Friday, June 21, 2013

Mason City and Frank Lloyd Wrong

Before our visit in April, I'm not sure I could have named one reason a person would choose to make a special trip to Mason City, Iowa. Maybe your grandma lives there and makes the best cinnamon rolls in the entire state. That is a reason to go way out of your way to visit Grandma and enjoy her baked goods and some old fashioned guilt and hugs. But if your grandmother doesn't live in Mason City, I figured there was no reason to venture over to that part of the country, specifically. And that's not to defame Iowa or Mason City, just any small town in the middle of not much else that takes several hours to get to. But now I can name about fifteen pretty decent reasons to get yourself there, soon.




My delightful and thoughtful in-laws gave us a gift certificate for a hotel stay in Mason City a couple of Christmases ago. That sounds sarcastic, doesn't it? Like they gave us a Holiday Inn gift card and said "get the hell out." But they gave us a gift certificate to a spectacular and quite special hotel, at least for architecture nerds like my husband, and junior architecture nerds like me, it was a night's stay at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in the world. The whole world.


So we planned a visit, and since Mason City is fairly close to Minneapolis/St. Paul, we decided to take a long weekend and visit our dear friends in St. Paul. We planned to crash at their house for several days of nonstop talking, eating, dog cuddles, city touring and general merriment. Pretty much a dream four day weekend road trip. But before we get to the late night Game of Thrones watching and intensive cake consumption and the particle physics lecture (seriously), let me give some time to Mason City. It deserves it.

We drove up from Kansas City on a Thursday, and after a brief delicious sushi lunch stop in Des Moines courtesy of a Yelp recommendation, we arrived in Mason City and checked into our hotel. It was small and lovely. Full of the angles, stained glass, low ceilings and rich wood work that you can expect from FLW's early work. The hotel, and the bank and office spaces located in the building, opened in 1910. The bank went belly up in 1920, like so many banks, and shortly after that the offices closed, the hotel fell out of fashion, and things went downhill from there. Turned into retail space, offices, apartments, and finally a rather skanky flop house, the hotel was in serious disrepair when a coalition got together in 2005 to buy the building and raise the $20 million necessary for a complete restoration and renovation. It is an immaculately restored hotel, with some modifications made to please modern hotel guests, like bigger rooms, bigger bathrooms and more privacy.



The hotel is absolutely stunning, but not ostentatious. It fits into the block of shops and restaurants that it sits next to and it faces a sweet, green little park that was covered with bits of snow the whole time we were there, in APRIL. It snowed off and on during our entire trip, in mid APRIL! Ridiculous. So we arrived at the hotel, checked into our park facing room, one long wall of all windows, lots of woodwork and stained glass, and that long checked bolster pillow that I wanted to steal. I didn't. It would have been really hard to sneak out with a six foot long foam pillow. And wrong.


We had a tour scheduled at 3pm for another Frank Lloyd Wright building in the area, the Stockman House, so we missed the public tour that the hotel docents offer, but the hotel staff was so nice that they asked a docent to come in and give us our own private tour that evening. We had a whole hour to wander the hotel with the docent/expert. She was full of charming anecdotes and Midwestern warmth. It was so fun to wander around the small, quiet hotel and hear about all the history, touch the rich mahogany walls, peer into the old fashioned law library, and take a look at old photos from the original hotel.



She even let us into the special event space, or the section of the building that used to be a bank but now is used for banquets and weddings. It's all light creams and greens, and has a fresh modern feel, even though it was designed in the early 1900's. Even the masonry between the bricks is unique, the space between the front of the brick and the masonry is filled with small irridescent pieces of glass that catch and reflect the light in greens and yellows. It's a tiny detail, but once you notice, your eye continues to look for these little glimpses of shine and color.  





It was just as good as the tour we took at the Stockman House and the architectural center earlier in the day. The docent at the architectural center could tell that she'd landed a couple of nerds, so she spent over two hours talking to us about all the gorgeous and prominent Prairie School houses in the area, along with the Stockman House tour itself. All in all, we got about four hours of solid architecture sight seeing, between tours and driving around the areas near the Stockman House.


