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No shortage of things to see and do in and around Mason City, Iowa

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
This statue of writer and composer Meredith Willson welcomes visitors to The Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa.
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MASON CITY, Iowa – Never having been to this northern Iowa city of nearly 28,000, I frankly didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that I would be spending several days attending the annual Walter Burley Griffin Society of America’s annual meeting.

As a relative of Griffin (he was my great-great uncle and had the winning design for Canberra, the capital of Australia), I was interested in his architectural designs and his work throughout the Midwest and in Australia.

So, that’s what brought me and Red Dirt Report’s Ted H. Smith to Mason City this past week as part news assignment and part learning experience.

Flying into the airport in Minneapolis, we rented a car and drove the two hours south to Mason City, staying at the Holiday Inn Express on Highway 18, having missed the chance to get a room at the small but stunning Historic Park Inn, the last remaining hotel in the world designed by Griffin’s former colleague (they had a falling out) Frank Lloyd Wright.

Nevertheless, the Holiday Inn Express was perfectly fine. And it was located near several restaurants on the west side of town. It would turn out that the east-west highway running through Mason City (formerly known as Shibboleth, Masonic Grove and Masonville – founder John Long had wanted honor the Order of Free Masons, according to this website).

But enough about that. You want to hear about Mason City.

As I noted, the 8,000-square foot, 27-room  Historic Park Inn, now an outstanding boutique hotel, was built in 1910, following Wright’s Prairie School design to a “T.” The inn, along with the adjacent City National Bank, were renovated in recent years at a cost of $20 million.

My father, Red Dirt Report contributing columnist Nathaniel Griffin, did manage to secure a room and upon inspection, I found it to be quite tasteful, roomy and comfortable, while staying true to its historic roots.

One of the most desirable places in the Historic Park Inn is the balcony, which faces the leafy city park, complete with a  recently-installed Frank Lloyd Wright statue.  One can enjoy a drink while gazing down at Mason City life below.

Hungry? We were. And we ended up dining in the 1910 Grille, which is in the Historic Park Inn. Be sure to get a reservation or just hang out at the well-stocked bar. While it highlights Wright’s Prairie School designed interior, and it has a formal feel, the dishes are well-prepared and delicious. This is one of the best culinary experiences to be found in Iowa.

It is here that I should mention how Griffin and Wright are connected. Trained at the Chicago School (aka Prairie School), along with Wright, under the tutelage of Louis Sullivan, they both developed their own architectural styles and Griffin would go on to work in Wright’s Oak Park, Illinois office. And in 1906, after Wright returned from a sojourn to Japan (Griffin had looked after the office while he was gone) the two had a falling out over issues of payment. Griffin went out on his own and became a well-regarded and respected architect, urban planner and landscape architect in his own right.

And partnering with architect and artist Marion Mahony, Griffin and Mahony would marry and work together as a team. In fact, it was in 1912 when the Griffins put together their plans for what would become the Rock Crest and Rock Glen neighborhood of Mason City, for their clients.

Curiously, Walter Burley Griffin would arrive from Chicago in Mason City in July 1912 just a couple of weeks after the events portrayed in Mason City native Meredith Willson’s famous musical The Music Man.

Before I married, I did not know much about The Music Man beyond the usual references and the song “Till There Was You,” which the Beatles had covered. Willson’s story of a con man coming to an early 20th century Iowa town “River City” (aka Mason City), is an American treasure and one of my favorite musicals of all time.

In fact, walking the streets of Mason City, one can almost hear actor Robert Preston’s huckster-carney cadence echoing from the past. I wondered if Griffin himself ran across Meredith Willson or members of his talented family while in Mason City in 1912-13, before heading on his life-changing journey to Australia.

And while maneuvering down Mason City’s streets can be a bit confusing at times, you do get your bearings, particularly around downtown and in the aforementioned Rock Crest and Rock Glen Historic District where you can see Griffin’s remarkably-designed houses or Wright’s famous 1908-built Stockman House and the accompanying Architectural Interpretive Center.

In The Music Man, Robert Preston’s Professor Harold Hill and Shirley Jones’ Marian Paroo meet on the footbridge in the Warner Bros. 1962 musical, based on Willson’s story and composition. It is in that scene, on the Willow Creek footbridge, where the aforementioned “Till There Was You” is performed.

In reality, the actual footbridge spanning Willow Creek, is longer and higher. And it is regular use by the denizens of Mason City.

The Meredith Willson Boyhood Home on S. Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the Mason City Public Library is well-worth seeing, but not nearly as much as the adjacent Music Man Square, an enormous place featuring full-size streetscape and façade that got the Warner Bros. stamp of approval. This amazing interactive museum features an actual ice cream parlor (the ladies there will be happy to serve you a scoop or two), plenty of interactive museum activities, videos on the making of The Music Man, Meredith Willson memorabilia (a piano he composed on) including photos of him meeting President Richard Nixon in 1972 and much, much more.

There is also a well-stocked gift shop. I couldn’t resist getting a “Trouble … in River City” T-shirt for my Music Man-loving wife.

And while we certainly recommend the 1910 Grille at the Historic Park Inn, if you are looking for another local place, we highly recommend The Hungry Mind. It is attached to the Southbridge Mall at 16 S. Commercial Alley and features all sorts of appetizers, entrees, sandwiches, soups, salads and is known for their gourmet hamburgers. I had a turkey reuben known as a “Rachel.” It was quite good.

And do you have a hankering for a cuppa joe, we recommend Jitters in the Southbridge Mall, with organic and fair-trade coffee. I found the Australian theme a bit curious, but that’s all right.

And, in all honesty, I liked the friendly atmosphere at nearby Coffee Cat coffee house which also offers their own chai and vegan baked goods.

And for those who are interested in stretching out and exploring nearby areas, Red Dirt Report highly recommends neighboring Clear Lake. If that name rings a bell it’s because it was the town where on Feb. 2, 1959, the “Winter Dance Party Tour” featuring Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens stopped at that town’s Surf Ballroom. The next day, their plane crashed in a field shortly after takeoff.

And not only can you visit the Surf Ballroom in picturesque Clear Lake – a popular tourist destination – you can drive a few miles out of Clear Lake and actually walk out to the farmer’s fence row where that doomed flight crashed in a snowstorm. I wrote more about that here.

As for the Surf, be sure to get there before 1 p.m. Visitors are allowed inside to see the dancehall, view all the pictures on the wall – and there are tons – and even see the green room next to the stage which has been autographed by nearly every group and musician passing through.

And while we didn't have time to take a tour of the large lake about the Lady of the Lake paddlewheel boat, it looked quite cool and something worth doing on a follow-up visit to Mason City/Clear Lake.

Would I recommend a trip to Mason City? Absolutely. My days there were pretty scheduled so I didn’t even get to explore as much as I had wanted to. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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