Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Buffalo Bill: Never Missed and He Never Will

Montage © Roy R. Behrens 2017
Above Title slide for Iowa's Buffalo Bill: Never Missed and He Never Will, a presentation sponsored by Humanities Iowa. For information on how to schedule this event for Iowa libraries, community centers and other public-accessible venues, as well as how to fund it through an HI grant (surprisingly easy), go to the Humanities Iowa website.


William F. Cody (1846-1917), better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was born near Le Claire, Iowa, in Scott County, just north of Davenport. By the end of his life, he had become what some have called “the most famous American in the world.” 

He had been a Pony Express rider, an Army scout, a buffalo hunter for the railroad, and the founder and central attraction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which traveled throughout the US and in Europe for thirty years. This talk is an overview of Cody’s life, both tragic and heroic. It was tragic because of the role he played in the near extinction of the American Bison (he himself is said to have killed nearly 3000 buffalo in eight months), and, more deplorable, in the subjugation of Native Americans. 

If his life was heroic, it was because of his later support of the rights of Native Americans, his friendship with many of them (most notably with Sitting Bull), and his link with such colorful characters as Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickok. As a Wild West performer, it is thought that Cody probably played to a collective audience of more than 50 million, including at various Iowa towns. This is a face-paced and entertaining 60-minute talk, illustrated by projected vintage photographs, film clips and animated graphics.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review | Frank Lloyd Wright & Mason City

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2017)
Above Roy R. Behrens, digital montage regarding Frank Lloyd Wright (2017) in relation to Prairie School architectural landmarks. Sources images include art glass window diagram from Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs (based on window in the Robie House in Chicago), and designer's photograph of the Spirit of Mercury by Richard Bock, commissioned by Wright as a recurrent motif in his City National Bank and Park Inn Hotel in Mason City (1910).


Book review on GoodReads (four stars out of five) of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie. Charleston SC: The History Press, 2016—

I recently visited Wright's Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob houses in Pennsylvania and enjoyed seeing both of those homes. Having spent many summer vacations in Mason City as a youth, I was thrilled to stumble upon this book and excited to read about Wright's architectural impact on this small Iowa town. I think the author did a fine job of showcasing Wright's work in Mason City while incorporating some of Wright's personal (and scandalous!) history with the evolution of this north central Iowa town.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Duplicitous Serenity | Frank Lloyd Wright

Above Roy R. Behrens, digital montage portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright (2017).


What was it like to encounter for the first time the Midwestern prairie, not yet dominated by Euro-Americans at the time of the American Revolutionary War? Below is a description, based on eyewitness accounts from 1782, as invading American troops were in pursuit of Native Americans who had sided with the British.

Allan W. Eckert, That Dark and Bloody River: Chronicles of the Ohio River Valley. New York: Bantam Books, 1996, p. 342—

For those of the army who had never before seen the Sandusky Plains [in Ohio], their first view of it yesterday was breathtaking. The heavily forested hills through which they had been riding for the better part of a week had abruptly leveled out into high plains, with vast fields of grass as far as the eye could see. Their guides told them this type of terrain would continue all the way to the Sandusky towns, still some 30 miles distant: deep, thick grasses that were emerald green in their lush new growth and so high that the early morning dew soaked their horses and bathed the riders themselves to their waists. There was a deceptive sense of peace to the vista and a strong illusion that they had entered upon an expansive green sea where the surface was calm and smooth except where breezes touched down and rippled the grass in pleasant swaths all the way to the western horizon. The illusion of a sea was further enhanced by, here and there in the distance, great isolated groves of trees projecting above the grasses, appearing to be a series of lovely islands. So strong was this sense, in fact, that almost immediately the men referred to these groves as islands and dubbed them colorful names based on their size or shape or color. Smaller groves, hazy and indistinct in the distance, loomed above the grasses like ships traversing the sea from one of the larger islands to another.

Some of the men, however, viewed the deep grass with a rise of fear; in this sort of cover, a whole great army of Indians could lie hidden beyond detection, abruptly to rise at any given moment and pour a devastating fire into the troops. Their fear became infectious, and soon the initial serenity of the scene was replaced in the men's minds with uneasy expectation.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Wright and Mason City's Architectural Gems

Above Some of the great treasures of American architecture are located in Mason City IA, two hours south of Minneapolis (or two hours north of Des Moines). The downtown is the setting of the magnificently restored Historic Park Inn Hotel, a tandem two-part structure, that originally also housed the City National Bank, the sole surviving hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is now both a hotel and an events center, with rooms restored to replicate the original Wright design. There is also a Wrightian restaurant, with an excellent menu. The hotel entrance is adjacent to the city park—it's the park that was famously featured in the Broadway musical and film The Music Man, a story that's based on the memories of Meredith Willson, who grew up in what is sometimes called "River City."  It's a great architectural treat to visit Mason City, as flocks of world-wide tourists have found since, fully restored, it reopened several years ago. The Condé Nast Traveler recently declared it "one of the 14 best cities for architectural lovers."

To experience Wright's City National Bank and Park Inn Hotel is itself sufficient reward. But that's only part of the story. Just five blocks east of the hotel is an historically significant cluster of Prairie School homes in a purposely designed neighborhood that borders both sides of Willow Creek. The precisely landscaped neighborhood was designed by Wright's associate, Walter Burley Griffin. Most of the planning drawings were made by another Wright associate, Marion Mahony (one of the first female architects, especially admired for her extraordinary drawings), who was also Griffin's spouse. Known as Rock Crest / Rock Glen, about nineteen houses were planned but only half of those were built. But the ones that were completed are both exquisite and well-maintained.


On the northern edge of this historic neighborhood is the relocated and exactly restored Stockman House, an early Wright prototype for a fireproof two-story Prairie School home. It is now a house museum, and is frequently open for guided tours. And on the property adjoining that is the recently constructed Robert E. McCoy Architectural Interpretive Center, which serves as an informational hub, a gift shop, and a gathering place for talks about Mason City architecture.

To my mind, among the highlights of Mason City's architectural gems is a residence called the Melson House. It was constructed on a limestone cliff on the Rock Crest side of the neighborhood, overlooking the creek and the houses that make up the opposite side, the level bank that called Rock Glen. The significance of the Melson House is discussed in Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (pp. 114-115)—

As H. Allen Brooks has said, it (the Melson House)  is "a master stroke" in which [Walter Burley] Griffin "turned the cliff to his advantage," with the result that the building is "partly hewn, [and] partly growing from the striated cliff." Amazingly, as [C.J.] Hurley notes, "although the almost fortress-like structure appears to be part of the cliff face, the interior is open and spacious, human in its scale, proportions and liveability."


The owners of the Melson House are Roger and Peggy Bang, who have long been active in Mason City's efforts to restore its architectural gems. Peggy has recently published a book (The Melson House Revealed: An Owner's Perspective) [see cover below] about all the pleasures as well as frustrations involved in maintaining the verve of this astonishing landmark—while also living in it.

• All posters by Roy R. Behrens © 2017. Photo of Melson House © Peggy L. Bang. Other images courtesy Wikimedia.