Frank Fanatic in Mason City, Frankly Speaking

Frank Fanatic prefers to wing it rather than build a specific itinerary. It takes a very special occasion for her to make plans far in advance, she usually prefers to leave her options open if something better comes along. The approach proves challenging when it comes to staying in Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings.

Last year she lucked out at The Historic Park Inn when someone cancelled, giving her a room at the last FLW hotel still standing. That same weekend featured Shirley Jones and her son in a concert version of Music Man performed, appropriately enough, at Music Man Square. Mason City, Iowa was the hometown and model for Meredith Wilsonʼs River City in the play. Also happening that weekend was a reenactment of a bank robbery from the 1930s, so it was a bit of a miracle to get a room.

Frank Lloyd Wright

This year, Frank Fanatic was working the same show in Minnesota and we hatched a plan for me to accompany her on a leisurely road trip home. After she said, “There is nothing better than staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright,” I decided I should try to make that happen. Unfortunately, it was only a few weeks before our trip. Fingers crossed, I looked online and saw some confusing information, prompting me to call the reservationists for the Seth Peterson Cottage and The Historic Park Inn. After announcing my hope to rent the cottage for a few days in September, the woman laughed and said, “Of this year!?” She wasnʼt mean about it, but I knew that wasnʼt going to happen. The hotel has multiple rooms and I was mildly optimistic about one night there, especially since the website showed availability even though it wouldnʼt let me book the room. Thursday night was available (perfect) and they had a Premier King Suite for us. There are only two of these and they are special: overlooking the park, with three walls of windows and ours had a whirlpool tub as well. Perfect for my plan to propose.

I had been working on the ring for a while and now had it in hand but a place and time had not yet leapt out to me and said, ʻThis is it!ʼ No huge production proposal was planned but something out of the ordinary seemed imperative and ʻThis was it!ʼ We love to travel and Iowa would be a new place for us together. We would also have time alone for a few days and maybe, just maybe, I could show Frank Fanatic that there was indeed something even better than staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright.

We got a bit of a late start from Minneapolis, traffic was heavier than expected and we would be a bit pressed to get to the hotel in time, but I couldnʼt make a big thing about it. Despite the tight timing, a stop at a wine shop was imperative since we might want something nice in the room later. We drove through some rain and were blessed with a picturesque sunset through the clouds and rain-streaked windows. I took many pictures but none turned out very well.

I was distracted thinking about what I wanted to say and trying to stay engaged in our conversation at the same time while silently stressing out about my plans needing to be altered. Leisurely, secluded time on the balcony was out the window but, overall, the weekend seemed to be shaping up well since we had, a week earlier, received word that another room had opened for Friday night. Bad news: we had to move to another, less fancy room. Good news: we got to stay another night and experience another room. The staff were wonderful and accommodating, including moving our stuff from one room to the next while we enjoyed ourselves in Mason City.

We pulled in a bit after 8pm and I was anxious to get us settled as quickly as possible so we might have time to relax and let me ease into the proposal. We checked in, got our parking pass and moved everything up to the room. In between trips I popped into the 1910 Grillé and asked if we could move back the reservation 15 minutes. They were quiet that night and we ended up being the last people in the restaurant, so it was very kind of them to agree. Next, I ordered a bottle of Bollinger Grand Année so Frank Fanatic and I could have a glass before being seated. They thought I wanted the whole bottle to take up to the room but we got the confusion ironed out and I ran back up to bring Anne down to the level above the registration desk but below the second floor. Itʼs a secluded spot with a player piano and FLW designed chairs. You feel public because the stairs go past and youʼre perched above the lobby, so you can hear everything below, but it also feels a bit like a secret lair.

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She wondered aloud, for the second time, why I was racing around and why I wouldnʼt just sit down and relax. She was clearly not realizing what was about to happen and I ran downstairs to the restaurant to retrieve two glasses of champagne. We sat for a minute (no lengthy buildup, exactly as she probably really wanted) and then I proposed. I wonʼt bore you with the words leading up to one knee and a ring but the most important word followed, “Yes!” The ring was a special, unique effort for a special, unique woman, featuring a black diamond. I was nervous about the strong statement it made but Anne loved (loves!) it! We finished our glasses and I began to actually soak in the amazing FLW surroundings and we made our way to dinner.

