Invest in beauty

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America’s most famous architects. He was also among our nation’s most infamous.

The average Joe may not know that Wright was intimately connected with an unassuming town located in northern Iowa. But the average Joe would be ignorant of the facts.

Prior to a recent sojourn in Mason City, I was ignorant of the town’s relationship with the legendary architect.

Wright visited Mason City several times during 1907-1908 after being commissioned to design a mixed-purpose building that included a bank and a hotel to be built on the corner of Federal Avenue and State Street. This seems like an odd combination. Maybe the bank’s owners hoped it could tell its prospective out-of-town depositors, “If you’re unsure about things, just sleep on it. By the way, there’s a very nice hotel nearby.”

During one of Wright’s stays in Mason City, Dr. George Stockman, a friend of a friend, contacted Wright about designing a house. Wright took the job, which just goes to show that social networking has always been important.

Wright never set foot in the Stockman house or in the hotel/ bank that he designed. This is because he went to Europe in 1909 to promote his portfolio, leaving behind his wife and six children. Wright’s traveling companion was another man’s wife, who left behind her own two children.

The ensuing scandal set off a firestorm of negative publicity. Wright was informed that he was no longer welcome in Mason City.

The Stockman house is perched on the verdant banks of Willow Creek. In 1989, the 80-year-old home was moved four blocks from its original location. The house, which had fallen into disrepair, was slated for demolition to make room for a church parking lot.

A prime example of Prairie School design, the Stockman house is simple yet elegant. My wife and I were given a private tour of the faithfully restored abode, guided by an enthusiastic museum docent named Rebecca.

Rebecca was a fountain of Wright factoids, including that he was an avid collector of Japanese prints. She choked up a bit when she described some of Wright’s financial woes, skipping over the fact that he consistently spent more than he made.

At the center of the Stockman house is an inviting fireplace. This reinforces the idea that family and friends should be at the center of our lives. As we strolled the creaky hardwood floors, my wife and I were reminded of visiting elderly relatives in their old houses when we were kids.

My wife booked a room for us at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the last remaining hotel that was designed by Wright.

The combination hotel/ bank was completed in 1910. The ensuing century wasn’t kind to the building. The bank failed and its structure was tackily repurposed into retail space. The hotel had a series of owners and gradually fell into a state of extreme shabbiness. By 1970 it was so seedy that its rooms could be rented for $3 a night.

In 2005, some concerned Mason Citians formed a nonprofit organization with the stated goal of saving the hotel/ bank and restoring the building to its former glory. After years of fundraising and thousands of hours of volunteer labor, the Historic Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank reopened in 2011.

Behind the hotel’s reception area is a lounge where travelers can rest their weary bones on an overstuffed leather sofa and soak up the golden light that pours in from the original art-glass skylight.

The former bank is now an events venue. Wright’s touches can be seen everywhere, including in the light fixtures that he created for the bank. You can sit on chairs that Wright designed, although they aren’t particularly comfortable.

The hotel’s rooms might seem small by modern standards. But touches of elegance abound, from the rectangular lines in each room’s art-glass windows to the opulent ladies’ parlor located on the second floor.

It’s the type of hotel where Jay Gatsby would stay. One can imagine Gatsby relaxing on the hotel’s balcony, taking in the glorious greenery of Central Park (located directly across the street), a fragrant cigar in one hand, a stiff martini in the other.

At the edge of Central Park stands a bronze statue of Frank Lloyd Wright. His trademark porkpie hat is perched jauntily atop his head and several blueprints are tucked beneath his arm. The statue is forever staring at the masterwork that Wright never saw in person.

Engraved on the base of the statue are the words, “Invest in beauty.” Happily, for all of us, that is precisely what the citizens of Mason City have accomplished.

— Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at http://Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper?


Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today