The first weekend this February I spent in Iowa. Voluntarily, if you’re wondering. Why? Well, I love 1950’s rock ‘n roll, and namely, the music of Buddy Holly. He played his last and final concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. To celebrate him, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, they host a three-night-long memorial concert every February, the same weekend as “The Day the Music Died.” They get some pretty big names to come into town, and I’ve been able to see live a lot of the artists and groups I listened to on the “Oldies” stations, growing up. Big names draw big crowds, and with people coming from across the country (and even from other countries altogether) it means this quiet-eleven-months-out-of-the-year Iowan town experiences a temporary population boom that books-up most every hotel in town. Although we didn’t jump on our reservation early enough to be immediately in town, we did manage to find a room in Mason City, the next town over from Clear Lake.
Most our time was spent at the ballroom, but the morning after the concert was over, we decided to go into town and see what Mason City had to offer. Me being me, I read about a “valentine diner” with only eight seats where the food was good and the short-order cook performed magic tricks. Awesome, right? Well, sure…if it was open.
Well, let’s just say Mason City doesn’t have a whole lot to offer when it’s Sunday, and the entire population is likely in the middle of Sunday mass. After the diner was a no-go, we got back in the car, decided to drive through the rest of “downtown,” and see if we could find an alternative.
We take a corner, and suddenly, at the end of the street is this older…strongly-horizontal…earth-toned…low-roofed building. Takes up about a good city block on its own. Well, I’ll be damned, but we managed to completely stumble upon a Frank Lloyd Wright building by accident. Not just any building, but a hotel, and at that, the only hotel he built that is still standing.
I only had my heart set on taking a photo or two of the outside, and my hopes set lower. Most his buildings are private residences and businesses, and not public spaces you can just walk into. I knew it, and knew it well. My girlfriend, Shelley, didn’t. She walked right in.
Well, if I’d my doubts, it was a Wright building: the ceiling above the front desk was barely 6 feet tall (my head touched). Making a joke of it, I used it as an opportunity to introduce myself and my architectural background, hoping she’d let me loiter in their lobby for a few minutes. Well, she did me one better.
The concierge more than happily told us a little about the building, what was on each floor, and that we were free to tour it ourselves if we’d like (so long as we didn’t wander into the boutique hotel portion at the back). Before she had so much as a minute to reconsider her offer, we made our way up to the mezzanine (home to a grand player piano), back to the ballroom, and down to the parlor.
My biggest reaction probably came in the freedom I had on our self-guided tour. We didn’t come across “Do Not Enter” rope barricades, plastic furniture slipcovers, or that of the like. Nor was there anyone hovering over guests babysitting their behavior. It was refreshing to see a Wright space, still in use, all these years later and be able to use it for its intended purpose.
After seeing all there was to see, we stopped by the front desk again to thank them for letting us tour the building and welcoming us as warmly as they did. The concierge handed us a pamphlet with next year’s rates for the “Winter Dance Party” weekend and wished us a safe trip home. I opened the pamphlet, expecting the kinds of prices that come with a “boutique hotel,” as it was named. I mean, they don’t even publish them, and in my experience, that usually means the price is a high one.
Rooms started at $100 per night.
For the same price we paid for a room at the Quality Inn, we could have stayed in a historically, significant, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel. Now, this isn’t the only Wright space you can rent, but it probably is the only one you can stay in for a hundred dollars. The other properties are entire houses and cottages that require renting the entire structure out, and usually for at least two nights in a row. Here, there is no minimum stay. This property could easily justify charging a premium rate for accommodations like theirs. They instead have maintained making this a public space affordable to the masses, and not some private members-only club, which makes me respect their handling of this structure all the moreso. A couple years back, it had fallen into such disrepair it couldn’t even be auctioned-off on eBay to a willing bidder. Today, and millions of dollars in restoration and renovation work later, it stands to serve the same purpose it did back in 1910. If that isn’t successful architecture, I don’t know what is.
Needless to say, the next time I’m in Mason City, Iowa, you can find me at The City National Bank and Park Inn Hotel.
If you could pay the same amount for a boutique hotel experience as opposed to a chain experience, would you do it? Anything else you’d like to say about this Frank Lloyd Wright hotel or its charms?