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.