The Wright stuff

Friday 12 Aug 2011

Last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel restored to former glory in Mason City

In the early 1900s, two young daughters of prosperous Iowa businessman J. E. E. Markley took an education at Hillside School, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed institution run by the architect’s aunts in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Moved by the overhanging eaves, flat lines and horizontal banding implemented by Wright in the building’s Prairie style, Markley commissioned the architect to compose new commercial offices for his law firm in Mason City, Iowa.

Wright was still in the early days of his design career at this point, having concentrated largely on local residential and civic projects and commissions from his family ties. The flat roofs and geometric designs that soon became grossly associated with Wright’s stylistic approach struck a chord with Markley and his partner J. Blythe, leading to a commission which now stands as the last remaining Wright-designed hotel in the world.

Over the years the architect designed over 1,000 architectural concepts. Half of these were realised and only six of the completed buildings fell into the hotel bracket. Initially the Historic Park Inn Hotel was envisioned as law offices but Wright took the initiative to insert a hotel and bank to generate additional income.

Due to its unique position as the single remaining hotel by this visionary architect the property is expected to draw in large volumes of passionate architecture buffs to the extent that Wright on the Park, Inc. (an independent organisation which owns, restores, preserves and maintains the building whilst educating the public on the design and its architect) plans to put on a series of guided tours for local and travelling visitors.

Sadly the building has not always been so cherished. Passed from firm to firm since its inception in 1910 after the integrated bank was forced to trade off the building in a bankruptcy sale in 1926, the property was quickly transformed into a retail development and operated under a number of owners. By 1972 the bold structure was being utilised as an apartment block before falling into disrepair and vacancy.

Rediscovered by Wright on the Park, Inc. the Historic Park Inn Hotel has spent the last eighteen months undergoing hearty restoration works overseen by Project Architect Martha Huntington of local firm Bergland + Cram. The redevelopment works have cost $18.5m and the hotel is currently preparing for a grand opening event on 10th September, 101 years to the day of its original launch.

Pat Schultz sits on the Board of Directors at Wright on the Park and is clearly delighted by the final result, telling WAN: “The completion of the hotel is a tribute to so many people's hard work and dedication to this project. I really do feel like we've ‘moved the mountain’. $18.5m and we open debt free. What kind of miracle is that! And it is stunning - our architect, designers, hotelier, contractors - everyone has done an outstanding job. I stayed there Monday night - the first night open. Every detail is perfect! We on the board of Wright on the Park are beyond thrilled and excited to have this moment arrive.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing however. During the drastic restoration works the architects uncovered a series of unforeseen challenges, including the replacement of foundations on the north and east sides of the bank building, a second floor within the bank building being removed, and plumbing and mechanical work confronted with a severe lack of space.

This said the final product is exquisite. The 27 bedrooms have been sympathetically brought up to date with contemporary details in a historic setting. Bergland + Cram’s intensive research into the original room decor has paid off as the wall treatments and furnishings in the transformed boudoirs are sensitive to Wright’s original vision yet incorporate all the modern comforts desired by twenty-first century travellers. In homage to the old hotel, Wright on the Park, Inc. have ensured that one room (the ‘Historic Room’) has been kitted out in decor befitting of the original hotel, with brass bed, couch, chair and armoire to provide visitors with the full Wright-designed experience whilst the communal spaces such as the ladies’ parlour, gentlemen’s lounge, billiards room and Skylight Room (which sports Wright-designed art-glass windows) have all been retained.

The completed product goes much further than the average restoration project however. Schultz explains: “The re-opening of The Historic Park Inn Hotel is momentous - for Mason City - for architectural heritage. Already people are calling us from around the world. We believed in this from the beginning, but the response is exceeding even our high expectations. Locally, the much-needed boost it gives our downtown meets a major goal. But more than that, this building, as the last standing hotel designed by Wright with its exterior restored to his 1910 vision and interior holding so many of the original elements he designed, stands as international tribute to the great architect. It holds a place in architectural history uniquely it’s own and now ready for everyone to enjoy.”

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