Close to Heaven

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It came so close to not happening.

Reservations had been made for months for the Known World Heralds and Scribes Symposium in Des Moines, and as well for the ulterior motive for driving over 12 hours to the middle of Iowa–the chance, on Sunday, to drive a little under two hours north to Mason City and the Historic Park Inn, not just to tour, but to spend the night within the confines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last remaining hotel. (I wrote about it initially here.) A trip that had originally been a solitary venture bloomed into a planed adventure with two friends sharing the burden of driving and costs, and plans to stay in the historically-configured room were abandoned in favour of a larger room.

Then Real Life stepped in.  One friend dropped out (partially due to an unexpected death of another friend).  I contacted the hotel and downgraded the room (although I could no longer reserve the historic suite).  Then the second friend was hit by a broken AC system and other unexpected costs the day before we were due to leave.  I offered to help cover costs, and spent a tense Thursday contemplating whether I could even consider doing such a long drive on my own.  I had almost resigned myself to cancelling, but things came together at almost the last moment, and we were a go.

And a good thing, too. Iowa, it turns out, is bigger than it looks.  So, for that matter, is the top part of Illinois. I’d driven to Chicago on my own easily in a day, but where we were going initially was over five hours beyond that.  12 1/2 hours of driving, not including stops–it probably would have broken me had I attempted it.  Instead, I traded driving duties with my travelling companion and passed the time commenting on billboards (the riot of ads for Kaplan Fireworks in Indiana!) and scenery, as well as life. We arrived in Des Moines in time to check in and get out to the axe throwing mixer on Friday (where, after a little experimentation, I had the satisfaction of landing multiple bullseyes with the satisfactory sound that comes with an axe cleaving wood).  The symposium itself the following day and Sunday morning was wonderful, and then, after a stop at a local BBQ place for some brisket, we headed north to Mason City.

Check-in time was not until 3 pm.  We were due to arrive around 2 pm.  So what else was there to do in Mason City, a town of a little over 28,000 in the middle of vast cornfields?  What could there be?  This was one of the reasons why I had jumped at the opportunity to piggyback the Park Inn visit onto another reason to be in Iowa:  There just weren’t any other reasons to go out of my way to visit.

As it turns out, I was wrong.  “Oh,” I said, looking at my phone, “There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie Style house in town–and it’s open for tours!”  So we arrived at the Stockman House just before 2 pm.  This home was based on Wright’s 1907 design in the Ladies Home Journal for “A Fireproof House for $5,000,”  but with a few expansions and modifications.  It was built for the Stockmans (he was a doctor, she was an artist and a suffragette), who met Wright when he was in Mason City in the initial planning stages for the City National Bank/Park Inn project, and was completed in 1908 (two years before the latter.) It would eventually spur development of an entire neighbourhood of Prairie-style houses built by Wright’s associates (and others influenced by him)–some, such as Walter Burley Griffin, who had come to town to oversee the construction of the bank/hotel building while Wright himself was in Europe and ensconced in the scandal resulting from his affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

The Stockman House is the fourth Wright house I’ve toured that was moved from its original location–in this case, only a few blocks–but instead of dismantling it as was done for the two houses at Polymath Park and the Pope Leighey House, it was moved as a single structure.  It’s a “small” Prairie-style house of around 2400 square feet (about the size of the house I lived in in Ajax), costing the Stockmans around $7500 due to the additions they requested (including a porch that could be converted to a screened structure in summer.) While it features none of the custom art glass windows one might see in one of the larger Prairie houses, the window treatments feature woodwork designs reminiscent of Japanese screens.  The house includes many typical Wright features including a hidden entrance that compresses the visitor until releasing into the larger living room; a prominent hearth made of Roman brick, headers (not moldings) of quarter-sawn oak, and built-in cabinets in the living room and dining room.  Ribbon windows dominate the upper floors, with walls cleverly placed so as to not break up the symmetry (one wall includes windows in two separate rooms and in a closet to keep the continuity.)  The house has been furnished based on details from photos, but does include a couple of pieces original to the house that were found at a house once owned by the Stockmans’ daughter.

