is and it did, and that’s what drew Angie and I there for an overnight stay after she finished RAGBRAI and I trekked up to Iowa on the train to meet her.

The initial appeal was to see the hotel, bank, and private home there designed by Wright between 1908 and 1910, but we learned that there’s an entire enclave in the city with numerous architectural gems, including many examples of the Prairie School by Griffin and others.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon and had booked our stay at the Historic Park Inn, the Wright-designed hotel. The hotel was built as part of a larger structure that included a bank and attorney’s offices for its developers, James Blythe and J.E.E. Marley. The hotel’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years. In 2005 a foundation was formed–Wright on the Park–that oversaw restoration of the space, including the conversion of the former bank space into banqueting facilities for the hotel, and the opening of what is now the Historic Park Inn. The hotel is modernized but still has features that reflect Wright’s influence. The outside still remains symbolic of his Prairie style and some of the offices used by the men behind this construction can still be viewed in the hotel.

Room with a park view

After checking in, and having read about the Rock Glen/Rock Crest neighborhood I mentioned above, Angie and I decided to do part of the walking tour that covers that neighborhood. We used the Mason City Walking Tour Guide, which we bought at the hotel. Although we didn’t cover every house in the book, we did see a lot of the houses that interested us, and others that were close by. There were examples of many types of architecture, including Queen Anne, stickstyle, and Foursquare, but our favorites were the Prairie and Usonian style houses, plus a very unusual Griffin house, the Joshua Nelson House. Griffin and the other architects featured in the area were all drawn there after Wright started working in the community.


Joshua G. Melson House by Griffin

For those who are interested, the Prairie style means strong horizontal lines that evoke the prairies of this part of the country, deep eaves, hipped roofs (all sides slanting down to the walls), and long ribbons of windows. There are other features too, but this is the essence of the style.

On Monday morning, after a delicious breakfast, we headed over to the Mason City Architectural Interpretive Center, which is on 1st Street, right next to the current location of the George C. Stockman House, the Wright home in the city. The house was moved in 1989 from its original location after being crowded out by the church next door. The move saved this awesome specimen from demolition. We signed up (and paid) for a tour of the Stockman House, which is an excellent example of the style that Wright made famous. Wright was commissioned by Stockman and his wife, who was an artist herself. The resulting house, based on Wright’s “Fireproof House for $5000” as depicted in the Ladies Home Journal, was wonderful. Wright didn’t furnish the house, as he had done with other projects he’d undertaken, but it was definitely furnished in large part in the style of the time with a clear Prairie School influence. Our tour guide was a docent who clearly knew about history and architecture and patiently answered everyone’s questions. Although the house is now a museum and not a home, one could easily see this house being used as a home to this day, and that is the case for all the other architectural gems in Mason City. Wright intended to design other buildings in Mason City. However, around this time he departed suddenly for Europe with the wife of one of his clients. Here’s some pix of the exterior. No interior photography allowed.

The other claim to fame of Mason City is that it’s the birthplace of Meredith Wilson, the creator of the book, music, and lyrics for the famous musical “The Music Man” as well as for the score of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. There’s a footbridge in the Rock Glen / Rock Crest neighborhood that is named for Wilson that spans Willow Creek. The current version of the bridge was built in 1940. Don’t go to Mason City Sunday into Monday if you want to see the museum celebrating the life of “The Music Man,” since it’s closed on Mondays.

Final note, Mason City, population 27,430, has a marked bicycle route system!

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