In the early 1900s, Mason City, Iowa, was booming. Successful attorneys James Blythe and J.E.E. Markley were among those spearheading growth. Serving on the board of directors of the City National Bank, which contemplated expanding, they saw the opportunity to meet multiple needs with one plan. A new building could provide a home for the bank, new offices for their firm, a much-needed hotel, and a replacement for the old eye-sores on the corner of State Street and Federal Avenue, the hub of downtown.
At the time, Markley’s two daughters attended Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The school boasted a beautiful building designed for the sisters who ran it by their nephew, Frank Lloyd Wright. Impressed with the design, Markley suggested the Chicago architect for the Mason City project. With his innovative Prairie School designs drawing considerable attention, Wright was well-established in Oak Park, Illinois, where other like-minded architects also worked in his studio.
Wright came to Mason City and the project took on life. With its unique three-part design, the City National Bank and Park Inn Hotel began to take shape. In 1909, however, Wright’s scandalous elopement to Europe with the wife of a former client left the rest of the construction management to his Oak Park associate William Drummond. Fortunately, Drummond was able to see the building completed according to Wright’s original design and it opened to the public in 1910.
Both the hotel and the bank generated strong local acclaim, praising the addition to the downtown scene, the design, and the amenities afforded. However, no one could have imagined how quickly change would impact the building as they celebrated Mason City’s growth.
The most critical juncture came as the new decade brought the farm crisis and the failure of banks all across the state. The City National Bank was among those forced into bankruptcy, resulting in the sale of the bank and its conversion into retail and office space. While the remodeling done in 1926 enabled the building to successfully serve the city for years, it drastically changed its look and the unity Wright had created for it, the law offices, and the hotel.
With their positions as bank directors eliminated, Blythe and Markley no longer felt a need for a location in the building. While they would continue to own the offices and hotel for some time, they moved east down State Street to a new building to be close to their most important customers, the Dennison Brick and Tile Company. The hotel, built in the European plan with shared bathrooms and small rooms, suffered from change as well. As clients came to expect more amenities, the elaborate new Hanford Hotel, just a couple of blocks down North Federal, proved much more appealing. A leaking skylight led to major changes in Wright’s original design for the lobby as well.
Over the years a variety of businesses would flourish in the bank quarters, but the hotel deteriorated to a fifth-rate facility at best. After a short life as low-grade apartments, it was abandoned to pigeons and cobwebs.
Meanwhile, Wright had gained recognition as an architectural genius whose designs had forever changed the face of the American scene. Over the years, however, the few hotels he’d designed had all disappeared except for the Park Inn. A local group began to focus on what might be done to save the building and successfully campaigned for its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Soon it was also listed as one of Iowa’s Most Endangered historical landmarks. With the city by this time the owner of the hotel, various plans emerged for its preservation. Facing funding challenges and disagreements about what path to follow, efforts stalled out several times. However, the Mason City Foundation, during its brief tenure as the agent for restoration, gained important grants and undertook critical preservation steps before it stepped aside in the face of these issues.
Finally a local citizens’ group formed Wright on the Park, Inc., a non-profit entity whose mission was to own, preserve, restore and maintain the hotel. Its initial focuses were fund-raising, planning, continuing the work started by the Mason City Foundation and removing non-historic elements, a job undertaken by dedicated volunteers. Unexpectedly, the opportunity to purchase the bank section of the building emerged, and the scope of the project changed dramatically.
Through grants, local fundraising, tax credits, memberships, and a major Vision Iowa grant, Wright on the Park succeeded in gaining the funds necessary for the restoration/rehabilitation to move forward. The major construction phase started in 2010 under the supervision of Henkel Construction and the Bergland and Cram Architectural firm. In 2011, one hundred and one years after its original opening, The Historic Park Inn Hotel, its exterior restored to the original design and its interior restored or rehabilitated, will gracefully fulfill its place as the last standing hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a tribute to his role in architectural history and a landmark in which Wright on the Park, the city of Mason City, and the State of Iowa can take great pride.