Travel Guide: Mason City, Iowa

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midwest majesty is alive in Mason City, Iowa
Historic Park Inn Hotel
Historic Park Inn Hotel

Courtesy of Travel Iowa

Mason City has everything you’d expect to find in small-town Iowa: a covered bridge, a pioneer museum, a restored steam locomotive, even a vintage Valentine diner. But it also has something completely unexpected: a wealth of Prairie-style architecture, including the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The moment we step inside the 113-year-old Historic Park Inn Hotel, less than a 2.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities, it’s obvious this is Wright’s work. Though he didn’t finish what he started (William Drummond, an architect from Wright’s Oak Park Studio in Illinois, wrapped up construction after Wright skedaddled for Europe midway through the project), his DNA is everywhere: the blocky stained glass, the perfectionist plasterwork, and the endless horizontal wood-trim bands mirroring the flatness of the Midwestern landscape.

Mason City was largely prairie and woodland until blue and yellow clay were discovered there in the 1800s. Local brickyards started multiplying and the area’s fortunes boomed after farmers figured out that tiling their fields with perforated clay bricks increased productivity. Eventually Mason City became the world’s largest producer of industrial drain tile. Money poured in, along with plans for a shiny new bank and hotel. Wright, an architect who was relatively unknown outside Chicago, was asked to design it. His Prairie-style architecture, as it was known, rejected European design in a bold effort to create something uniquely American. It was utilitarian but beautiful and always paid homage to its natural surroundings.

The original hotel had 43 rooms with shared baths; the modernized version has 27 guest rooms, each with a unique layout and a mix of new and retro furnishings. We feel like rats in a maze trying to find our suite, zigging up and down the narrow hallways. This is intentional, of course: Wright loved the compression-and-release sensation one feels when a cramped space with low ceilings gives way to a soaring open layout.

The rooms themselves are comfortable but small by today’s standards (some might say claustrophobic) and updated with smart TVs and Nespresso machines. A few have heated bathroom floors and wine fridges. Most importantly to us, however, is the portable crib. The privately owned, Wright-designed homes you can rent on Airbnb almost always forbid children; the Historic Park Inn Hotel, on the other hand, welcomes families. Though there are hazards at every turn, the novelty of staying in one of his finest creations is worth the eagle eyes we must keep on our 10-month-old son.

The history of Historic Park Inn really comes alive during a public tour led by Wright on the Park, the nonprofit organization that owns the property. As retired art professor Peggy Bang leads us from floor to floor and room to room, she notes how unorthodox this type of multipurpose building was at the time because it housed a bank, a legal firm, retail shops, and a restaurant in addition to the hotel. The tour includes stops in the old, mahogany-rich lawyers’ offices; the sample room, where once upon a time traveling salesmen would have hawked their goods QVC-style; and the upstairs parlor where fashionable ladies lunched. 

She also explains some of the challenges the restorationists faced after purchasing the building for $1 in 2005, including a moldy basement, missing windows, and birds nesting in the upper floors. With $18.5 million in funding, they salvaged what they could (most notably the stained-glass skylight and original tile flooring in the lobby) and replaced what they couldn’t, tapping an engineer from Winnebago Industries, known for stylish recreational vehicles, to help with lighting, Andersen Windows to re-create some of the historical glass inserts, and a factory in Egypt to loom the Prairie-inspired wool carpeting.

As fascinating as it is, the Historic Park Inn Hotel is just one of dozens of architecturally noteworthy properties in Mason City. We also signed up for a tour of the Stockman House Museum—the only middle-class, Prairie-style home Wright designed that is open to the public.

The property, which was commissioned by Dr. Stockman and his wife, Eleanor, in 1908, was a modest adaptation of the $5,000 “fireproof” house that appeared in the April 1907 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. Needless to say, it wasn’t actually fireproof; it was just built with new-fangled reinforced concrete. It had some avant-garde features for the time: a hipped roof with broad overhanging eaves, a central chimney, ribbon windows, stucco siding, and ample storage space. As we do the walk-through, we take pains not to rub against the fragile, sand-finished walls while our guide, Joanne, shares curious tidbits about the restoration that involved ripping out green shag carpeting and peeling off wallpaper. Frank would not have approved.

After visiting the Stockman House, we drive through the adjacent Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District, the world’s largest collection of Prairie School-style homes in a natural setting. We don’t take photos out of respect for the property owners, but it’s interesting to see the impact that the architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, a husband-and-wife team who worked at Wright’s Chicago office before starting their own practice, had on this planned community.

Our final stop that day is the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum. Set in a Tudor-style mansion overlooking scenic Willow Creek, it houses the most expansive collection of Bil Baird marionettes on earth. There’s Roo, a doe-eyed kangaroo that appeared on NBC’s “Shirley Temple Show” in 1960, the lonely goatherd from 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” and a trio of grotesquely bosom-y chorus girls used in a Busch Gardens performance circa 1979. Though we’re too young to really know Baird’s work, the exhibitions make it clear just how influential his puppeteering was on contemporary pop culture. We also appreciate that some of the galleries are interactive; our son had a blast meeting his first marionette, a kooky spotted bird with ropes for legs.

After a long day of sightseeing, we retreat to the Draftsman bar in the basement of the Historic Park Inn Hotel and chase palomas with a game of pool. The night ends with a family dinner at Markley & Blythe, the hotel’s new tavern-style restaurant. The look is oh so Wright—all stiff-backed chairs and Cubist autumnal lighting—but the food is Midwestern nice: pillowy, warm potato rolls served with house-made butter and whipped local honey; deviled eggs made even more blasphemous with Duke’s mayo, beer mustard, and prosciutto powder; and a crunchy, buttermilk-fried chicken sandwich topped with creamy slaw. As a kindly waitress fawns over our son, we have just one nagging question: Where has this town been all our lives?



Tips for making the most of your Mason City escape:

Design your own architecture tour by picking up a copy of the “Mason City Walking Tour Guide,” which retails for $5 at the Stockman House Architectural Interpretive Center and the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum. It offers a detailed history of the area’s notable buildings, including Walter Burley Griffin’s Page House and William Drummond’s Yelland House.

Travel back in time at the Music Man Square, an interactive museum and performance space dedicated to the work of Iowan composer Meredith Wilson. An indoor replica of a 1912 streetscape, which matches the set design used in the filming of “The Music Man” (1962), makes for a fun photo op.  

Find outsider art at Rancho Deluxe, known as the Original Bicycle Garden, a half-acre, maze-like installation featuring upcycled bikes, hub caps, license plates, street signs, umpire masks, a rusty clawfoot bathtub, and giant granite blocks covered in graffiti.

Order the ice cream at Birdsall’s, a Mason City staple since 1931. For a treat as nostalgic as the parlor’s red-and-white-striped awning, try a root beer malt or candy-pink peppermint ice cream showered in hot fudge, rich caramel, and pecans.

Pick up some Wright-eous swag at the Wright on the Park gift shop inside the Historic Park Inn Hotel. Souvenirs include geometrically patterned socks, drink coasters, and ornamental brass bookmarks.

Before heading home, stop at the field where Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens perished when their plane crashed on Feb. 3, 1959. There’s not much to see—just a modest memorial plaque surrounded by farmland in Clear Lake, Iowa, about 14 miles northwest of Mason City—but it’s sobering nonetheless. You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you see the giant pair of thick-rimmed black glasses on the side of the road.