We couldn't take any photos inside the house, but it has the typical open floor plan that FLW revolutionized. It really reminded me of his own home and studio in Oak Park, IL. Similar layout and use of windows, hearths and urns. Those urns are everywhere.



After all of the driving, and sight seeing and architecture, we were ready for an early dinner. We'd rather go somewhere that locals like to eat. So we checked out Yelp and the list of recommended restaurants from the hotel, and settled on the Northwestern Steak House, in part because of the stellar reviews and also because it's been around since 1920, and is randomly located in the middle of a neighborhood and butts up against the local cement plant. Charming right?

It was a tiny, old school steakhouse, complete with dark old wooden booths, chatty waitresses and those tiny glasses of water that feel like you're drinking out of a shot glass. The steaks were perfect. Cooked in olive oil, butter and Greek herbs, they were mouth watering. But frankly, as good as the steaks were, the spaghetti side dish was even better. That sounds odd, right? I always think a spaghetti side dish at a steak joint is going to be watery tomato sauce and overcooked noodles. Nope. This spaghetti is perfectly al dente and the only sauce happens to be the olive oil, butter and herbs that the steak has just cooked in. To die for, I could have just eaten a big bowl of that and skipped the steak entirely. We loved the Northwestern Steak House, and I plan to try and replicate the meal at home sometime, you know, for a special occasion that warrants buttery, meaty pasta and fattening steaks! Like a Monday.


This would be founder, Tony Papouchis. 

So we wrapped up our night with a trip back into the 1950's at Birdsall's Ice Cream to take home a little caramel creme for later, and then headed on our private fancy hotel tour, then crashed in our room, called Emily and Jay, our friends in Minneapolis to confirm details for the next day, and we officially spent the night in a real Frank Lloyd Wright hotel.


Joe and I have a tradition now where he gets up at some ungodly hour like 6am and runs off to take photos of something impressive. I stay at the hotel. I lounge and leisurely get dressed, watch the news, write, read. It's a perfect tradition. And he usually brings coffee and breakfast. This time we had the finest pastry and coffee from Coffee Cat in Mason City. Because it was vacation, why not share a peanut butter cup brownie and a cinnamon coffee cake slice for breakfast? My honey hazelnut latte was tasty.

So there's about 15 reasons to visit Mason City.
 1. Friendly hotel staff that have well manicured nails
 2. Historic lovely hotel that no longer looks like a skanky 1970's flop house
 3. Enormous velvety pillows that you should refrain from pilfering
 4. Amazing architecture from early Prairie School designs
 5. Pastries for breakfast
 6. Old school Greek steakhouses with oil portraits over the cash register
 7. Kind tour guides willing to talk and talk and answer every question
 8. Gracious Midwestern folks
 9. Honey Hazelnut lattes from Coffee Cat
10. King size beds with soft linens and plenty of blankets for the shitty April snow storms
11. Birdsall's taking you back to the 1950's
12. Frank Lloyd Wright everywhere
13. The relaxing, slower pace of a small town
14. The gorgeous details that the eccentric nut bag FLW carefully placed in every one of his spaces
15. And most importantly, that amazing butter, olive oil, steak and herb spaghetti.

We hit the road Friday morning by 10am, waving goodbye to Mason City, and hello to the Twin Cities and further northern adventures. And probably more pastries, if I had anything to do with it. But wait for the next installment when we get to theoretical physics, more cake, Game of Thrones and the friendliest, humpiest puppy dog in the entire state of Minnesota. Plus the legendary Al's. Wait for it!



Ozzie Ohl said...

You certainly captured the essence of Mason City. thanks for a wonderful blog.

Anonymous said...

Loved reading this entry about Mason City... I lived there 20 years ago. By ducking out when you did, you missed some other amazing places of interest: the Meredith Willson childhood home and the Music Man Museum; the Charles MacNider Art Museum-- featuring many well known American artists, including a collection of Bil Baird puppets (he did the marionettes for the Sound of Music), the Music man footbridge, and a library with fabulous architecture. Maybe you'll stop by again. (You picked great places to eat, too-- must stops for us when we go back).

Jon said...

Your photographs were fantastic...loved the review as well.
Do stop back to Mason City you haven't seen the half of it!

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