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Wright in the Middle of Mason City: How to Stand Out as a Boutique Business

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.

Sure, your hotel may have complimentary continental breakfast...but is it on the National Register of Historic Places?

Sure, your hotel may have complimentary continental breakfast...but is it on the National Register of Historic Places?

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.

Come for the lodging, stay for the world-class architecture.

Come for the lodging, stay for the world-class architecture.

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.

Nope!

Rooms started at $100 per night.

The former bank wing of the building, now converted into a ballroom.

The former bank wing of the building, now converted into a ballroom.

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?

 Image credit to Eric Labanauskas.


Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.

Comments

  1. Tony Promo

    Wow… I love FLW. I just learned a few years ago that a lot of the local FLW homes around here are actually designed by his students. Still worth a TON of money though. There are actually quite a few (both student-designed) homes of his in St. Charles, Batavia, and Geneva.

    • Eric

      Preachin’ to the choir, sir.

      Here’s one for ya right here in Aurora. 1300 West Garfield Avenue:

      http://www.peterbeers.net/interests/flw_rt/Illinois/Greene/greene.htm

      He’s all over the map, moreso in the Midwest, and – calling it home for a good long while – the majority of his finished work you’ll find here in good ‘ol Illinois. Most, if not all, of his buildings stick out like a sore thumb, so you’ll know when you’ve come across one.

      • Rachel

        I kind of live near there! I’m sure I’ve driven past that house before; it looks very familiar. How cool!

        • Eric

          Like I’ve said, if you live here in the Midwest, it’s almost impossible not to trip over one taking a walk down the block.

          I studied at Loyola University, and one day – driving North on Sheridan Road – I had to do a double-take. Sure enough, it was another one of his houses. Just a few blocks from where I was living.

          Ironically, it was just purchased and is going to be converted into a hotel, too, albeit a B&B:

          http://chicago.curbed.com/archives/2011/12/15/emil-bach.php

          • Jeff Porretto

            There’s one on 31 in Batavia. I use to drive by it every day on my way to work. They really are works of art. You’re so lucky to find your bit of FLW serendipity good sir!

  2. Jen

    Awesome post Eric! It’s so cool that you just happened to stumble across this FLW building by accident. I’m going to have to be more aware of my surroundings from no on when I’m on trips, this sounded like a really great experience. Nice find :)

    • Eric

      Thanks, Jen! Honestly, one of the best things I’ve learned is – if you’ve the slightest bit of curiousity – park the car, get out, and go for it. Shops, restaurants, what have ya. Life’s a lot nicer when you get surprises like these and never have to wonder “What if?” Special thanks to this hotel for being as good of sports as they were.

      • Jaimie Smith

        I completely agree with you Eric! I love taking random adventures. I am nowhere near adventurous as seem to be, but its still fun to do and find new things here and there. This was a great post, Eric! You will have to make a post if you end up staying there one night!

        • Eric

          Sure thing, Jaimie! Apparentely I got too carried away in my excitement that I completely neglected to take any photos inside. Well, looks like I’ve a reason to go back there, now.

  3. Alex Brodsky

    That’s definitely a sweet find! If I ever find myself out that way, I will definitely check out the hotel.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the sterile atmosphere in almost every chain hotel. As a business, I understand why the “big guys” do it that way. But I’ve never been as comfortable in those rooms as I have been in the more unique B&B’s or specialty hotels.

    I may also want to check out that 3 day concert as well.

    Cool post, Eric.

    • Eric

      Thanks, man! You’d be amazed where a little dumb luck will get ya. It’s a neat place. It’s hard to take appealing photographs of outdoor spaces in an Iowan February, but they’ve got these little balconies on the second story that overlook the town square/park…it’s surprisingly urban for an otherwise very, very rural state. That said, it only take a couple of minutes before you’re out of their “downtown” and back in a location where gas stations qualify as dining options.

      Off-season B&B’s are the greatest thing since sliced bread, unless that bread is being served for breakfast at the B&B. The owners of the one in Door County were like ninjas…there and available when you needed them, but otherwise, you felt like you’d the place to yourself, and magically, the baskets of homemade cookies and popcorn stayed full, and the complimentary cider and coffee, hot. You ever kick it back to Door Co. in the off-season, seriously…Blacksmith Inn on the Shore. My #1 favorite place I’ve stayed (and from a guy who loves his road trips, that’s got to be worth something).