The 1910 Grillé is a beautiful restaurant with clear Prairie influences and classic looking lights a la Frank. We would recommend the risottos highly. Any restaurant willing to put two of those on the menu with less than a dozen entrees total is either crazy or makes crazy good risotto. The latter was the case. We added nothing to ours, though you can choose seafood or various meats if you wish. My mushroom version was near perfection. Of course, it is entirely possible that my judgement is skewed due to the happy status change in our relationship and the excellent bubbly and company…and maybe the second bottle we opened, a pinot noir from A to Z winery. We blissfully retired that night, surrounded by windows and feeling very lucky to be engaged and in a Frank Lloyd Wright.

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The next day brought us a tour of the hotel which has plenty of fascinating tales, but I wonʼt ruin your visit by giving them all away. Suffice it to say that the property is a must see and the stories about how it all came back together are well worth the time. Though the hotel rooms have been altered (except for one) to allow for modern tastes, needs, etc. small details remain and fascinate. The accent added to the mortar in between bricks on the bank side (now a reception hall for the hotel) emphasize how incredibly driven and detailed-oriented Mr. Wright was. I am still a neophyte in matters FLW but Iʼm pretty sure my married life will allow me to learn more.

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Later that day we stopped by Wright on the Park, the non-profit that restored and owns The Historic Park Inn Hotel. They had a show there that caught my eye while I was planning our stay and I was determined to drag Anne there, knowing she would either love it or hate it. She loved it. She loved it so much, in fact, that we came back the next day, before leaving Mason City, to meet the artist. More on that in a minute, before our return visit, we had to see a bank robbery.

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On March 13, 1934 John Dillinger and his gang robbed the First National Bank in Mason City (This was not the bank Mr. Wright designed, his no longer operated as a bank by this time). It was one of only two hold ups that featured Dillinger and ʻBaby Faceʼ Nelson. For more on this, read this article from Mason City Public Library and for more about the wild times and the rise of the FBI, read Bryan Burroughʼs amazing Public Enemies (or see the movie of the same name). We had already heard the excitement while preparing to check out earlier, and we felt a seemingly misplaced adrenaline rush before the reenactment. Old cars began circling the block with the bank, right off the park of The Historic Park Inn fame. Men in fedoras and overcoats milled about and it all got off to an intense start with a shooting. More shooting and smoke and yelling ensued. The highlights? 1) Watching cars driving by on the other side of the park and wondering how many 911 calls were mistakenly made. 2) The woman running out
of the bank screaming, “Theyʼre robbing the bank!” She owned that line and it was about the only clear dialogue we could hear. 3) Walking away with some souvenir bullet shells, thanks to Frank Fanaticʼs quick actions after the actors received their applause.


Then we returned to Wright on the Park.

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What fascinated Anne enough to generate a return visit? Frankly Speaking by Karen Robb, “An exhibition of 11 extraordinary paintings featuring Hollywood Golden Age actresses wearing Frank Lloyd Wright buildings as hats.” Yes, really. You can understand some skepticism but there are stories behind each one and the artist takes the pairings seriously. This is not throw away pop-art, but it can be hard to wrap your mind around until you see the pictures, especially when they are all together. Almost all have sold and the gathering of all the art in the series for this show made it even more memorable and impressive.

It all started with Audrey Hepburn wearing the Guggenheim Museum and includes Elizabeth Taylor (Gammage Theater), Veronica Lake (Falling Water), Marlene Dietrich (Beth Sholom Synagogue) and more. The local appeal was obvious as well with a “Whoʼs Wearing Mason City?” teaser. The answers were Rita Hayworth with The Historic Park Inn and Tallulah Bankhead wearing a bank, naturally. The City National Bank no longer operates as a bank but it did when Tallulah was building a career on the stage in London in the 1920s.

If you are a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, you owe it to yourself to see these paintings, in person and en masse if possible. At least check them out on Facebook, Karen Robb Art, or Instagram, Art by Karen Robb. The stories behind each painting were available for sale as a package, a mere $5, as were notecards with the images (I canʼt recall the price). There were also prints, and even canvas reproductions available. Check them out. If you love them as much as we did, good news: there are more to come. If you venture to Mason City, be sure to stay at The Historic Park Inn and take a tour.

Donʼt miss the Stockman House, more on that in another post, by your regular writer. As far as eating and drinking goes, here are some recommendations, all conveniently located downtown (near or in The Inn): 1910 Grillé (we had dinner and breakfast), The Quarry, Lorados and The Hungry Mind. Be sure to visit Mason City Brewing as well, good beer and a food truck delivering tasty tacos to tables the night we went. Iʼm going to be with Frank Fanatic for the rest of my life, so there may be more guest
posts in the future, I hope you enjoyed it.

Post submitted by Geoff Worden aka Mr. Wine

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