Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture and Music History in Iowa

Who'd have guessed a northern Iowa town of less than 30,000 residents would land on the radar of Conde Nast? That's exactly what happened when they named Mason City among the World's 14 Best Cities for Architecture Lovers, in 2012; and all because forward-thinking community members took it upon themselves to renovate the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel that flanked their quiet square. But until the hotel restoration was complete many locals didn't have a clue what an architectural gem their town offered.

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Historic Park Inn

The Historic Park Inn was the big draw when I visited Mason City in June. A fan of Wright's architecture since junior high, I couldn't wait to see this property. The last remaining hotel designed and built by the iconic architect, it is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. After this building and the adjacent bank had fallen into gross disrepair, a $20 million renovation created 27 new rooms and suites reflecting the classic Prairie Architecture style of 1910.

This was quintessential Frank Lloyd Wright, with its flat and hipped roofs and broad eaves outside and earth-tone color palate inside. Narrow hallways that initially felt a little claustrophobic soon seemed cozy. Heavy wood room doors full of narrow slats, muted lights and Wright-inspired geometric-design carpets were warm and inviting. My home for the next several days of this press trip, the Wine Room where I would stay began with a small sitting area.

Dark wood accentuated the armoire, a small desk and side table. The color continued across decorative wall beams. Pillows with earth-tone geometric designs filled a rust-colored couch, where light spilled in from a long horizontal band of casement windows. A massive wood headboard and attached side tables flanked the king-sized bed, decorated in neutral and warm tones. Decorative beams continued here and inside the bathroom where floor and shower towels evoked another time period.

Sleek and subdued, 1910 Grille offered gourmet fare just off the hotel's main lobby. In the basement a spacious, inviting bar provided plenty of comfortable seating, a pool table and a vintage vibe.

Although it is possible to stay overnight in other Wright-designed buildings, he Historic Park Inn is the world's only still-operating Frank Lloyd Wright hotel and impetus for a local resurgence in interest to share their collection of Prairie School architecture. Nowhere else will visitors find such a concentrated grouping reflecting this architectural style. In fact, the Rock Crest and Rock Glen neighborhood area represents the largest group of Prairie School design homes located on a unified site.

Stockman House

The neighborhood includes the Wright-designed Stockman House. With its broad roof overhangs, horizontal banks of windows, and perpendicular linear exterior design elements, the 1908 home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. We toured the home with a very knowledgeable guide.

We also visited the Architectural Interpretive Center, where scale wood models had removable roofs which allowed us to catch a glimpse of interiors for several additional buildings. The tiny gift shop was packed with lovely souvenir coasters, throws and key chains that also reflected Prairie School design.

Music History

Later that day we visited The Music Man Square, a replica of the movie set where the premier was held in 1962, and the Meredith Willson Boyhood Home an impressive house for the period, where this legendary composer learned to play the piano.

History takes center stage in Clear Lake as well, located only 17 minutes from Mason City. Little did locals know their town would go down in music history after three young rockers took the stage at the Surf Ballroom, in February 1959. Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P. 'The Big Bopper' Richardson delighted the crowd during their 'Winter Dance Party' tour, before boarding a small plane to reach their next destination. Their plane crashed in a local farm field and the Ballroom became the stuff of legends.

Designated a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Landmark in 2009 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, the Surf Ballroom still feels like a huge step back in time. Beach murals and brightly striped awnings decorate the edges of this massive dance hall with its highly polished floor. An adjacent room displays hundreds of photos signed by musical legends that have performed here, as well as lovingly mounted instruments. Chills ran up and down my spine as I saw lyrics from 'American Pie' that Don McClean had handwritten on the green room wall, in homage to the horrific plane crash.

Visitors will also appreciate the lake culture in this tiny town, called the 'Saratoga of the Midwest' during the early 1900s. Named a Great American Beach by USA Today (which I also write for), Clear Lake is a gorgeous body of water surrounded by docks and a lush, tree-filled shoreline, where private boats abound. We got a great view of Iowa's third largest natural lake aboard Lady of the Lake, a pristine 24-foot-wide paddle wheel vessel with a cash bar, dance floor and restrooms on the enclosed lower level. Tours are available Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Whether you appreciate Prairie School architecture, movie or rock and roll history, or a laid-back beach environment, Mason City and Clear Lake offer plenty to like in a completely unexpected package. Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.

Lisa Waterman Grayis a freelance writer and photographer from the Kansas City area who has ballooned over the Rio Grande, savored Quebec's finest restaurants and profiled charismatic celebrities. She has crafted thousands of stories for national, regional, and local print and online publications and loves to write about her travel and food adventures. Lisa also writes human interest, health and business stories. In addition, she is a copywriter, ghost writer, editor and recipe developer. Contact her at or

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: September 29th, 2014

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