      • Alex Brodsky

        #1 favorite? Wow. That’s high praise. The plan for me and my girlfriend is to go back there once a year (off-peak, of course). I’ll definitely check out the Blacksmith Inn. come this October-ish

  4. Rachel

    Great post, Eric! I would love to stay in a hotel like that — I don’t think I’ve really stayed at any boutique hotels before, Frank Lloyd Wright or otherwise. I’ll have to check this one out next time I’m in Iowa. ;) Thanks for the great story!

    • Eric

      Thanks, Rachel! I had to smack myself on the forehead for not doing more research on this place before I booked my room this year. Couldn’t believe their rates are as reasonable as they are, especially given the amount of time and work it must’ve taken to make that place shine like a brand new penny.

  5. Amanda

    Wow! What an awesome find and blog post Eric! =) We don’t travel a ton, but when we do we generally go for the most conveniently located, moderately priced place. So in this case, I would certainly stay at that hotel for $100 per night! That would be awesome!! I love when the time and money is taken to preserve and save old buildings. The history of old buildings like this is so interesting! Our house was built in 1894–some of it is original, some is not….it would be so cool to restore it one day to reflect the old style while modernizing it too–like this hotel did.

    • Eric

      I think that’s the strongest possible selling point you could have: not only is it a historically-significant hotel, but it’s a hotel with rooms that cost no more than your typical chain hotel. And this place is anything but.

      They’ve done a very good job of respecting the original structure and design, while making sure the amenities people expect from a 21st-century hotel will be there for them. I just love that they embrace using and enjoying the hotel. The second floor (mezzanine level) has an upstairs lounge with french doors that open out to a veranda overlooking the park. They’ve modern furniture out there you can comfortably sit on, and, likely, enjoy a morning coffee in the warmer months. It’s those touches and considerations that make this building as successful as it ultimately is.

      Due respect on preservation and renovation. Last year, around this time, I was out on Cape Cod. Driving around, you’d see signs for each town, stating when each one was officially established. Usually, that date was in the 1700′s. I still laugh at how shocked I was reading all those for the first time. History like that’s rare out here!

  6. Mandy Kilinskis

    It’s awesome that Mason City has this architectural gem and that they were so cool about letting you and Shelley take a look around.

    Major props to them for being an affordable boutique hotel. I’ll take a hotel with personality over the big chains any day, they’re just usually a little too rich for my blood.

    …this also almost makes me want to go to Iowa. I never thought I’d write those words in my entire life.

    • Eric

      Seriously. Normally, these types of buildings either have a sign on the door saying, “Not Open to the Public,” or some docent standing at the door charging admission.

      You’d be surprised, Mandy. Off-season travel usually affords me the opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have. Speaking of surprises, the Midwest – and places like Mason City – are full of them. Sometimes you’ll find extraordinary things in the most seemingly common places.

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        I’m all about off-season travel. I’m heading to NYC in March for a very budget-friendly price. I’m staying in a hotel that’s not exactly boutique, but not exactly chain either. I guess we’ll see how that goes. :)

  7. Amy Swanson

    I love that they’ve decided not to “sell out” and charge an outrageous amount of money to stay at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, but want the regular Joes and Janes to come and enjoy. That goes a long way in my book, and I’d love to make a weekend trip there to stay. Thanks for sharing, Eric!

    • Eric

      It was a nice moment for me. I wasn’t Oliver Twist, but I was a middle-class kid who still couldn’t afford the $100+/ticket price of the Oak Park “Wright Plus” annual housewalk tour. So, instead, I found a book at the library that had all his buildings with pictures, and floor plans, too, and read that. Checked it out and renewed it dozens of times. Because that was all I could afford to do. That said, I don’t think they know how much I appreciated it, but it meant a good deal to me that I got to step inside something I only read about for years.

      And yes, as far as hotels in Iowa go, this would be choice. I’m kind of itching to go in the warmer summer months and spend a morning out on one of those terraces with a nice book, overlooking the park at the center of town.

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