IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Iowa fans to renovate Frank Lloyd Wright hotel

Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts are claiming victory in their effort to restore the architect's last standing hotel, a northern Iowa landmark that has fallen apart over the past few decades.
In this 1911 photo provided by the Mason City Public Library Archive, a man sits on a bench in front of the Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, Iowa. Anonymous / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts are claiming victory in their effort to restore the architect's last standing hotel, a northern Iowa landmark that has fallen apart over the past few decades.

The Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, designed by Wright and completed in 1910, has been used as a hotel, apartments and even a strip club. It fell further into neglect while city officials searched unsuccessfully for a way to maintain the historic structure. Now, a private group has taken over the effort.

"It certainly has been an eyesore, it has had a very, very checkered history over past 40 to 50 years," said Ann MacGregor, executive director of Wright on the Park Inc., the group behind a planned $18 million restoration.

The hotel is last remaining of six designed by Wright after the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was demolished in 1968. The Park Inn Hotel will have 20 suites when it reopens to the public in early 2011, MacGregor said.

‘Naysayers for this project’
The restoration has caused discord in the city that was home to "The Music Man" creator Meredith Willson. His boyhood home has been made into a museum, and there's a life-sized replica of "The Music Man" movie set in downtown Mason City.

Some wonder why the hotel designed by Wright, considered by many to be America's greatest architect, hasn't had the same support.

"There are naysayers for this project ... who don't appreciate or understand the architectural, historical nature of this property," MacGregor said. "They question what it will do for downtown Mason City."

Market analysis shows there is demand for such a tourist destination, and a hotel management company based in Fort Atkinson, Wis., has been hired to ensure things operate smoothly, she said.

Former Mason City Mayor Jean Marinos, who serves as president of Wright on the Park's board, also believes the hotel will help economic development. The group plans to invite presidential candidates to the hotel during the Iowa caucuses and hopefully host a televised debate.

"Five years from now, when this hotel is up and running, we'll really have some great opportunities in the downtown for small businesses to come in," Marinos said.

The hotel made national headlines in 2004 when the City Council put an ad on eBay to sell it for $10 million to anyone who promised to restore it. When that failed, Wright on the Park stepped in, and the city signed over the deed.

"It wasn't that they didn't want (the restoration) done," Marinos said, "it was just they didn't want the city to do it."

Wright enthusiasts have been in a race for funding. The state of Iowa came through with about $8.2 million through its Vision Iowa program, and various federal and state historic grants and donations will pay for much of the work. There's only about $2 million left to be raised.

"I think we've moved mountains in a relatively short period of time," MacGregor said.

Looking to draw tourists
Alaina Santizo, the program manager for Vision Iowa, said state officials believe the project will draw tourists from across the country.

"This historic gem will be restored to its original splendor, while providing modern amenities that will appeal to today's travelers," she said in a statement.

Born in Richland Center, Wis., Wright was part of the Prairie School, a residential architectural movement that started in Chicago and spread through the Midwest. He came to Mason City in 1908 after two local attorneys hired him to build new law offices and sandwich them between a hotel and a bank for added revenue. Wright also built a private residence in Mason City called the Stockman House that's now a museum.

Bruce Pfeiffer, director of archives for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the Park Inn Hotel is interesting because it includes bank and law offices, but it's been "very badly mutilated over the years."

"It's such a remarkable building, it should definitely be preserved back into its original condition," he said. "I think a lot of people would be outraged if anybody ever thought of demolishing it."

Film director Lucille Carra created a one-hour documentary called "The Last Wright" that is being released on DVD this month in North America and Australia. The film traces 100 years of the economic and social history in Mason City, with special attention to the hotel's fate.

"Frank Lloyd Wright is the greatest architect probably in the world, and if his building can be in such bad shape, what does that say about us as a culture?" Carra said in a telephone interview from New York. "What does it say about us as Americans preserving what we have?"