The tour also alerted us to the nearby presence of the Rock Glen neighbourhood and its Prairie-style houses, but we decided to go get checked into the hotel before exploring.  The Park Inn was just a few blocks away, overlooking Central Park, one of Mason City’s oldest features, a leafy expanse at the centre of downtown. At the front,  two recessed entryways lead into an expansive lobby, lit from the front by a large window with a ribbon of art glass windows in shades of gold and green along the top.  The check-in desk is in another compressed space beneath an overlooking mezzanine.  Behind this, I could see thorough more art glass doors to an inviting lounge area lit by a huge skylight (not unlike those at Unity Temple or the Home and Studio).  The sound of piano music drifted through the lobby (produced, as it was later revealed, by a player piano in the mezzanine.)  The lobby gleamed in the warm brown and golden tones so typical of the Prairie style. To my right, the restaurant (unfortunately, closed on Sundays in the evening) and, off to the left, stairways upstairs (and, around the corner, an elevator).

Our room was Room 350, on the third floor on the east side of the building.  As it turned out, these rooms were originally offices above the City National Bank, over the years occupied by insurance agents and a radio station, among others (this answered the question as to why the doors here looked a little different than for the rest of the building.)  All of the rooms in the hotel have, of course, been completely remodeled, except for one historic suite that preserves the 100 square foot rooms with shared bathroom of the original.  Close attention has been paid, however, to making the rooms feel authentic to the period.  We had a wonderful view of Central Park through the ribbon windows that lined one side of the room.  Other authentic details including a bathroom tiling style I had seen in other Frank Lloyd Wright structures, headers in warm wood along the top of the windows and all the way around the perimeter of the room, and bedside sconces based on Wright-designed light fixtures.  A bolster on the bed brought to mind the squares in the art glass windows.

I immediately went to explore the hotel, which turned out to be, in its upper floors, a maze of wonderful nooks and crannies interspersed with open spaces.  One of the first spots I came across was a set of stairs leading down into the law office area.  Here was a large central lobby where one original door was preserved.  The wood here was rich mahogany.  A modern business centre was just off of the lobby, as well as the recreated law library room.  Around the back of the library room were the doors to the second-floor hotel rooms.  Following the hallway around the square, I came to a long gallery–the ladies’ parlour.  Art-glass doors opened onto a balcony overlooking Central Park, and a room in the pack was labelled “sample room.”  Here ladies would come to shop, viewing the latest fashions brought in by merchants.  The space on the mezzanine, where I found the player piano, had originally also been allotted to the ladies. Men also had their own lounge and billiards room in the basement, now the site of the hotel’s own bar (sadly again, not open on a Sunday afternoon or evening). On the main floor, the hotel’s elegant restaurant, and perhaps the most dramatic space in the entire building — the large lounge area behind the reception desk, with its art glass skylight.  The final space in the building we did not get to see until just before our departure Monday morning–the restored bank building, now a ballroom, which the nice man at reception unlocked for us.  That room is two stories tall, with light admitted through clerestory windows at the top.  There is more art glass in skylights along the sides, and a gorgeous set of grillwork and glass at the front entrance, as well as interior light fixtures featuring a stylized figure of Mercury (god of banking and commerce).  Throughout, the feeling of tranquility, of being lit by an interior light that is a hallmark of all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, regardless of period.

I sat that evening in the lounge, listening to Shostakovich and just soaking it in.  I chose the Eighth Quartet, almost by instinct.  This deeply intense, tragic and personal work would not seem to be a natural for that time and space–something like the sparkling Concerto for Piano and Trumpet, or even one of the Jazz suites, would seemed to have been the more obvious choice–but I as I thought of it, I understood why. The Eighth Quartet is music of pilgrimage for me.  Once, I sat late at night by the side of a calm lake, in the early hours of the 9th of August, while stars circled overhead, completing a pilgrimage of my own making and understanding, and that was what I listened to, shedding tears, before standing before a runestone, the final goal, and commemorating many things, and that was the music I chose.  This was a pilgrimage as well, one that had nearly been lost to me, but had been, through long hours on the road, accomplished.  And it was indicative of the place itself, its descent into ruin, and eventual salvation…

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*****

In the past two days,having read the book I received as part of my hotel package, as well as having watched a DVD telling the story of its birth, life, decline, and resurrection,  I have come to understand even more deeply the depth of that ruin and what was accomplished in bringing the Park Inn and the City National Bank Building back to life.  The City National building had a long life after the failure of the bank it was built for, housing a variety of retail stores. To do this, the strong solid walls of the first level and the beautiful entrance with its grillwork were uttlerly demolished.  A second floor was also installed, destroying the soaring banking hall, and the whole space subdivided. Other than the basic structure and coloured tilework of the top two floors, there was almost no sign that the building was constructed on the bones of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.  Everything that had ever marked it as a bank was lost, including all of the glass and grillwork and the lighting fixtures and the enormous safe that the figures of Mercury had once surrounded.

