Wright in Mason City

An Iowa town that embraced the famous architect has reopened his last hotel.

The hotel's Skylight Room has Wright-designed art-glass panels.

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Brilliant men have been very good to Mason City, Iowa.

Frank Lloyd Wright built a bank, hotel and house there in 1908-09, and the locals loved his Prairie style so much it commissioned houses from four of his associates. Today, it's one of the best collections in the nation.

Wright became persona non grata in Mason City after he abruptly left for Europe with his married lover. But a musical virtuoso was growing up nearby. Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," inspired by Mason City and its band, became a Broadway smash in 1957.

By then, there really was trouble in River City. Wright's elegant Park Inn had been cut into apartments. It became the last Wright hotel in the world in 1968, but eventually was abandoned.

Finally, local preservationists got to work, and in August, they reopened the hotel, which makes this town of 28,000 a prime destination for the legions of Frank Lloyd Wright fans around the world.

It took six years and $18 million. Now called the Historic Park Inn, the hotel gleams with Wright-designed art glass, sconces, skylights and polished wood.

So many people want to get a look that docents give tours on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. They start at the front desk, over which a dropped ceiling nearly brushes the staff's heads.

It's "so you can appreciate the grandeur as the rooms behind it open up," says front-desk clerk Shelley Koren, who said she loves her front-row perch in Wright's design.

"It's really, really fun for me," she says. "People come up sharing stories from years gone by."

Mason City lawyers James Blythe and James Markley recruited Wright to design a building that could house their law offices, a bank and a hotel where their clients could stay; Markley's daughters attended the boarding school Wright's aunts ran in Spring Green, Wis., which Wright designed.

Wright completed the design before he abandoned his wife and six children to go to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a former client. One of his associates oversaw construction, and the building opened to acclaim in 1910.

But the bank soon closed, the lawyers moved and retail shops took over the first floor.

Wright, who died in 1959, now is considered the greatest architect of the 20th century. That put a lot of pressure on the non-profit Wright on the Park foundation, which bought the hotel from the city and undertook its restoration.

On a Sunday tour, docent Teri Elsbury guided us around the hotel — "it's a little bit of a maze,'' she said — and explained the hallmarks of the Prairie School: flat, horizontal lines with overhanging eaves, evoking the prairie landscape, and ocher, sage and russet tones that echo its colors.

We started in the Skylight Room, where the ceiling rises to 13 feet. Original art-glass panels, designed by Wright and retrieved from a local home, bathe guests in light as they drink their morning coffee and read the paper.

The skylight probably was removed because it leaked, and Elsbury told us the famous story about the client who called Wright to complain when water dripped through his ceiling during a dinner party. Wright's response: "Move your chair."

"He was a very arrogant man, but he had great vision," Elsbury said. "He tended to think the glory of being around him was enough. He was very charismatic and people loved him, but he wasn't good at repaying debts; he didn't think it was necessary."

Preservationists had no photos of the hotel interior to work from, so local designers furnished it with Mission and Stickley reproductions and designed wool carpets using geometric Wright patterns.

The white-tile floor, despite being cracked and stained in places, was judged part of the "historical fabric" by the National Register of Historic Places, and had to stay.

We climbed a narrow stairwell to a small mezzanine — "Wright wasn't a tall man, so be careful of your head," Elsbury warned — which builders reconstructed from Wright's plans.

It features a player piano, two distinctive barrel-shaped chairs, reproduced from Wright's designs, and another low ceiling: "He liked tension and drama in a compressed space," Elsbury said.

The ladies parlor faces the park and an outdoor terrace; designers outfitted it with upholstered chairs, Arts and Crafts-style prints and a rug with a tulip design.

The law offices now are a sitting area, lighted by wood-framed cubes made from Wright's design, and the law library is preserved virtually intact.

We were lucky enough to see a bedroom, one of eight in which original paned windows give guests a view of Central Park. They're smallish by today's standard, but more than double their original size, and handsomely furnished.

From the upper level, we went down to the cozy gentlemen's billiards room, furnished with a 1910 pool table with leather pockets, black leather chairs and a bar that's open to the public.

Walls are lined with enlarged vintage photos, one showing elephants marching down main street in the 1920s.

"In so many ways, Mason City was quite the metropolis in its day," Elsbury said.

There's also a handsome restaurant and a small wine room with exposed brick, used for tastings and luncheons. In the former bank building, an airy ballroom has its original skylights and cream-brick walls with iridescent mortar.

It's a gorgeous place. The preservationists heeded Wright's words: "If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it . . . but if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life."

Trip Tips: Mason City, Iowa

Getting there: Mason City is eight miles east of Interstate 35 in north central Iowa, about two hours from both the Twin Cities and Des Moines.

Historic Park Inn: The restored 1909 inn, managed by Stoney Creek Inns, has 27 rooms. 

Rooms have free WiFi, mini-fridges and LED TVs. Eight rooms have a view of the park, and some have sleeper sofas. Call 800-659-2220 or 641-422-0015.

The 1910 Grille serves a classic continental menu from Tuesdays through Saturday.

The public also is welcome to have a drink in the lower-level billiards room and 1910 Lounge.

Other notable buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright's 1908 Stockman House, at 430 First St. N.E., is open for tours daily from May through October, $10.

Around the corner, at First Street S.E. and Rock Glen, are three handsome Prairie School houses designed by Walter Burley Griffin, who also laid out the Australian capital of Canberra, and his wife, fellow Wright associate Marion Mahoney Griffin.

There's another Griffin house that can be reached by crossing Willow Creek on the Meredith Willson Footbridge. The Rock Glen and Rock Crest neighborhood is a National Historic District.

Nearby attractions: Meredith Willson's 1895 boyhood home is open for tours Tuesday through Sunday afternoons, as is the 1912 River City Streetscape and Meredith Willson Museum inside The Music Man Square.

Willson was a member of Mason City's renowned high-school band before moving to New York and the music school that became Juilliard.

Besides "The Music Man,'' he also wrote "The Unsinkable Molly Brown'' and composed the Beatles hit "Till There Was You'' and "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,'' as well as many other standards.

He was a music director and performer on pioneering radio shows, working with George Burns, Gracie Allen and Jack Benny, and composed film scores, earning Oscar nominations and winning a Grammy and Tony awards.

Also in the historic district, the free MacNider Art Museum has a permanent collection of American art and shows special exhibits. It's open Tuesday through Saturday.

In summer, nearby Clear Lake is a popular destination. For more, see Clear Lake tranquility.

Events: Over Memorial Day weekend, the North Iowa Band Festival draws bands from around the Midwest.

Dining: The Park Inn's 1910 Grille is open Tuesdays through Saturday. Across the street, The Quarry & Tapas Bar serves a more eclectic menu and hosts live music.

Fat Hill Brewing and Mason City Brewing are a block away and also offer live music and various events.

On the north end of town, Northwestern Steakhouse is a popular place to have a big steak dinner.

Nightlife: The auditorium of North Iowa Area Community College hosts traveling musicals, ballet and nationally known performers.

The Community Theatre adjoining Music Man Square presents local musicals and plays.

Other accommodations: The 1894 Decker House Bed and Breakfast has four rooms and a suite and is around the corner from Music Man Square.

The Quality Inn & Suites on Fifth Street Southwest, also Iowa 122, is a short walk from downtown.

Information: Mason City tourism, 800-423-5724.

For more about Frank Lloyd Wright sites in the region, see Loving Mr. Wright.

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