Chasing the Wright Hotel

Park Inn, Mason City, Iowa

It was around 2002 that I fell in love with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.  I had been awarded a gift certificate at work for my involvement at a large initiative, and I found a watch with a sort of “art deco” design that I decided to order with the gift certificate.  It was this one:


At this point, I knew almost nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright other than his name.  This was identified as a design from the Willits House.  The same website had some neat jewellery based on other similar designs, and I ended up ordering a couple of pieces.  But it prompted further exploration.  And unlike some of my other obsessions this one took time to build up momentum.  I subsequently saw the Robie House on a trip to Chicago (and had hoped to see the Home and Studio, but didn’t realize it was so popular as to require reservations.)

What hooked me was a trip to see the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo. I remember we stayed overnight with my aunt, squeezing into a very small bed.  At the time, the restorations that are now reaching their conclusion were barely started. (The Martin House deserves its own history–which perhaps I’ll get to shortly).  What hooked me definitively was the evocative painting in a book about the house that I purchased that showed it standing empty, abandoned.  I do love a good abandoned house, saved from ruin or demolition, and brought back from the dead! And then seeing the Westcott House in Springfield, OH, soon thereafter –not abandoned, but certainly saved (it had been subdivided into apartments and was literally sagging due to the removal of a load-bearing beam) and restored–confirmed that there was something in Wright’s Prairie Style that spoke to me.  But it wasn’t until Fallingwater–the place I now consider my most favourite in the entire world, the house whose logo I have tattooed on my left ankle–that I became downright obsessed, and began to love just about anything Wright ever touched.

Since then, I’ve become one of those people–the type that will plan whole vacations around Wright houses and buildings (and if not whole vacations, certainly making them key stops in my travels). I’ve been to both Taliesin and Taliesin West, seen houses and buildings in Madison, WI, Alexandria, VA, Lafayette, IN, New York City, and Los Angeles, CA (to name just a few); done the Wright housewalk in Chicago twice (including the 40th anniversary All Wright edition), and revisited Fallingwater three times and the Martin House probably close to ten (I’m a member now). But there were buildings on the list of those open to the public that I despaired of ever seeing.  One of these is the Park Inn in Mason City, Iowa–the only remaining Wright-designed hotel, which–believe it or not–I first read about when Neil Peart mentioned staying there in one of his books.  I just saw no reason I would ever need to be in the middle of Iowa.

Except now there is.  I’ll be attending the SCA’s Known World Heraldic and Scribal Symposium in Des Moines in July, and that is just under two hours away. (Iowa, it seems, is way bigger than I thought it was).  I’ve just made my reservation to stay there for one night after the symposium, which will be my first time to actually stay in a Wright building.  So, of course, I had to find out more.

The Park Inn was completed in 1910 as part of a three-part complex, including the City National Branch, law offices, and the hotel. Mason City was a bit of a boomtown at the time.  Wright designed and began the building, but then rather scandalously ran off to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients (Wright himself was still married as well), meaning his Oak Park studio finished up supervising the construction of the Prairie-style complex, which eventually became a model for Wright’s later Imperial Hotel and Midway Gardens projects. The hotel originally had 43 rooms, arranged in pairs around a shared bathroom.  It was a tremendous success when it first opened, but in the 20s, the bank failed and the space it occupied was redesigned.  The hotel’s more European-style arrangement also went out of fashion, and the hotel was dwarfed by a newer property just down the street.  Gradually over the years it lost many of its distinctive features and became less and less desirable. After one last final stand as apartments,  in 1972 hotel was eventually shuttered and abandoned.  By 1999 it was listed as one of the most endangered historic properties in Iowa.

Fortunes changed in 2005, however.  Wright on the Park was a non-profit group formed to restore the property to its former glory.  They also purchased the old bank building.  Starting in 2009, they restored the terracotta exteriors, the glass, and interiors to their former glory and folded the bank building back into the complex.  The restored hotel opened in 2011 and now has 27 rooms.  The rooms themselves have all been modernized, except for a couple of two-room suites designed to replicate the old configuration.  Being the historical geek that I am, that’s the room I’ve reserved.

Here’s a video of what I’m looking forward to come July 7.  Until then, I will hold off on any further photos.  I hope to share my own.


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