The hotel, on the other hand, was not greatly altered in its basic structure, but because it was superceded in the 1920s by a newer, larger hotel in Mason City with more modern rooms (rather than the European-style rooms with shared baths), it began a long decline into seediness and ill repute.  The glass ceiling in the lobby lounge (once a cafe) that I had admired while listening to Shostakovich was removed, as was much of the art glass pieces and decorative touches that marked the hotel as a Wright building. It did not help that Mason City itself was in decline, much like many Midwestern towns.  Various businesses and restaurants occupied the first floor, including a penny arcade, before the hotel finally closed in 1972.  At that point, it was purchased and partially restored (including removal of some of the non-historic materials), with the Chamber of Commerce and an investment firm occupying the first floor. The upper floors became apartments, but continued deterioration of the roof and increasing mold issues meant that they were gradually abandoned to pigeons. The building became listed on the National Register of Historic Places–but also found a place on the Iowa’s Most Endangered historical landmarks listing. The property went through a series of owners, each encountering difficulties obtaining the funding to properly restore the hotel, until the current Wright on the Park group was formed to oversee the restoration, taking over from the Mason City Foundation who had begun the work. Wright on the Park was also able to purchase the bank building and incorporate it into its plans for a boutique hotel.

For the hotel, restoring it to its original glory meant first repairing the roof and remedying the mold issues.  Next, a group of volunteers systematically removed all non-historic structures, revealing once again features such as the tile floor in the main lobby.  The mezzanine had to be completely rebuilt.  The old European-style rooms were combined into much larger modern rooms, including several in the third floor of the bank building (where I stayed).  The art glass from the skylight, thought lost, turned up in the Prairie-style home of one of the Wright on the Park board members and was repaired and reinstalled. Missing art glass windows were recreated; those that remained were restored. The most dramatic transformation was in the bank building, where the building’s original solid walls were rebuilt (and a major stabilization of the foundation completed), the second floor removed (restoring the two-story banking hall, and the light fixtures, art glass, and grillwork of the front entrance recreated. In the case of the light fixtures, one of the originals came up for auction, and although WotP was unable to purchase it, they were able to take photographs. Likewise, one of the Mercury figurines was owned by the Mason City library, and reproductions were made for the restored building. The grillwork for the second floor clerestory turned up as a fence for someone’s lake cottage, and some of the art glass ceilings that once adorned administrative offices along the sides of the hall turned out to have been merely covered up–and had been well preserved as a result. Great pains were taken to match up the brickwork and to restore the colourful tilework along the upper parts of the bank building.  Because the bank building was to be used as a ballroom, the teller stations and the enormous vault were not rebuilt, but the four Mercury light fixtures were placed in pairs by the front and rear doors.

The overall transformation of the property is remarkable.  High standards of historic preservation and restoration were followed for all of the public spaces, and the hotel rooms, while fully modern, are at the same time wholly inspired by Wright.  The only place where I have seen as extensive reconstruction done on a Frank Lloyd Wright building as was done for the City National building is at the Darwin Martin House (where the pergola and carriage house were completely recreated). “it’s as close to heaven as we can be, ” said the president of Wright on the Park in the DVD I purchased.  He is not wrong.

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Frank is across the street, looking at his hotel (which he probably never actually saw).

All of this took place just days after it was announced that eight Frank Lloyd Wright buildings have received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.   I have visited seven:  Fallingwater, the Robie House, Taliesin, Taliesin West, Hollyhock House, the Guggenheim Museum, and Unity Temple; only the Jacobs House in Madison, WI has eluded me.

*****
My visit was completed by a quick visit to the neighbourhood of Prairie-style houses (with an odd Usonian thrown in) at Rock Glen.

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If you would like to find out more about the Historic Inn on the Park, their website is here.  And if you feel like your own pilgrimage to north central Iowa, you can book a room here.

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