For architecture buffs, design enthusiasts, and fans of vintage hotels, sleeping in this Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in northern Iowa is a dream come true
The idea of spending the night in Mason City’s premier hotel, an architectural masterpiece, excites those of us who appreciate the artistic achievements of the past. Indeed, such one-of-a-kind hostelries make for memorable stays.
Travelers seeking to bed down in a hotel designed by America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, have but one choice in the whole world—the Historic Park Inn in downtown Mason City, Iowa. Opened in 1910 and saved from the wrecking ball by a concerned citizens group a century later, it is the only remaining hotel of the six Wright designed during a seven-decade career that changed the face of American architecture.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Hotel in Mason City is a Prairie School Gem
A tribute to Wright’s Prairie School innovations, the building once housed a bank, law office, and retail space as well as a 43-room hotel called the Park Inn Hotel. Today’s Historic Park Inn, after an $18.5 million restoration/rehabilitation project completed in 2011, has 27 guest rooms, plus a restaurant and bar. The former bank serves as the ballroom and conference center.
Docent-led tours are offered by Wright on the Park (WOTP), the non-profit organization that owns the boutique hotel and is responsible for its ongoing preservation. The hotel is leased to a local hotelier who operates the facility.
The building’s exterior is vintage Prairie School: a long, low look with wide roof overhangs and horizontal banding created in brick and stone. Original art-glass windows, a signature Wright element, adorn the facade, which overlooks Central Park and a statue of the master builder. Furniture, lighting fixtures, and other interior accents, even the hallway carpeting, mirror Wright designs and motifs. Wright’s philosophy of design and aesthetics that function in harmony with humanity and the environment, better known as organic architecture, shaped the course of modern architecture around the world. His ideas influenced fledgling European Modernists in the early 20th century and are credited with developing a uniquely American architectural style.
The Historic Park Inn Has Preserved Many Features of its Past
One of the best places to soak up the ambience is the Skylight Room, a spacious sitting area behind the hotel lobby. Its 25 original art-glass panels, recovered during restoration from the attic of a private home in Mason City, are set below the skylight to play with the color entering the courtyard-like salon. Furnishings in the Skylight Room, originally a cafe, include pottery designed by Wright for various homes and period-style lamps. Books on Wright and his work are available for guests’ reading pleasure.
In response to a newspaper ad, two doors to the Ladies Parlor, which rises above the cantilevered Ladies Balcony on the second level, surfaced from a Des Moines home. The balcony, with chairs, umbrella tables, and views of the leafy park, is a peaceful spot for relaxing.
Photos, postcards, and other memorabilia also have “come home” since WOTP was formed in 2005 and are on display in the law office reception room and other areas of the hotel. Some rediscovered items, such as furniture, statues, and a lantern from the exterior light fixtures, have not made it back to the hotel because of the high selling price at auction or the owners’ unwillingness to part with them. But, in many cases, exact reproductions of light fixtures, chairs, and other items have been made.
Among features original to the Historic Park Inn are:
- 14 of the grilles over the bank’s clerestory windows
- The majority of the tile floor in the hotel lobby and Skylight Room
- Hotel hallway configurations and many of the guest room doors
- The configuration of one pair of guest rooms and connecting vintage bathroom making up the Historical Suite, and the suite’s clawfoot bathtub
- Stairway railings and balustrades
- Some tile floors in bathrooms
Frank Lloyd Wright-Inspired Guest Rooms in This Historic Mason City Hotel
To provide comfortable accommodations for 21st-century travelers, guest rooms had to be enlarged and outfitted with private baths, as the 43 rooms originally measured only 10’ x 10’ and had shared bathrooms. Featuring modern comforts like smart TVs, individual climate controls and heated floors, rooms come in all shapes and sizes, but all sport Wright design touches. Many of the guest room windows, particularly those on the third floor and those facing the park, have art glass.
The Historic Park Inn’s Story Over the Years in Mason City
The hotel remained in operation until 1972 and survived as apartments before being abandoned in 1989. The bank (City National Bank) had failed as a result of the U.S. farm crisis in the 1920s, and in 1926 the building’s facade and interior spaces were changed drastically to accommodate a variety of offices and retailers that came and went over the years, all while hotel rooms deteriorated. A nearby hotel with larger rooms and private baths had opened in 1922, drawing business away from the Park Inn.
Not everyone in town was on board with trying to save the dilapidated property. A 1989 editorial in the local newspaper advised against the city acquiring the building. “Absent private investment,” it said, “the Park Hotel becomes a crumbling anachronism at worst; at best a lifeless museum memorializing a man who left his mark on the city 79 years ago.” Advocates argued the project would bring more tourists to Mason City and help redevelop its depressed downtown.
On the hotel’s first floor is Blythe & Markley, an upscale restaurant named for the law firm that once occupied the building and was responsible for bringing Wright to Mason City. Dinner entrees include steaks, market fish, grilled shrimp & polenta, and a buttermilk-fried chicken sandwich, with appetizers such as battered white cheddar cheese curds, squash ravioli, and a charcuterie board. The Draftsman, an ode to the inn’s famed architect, is a basement-level watering hole with billiards tables. Decorated with oversized black-and-white photos of early Mason City, it serves drinks, small bites, and sandwiches.
Frank Lloyd Wright also designed these five hotels:
- Horseshoe Inn, 1908, Estes Park, Colorado
- Como Orchard Clubhouse (Inn), 1909, Darby, Montana
- Bitterroot Inn, 1909, Stevensville, Montana
- Lake Geneva Hotel, 1911, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
- Imperial Hotel, 1923, Tokyo, Japan. Perhaps the best known of Wright’s hotels, it was built at the request of the Japanese emperor and was razed in 1968.
More Things to Do in Mason City
The other Mason City property designed by Wright is the 1908 Stockman House. A middle-class home, it is adjacent to the Robert E. McCoy Architectural Interpretive Center, which has exhibits on the city’s impressive collection of Prairie School architecture.
Wright on the Park offers walking tours that spotlight the works of other Prairie School architects, many of them former Wright associates, including Walter Burley Griffin. The private homes near the Stockman House in Rock Crest/Rock Glen, a neighborhood located on both sides of Willow Creek, represent the country’s largest group of Prairie-Style homes surrounding a natural setting.
The buildings designed by Wright and his followers have placed Mason City in Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s list of “The World’s 20 Best Cities for Architecture Lovers.”
Many downtown buildings sport Wright-inspired murals, and outdoor sculptures add more artistic flair. The River City Sculptures on Parade project, featuring works by artists from around the country, is a 1.7-mile walking tour that leads participants on a looping route.
Within easy walking distance of the Historic Park Inn is The Music Man Square, a complex that features a museum and the boyhood home of famous composer Meredith Willson (1902-1984), who wrote the songs (like “76 Trombones”) and script for The Music Man. One of the American theater’s great musicals, the show takes place in the fictional town of River City, which was modeled on Willson’s memories of growing up in Mason City. The museum, the town’s top tourist attraction, displays personal effects of Willson’s and memorabilia related to The Music Man, a long-running show that debuted on Broadway in 1957 and was made into a movie five years later. The museum’s 1912 streetscape is a re-creation of the movie set.
By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
Leisure Group Travel offers additional ideas for your next group trip and you can Subscribe for FREE for more travel content.
Lead Photo: The Historic Park Inn fronts State Street in downtown Mason City, Iowa. Central Park is right across the street. (Photo credit: Visit Mason City)