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Take a Trip to the Only Frank Lloyd Wright Hotel Still Standing

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Photo by Dana Miller
Photo by Dana Miller

Its facade, unmistakably Wright with its horizontal sweep, wide overhangs and Prairie School stained glass, glitters across the street from Central Park in Mason City, Iowa. Of the handful of hotels Frank Lloyd Wright designed in his lifetime, the only one still left standing is Park Inn Hotel, a recent renovation that has served as an economic catalyst for a small town and preserved a signature Wright commission. Built roughly 15 years before the Imperial Hotel complex in Tokyo, this Iowa landmark prefigured design elements and ideas utilized in that later work.

"If you take a picture of the Park Inn Hotel and lay it over a similar image of the Imperial Hotel, there are so many similarities, from the end towers to the horizontal lines," says Dana Thomas of Bergland + Cram, the architecture firm involved in the restoration.

The Park Inn Hotel by Frank Lloyd Wright. The facade is tan and there are multiple windows. There is a street in front of the hotel with cars. Dana Miller

The restored Park Inn Hotel in Mason City reopened its doors in 2011, 101 years after the hotel and bank complex originally opened for business. Wright's renowned work had attracted the attention of a group of attorneys in Mason City, one whose daughter had seen the architect's designs in Spring Green, Wisconsin, near Taliesin. So when the city leaders decided to build a showpiece development downtown, including a community bank, hotel and law offices, Wright won the commission. The new Prairie-style complex proved a showstopper when it first opened, a standout from the surrounding town with flourishes such as a bronze statue of Mercury in the bank lobby, which the architect said symbolized "the money power, the all powerful domineering spirit of the time." Wright finished planning and designing, but before arriving at the construction site, he had begun an affair with the wife of a client and left for Europe. He would travel overseas for a time before returning to the United States, and never return to see his Mason City work in person.

After establishing its footing for a few decades, the Park Inn Hotel and surrounding Prairie-style buildings began a gradual descent. The bank complex fell into financial troubles during the Depression, and the once-grand hotel slowly faded into a flophouse. At one point, pigeons roosted on Wright's intricate windows. After being converted into offices and apartments that suffered from years of mistreatment, the buildings drew notice from the city government, which proposed demolition and redevelopment, at one point considering a plan to turn the site into a parking lot. But by the early 2000s, a core group of community leaders and local preservationists decided to take action, spurred on by the hotel's potential and the visibly sagging roof. The nonprofit Wright on the Park, Inc., which formed in 2005, bought the building from the city, and after years spent securing funding and state grants, began reconstruction.

Photo by Dana Miller

Original Wright drawings guided what would become a detailed, $18.1-million restoration project; the original fixtures and glass were all done by artisans approved by the Wright Foundation. According to Scott Borcherding, an architect with Bergland + Cram, while replacing and reinstalling the exterior urns, light fixtures and stained glass in the century-old structures were time-consuming, and repairing the bank's foundation required an "erector set-like" frame to hold the building together, nothing was as unique a challenge as fixing the 15-foot skylight, in part because it had gone missing. Initially deemed a design flaw, the art glass was actually removed and relocated to a private residence for years before being relocated and then reinstalled.

"That was a pretty priceless component to the whole facility," says Borcherding. "It's certainly the largest feature of the hotel and has the most impact when you're in the building."

Photo by Dana Miller

Four years in from the reopening, Borcherding says the hotel has anchored a Mason City revival, bringing tens of thousands of guests and providing much needed jobs.

"Anybody involved in the restoration of such a historic property hopes the property makes an impact," he says. "We had thousands lining up to take 15-minute tours of the building when it opened, and local were pretty impressed and amazed."

· More Frank Lloyd Wright coverage [Curbed]
· More Preservation Watch coverage [Curbed]