Frank Lloyd Wright hotel reopens in Iowa

No one would mistake Tokyo for Mason City, Iowa, but the cities have something big in common: Each has been home to a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel. The architect only designed six in his lifetime.

His three-story Imperial Hotel survived Japanese earthquakes and World War II, but not the fever to build bigger and taller. The building was demolished in 1968, about 50 years after opening, to make room for another high-rise in this city of 12 million.

Newly opened for overnight guests in North Iowa is the Historic Park Inn, a prototype for the Tokyo project and designed by Wright in 1909. It is the world’s only remaining hotel for which Wright was the architect of record.

Not bad for a city of 27,000.

An $18 million renovation – guided by Wright on the Park, a local nonprofit group – keeps public areas historically accurate but enlarges accommodations to meet the expectations of modern travelers.

That means 27 rooms, all with private baths, instead of the original 61. Furnishings mimic the sleek and simple geometric patterns that define Wright’s work. Add flat-screen TVs, coffeemakers, touchpad temperature/lighting controls and original artwork of other Wright buildings.

In the Historic Suite are a blend of modern amenities plus a claw-footed bathtub and brass bed.

A long line of art glass windows – in guest rooms and a long-ago ladies’ parlor – overlook Central Park downtown. More art glass lights up the ceiling of the Skylight Room, a reception area behind the lobby. Downstairs is a bar, the former smoking lounge for men. In the hotel’s small mezzanine is a player piano.

To come is the reopening of the hotel restaurant. The search is on for a restaurateur to lease and operate the space, just as Stoney Creek Inn is doing with the hotel and meeting areas.

This Mason City building – first known as City National Bank and Hotel – was on its way to becoming no more than an historical footnote because of bankruptcy, foreclosure, decades of disrepair, vacancy and neglect.

“The hotel restoration seemed a massive and distant but realistic goal,” says Gary Metro of Carbondale, Ill., Mason City’s daily newspaper editor from 2002-2004. “What basically remained of the old hotel was the structural underpinnings, with an interior comprised mostly of mildew and things that never would be restored.

“The roof was beyond terrible. A significant number of people – but not a majority – opposed the project as wasteful and pointless.”

Jean Marinos was mayor from 2003-2007, then opted to volunteer as president of Wright on the Park. Why? “I knew what an impact it would have on Mason City, economically and emotionally,” she says.

“We’ve tried to make it a comfortable place to stay, and it’s probably a little more plush than the original” European-style hotel. Many steps have been a struggle between comfort and historic accuracy.

Throughout the hotel are replicas of a chair Wright designed for the bank. Former law offices – signage intact – now are a business center, and the adjacent law library – book shelves filled – is a conference room.

Paint schemes are based on what existed at the hotel’s opening. Doorway locations haven’t changed, but some doors won’t open. Out of place are the lobby’s original porcelain and terra cotta floors because parts are discolored, dulled or cracked – but they will stay this way because authenticity matters.

“The original hotel had no carpets,” notes Tracy Knebel, hotel general manager. “Those that we’ve added are 80 percent wool – close to what they could have been at the time.” Some floors are uneven, but guests might not notice because bedposts are sawed “so you’ll sleep flat.”

The exterior is a sturdy example of Wright’s Prairie School design, which means thick overhangs and flat roofing. Much of what locals learned about restoration came from old photos, memorabilia and volunteer work to peel back layers of paint, paper and wood.

“People keep donating their time and memories,” Tracy says. “I feel privileged to work here – everyone who comes in seems to have a story” about the hotel’s past. “This building is a treasure and we appreciate it – we’ll have people coming here from all over the world.”

The work continues, Jean says, especially as the bank interior turns into a ballroom. A delight was finding skylights covered by plywood. A surprise was finding iridescent glass in mortar between bricks and wall columns near the ceiling – a glistening effect, but potentially expensive to duplicate elsewhere.

“Mysteries remain,” she admits. “We do our best guesses and try to make progress.”

Gary Metro suggests the project is in good hands because of Mason City’s work ethic, honesty and friendliness. “It’s not surprising to learn these folks were able to succeed with the hotel,” he says. “Once they make their minds up to do something, it gets done.”

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The hotel’s grand opening celebration is Sept. 10, its 101-year birthday. Admission to that night’s Skylight Ball is $101. Hotel room stays for that night will be auctioned off online. Nancy Horan, author of “Loving Frank,” speaks at North Iowa Auditorium.

For more about the Historic Park Inn, 15 W. State St.: www.stoneycreekinn.com, 800-659-2220. Rates start at $100, top at $275. The hotel has brochures for free and self-guided property tours.

Also open for tours in Mason City is the Wright-designed Stockman House and its architecture interpretive center, 530 First Street NE. For more: www.stockmanhouse.org, 641-421-3666.

The house is in the Rock Crest/Rock Glen neighborhood of privately owned Prairie-style homes that were designed by Wright associates. For more: www.visitmasoncityiowa.com, 800-423-5724

Mason City’s other major attraction is The Music Man Square, whose tours, exhibits and movie set re-creations are a tribute to “The Music Man” musical and its composer, hometown boy Meredith Willson. It is within a walk of the Historic Park Inn.

Visit the composer’s childhood home, learn what else he and relatives created, buy a “Trouble Right Here in River City” T-shirt and listen to local musicians practice in a room where 76 trombones hang from the ceiling. For more: www.themusicmansquare.org, 866-228-6262

About 110 miles southeast of Mason City is Cedar Rock State Park, whose 1950 Walter Estate is a Wright Usonian design (simpler than Prairie). The architect created the compact home, its furnishings, boat pavilion and outdoor fire pit. The property is accessible only by guided tour; reservations are advised. For more: www.iowadnr.gov, 319-934-3572

Wright also designed a hotel in Wisconsin, the long-gone Lake Geneva Inn. It was built in 1912 and destroyed in 1970 to make room for a concrete condominium building in downtown Lake Geneva.