Drive just two hours south of the Twin Cities and you'll find a Prairie-style haven that Condé Nast Traveler called one of "the world's 20 best cities for architecture lovers."
Mason City, home to roughly 27,000 people in northern Iowa, boasts the world's largest collection of Prairie School buildings in a natural setting. It's also the closest concentration of Prairie architecture to the Twin Cities, including the only currently operating hotel designed by the style's chief proponent, Frank Lloyd Wright. The city also offers other cultural attractions, and is expanding outdoor recreation to offer more mixed-use and mountain biking trails.
"People are very pleasantly surprised at the variety of things we have to see and do here," said Lindsey James, executive director of Visit Mason City. "Our community is appreciated for its art and culture."
Founded in 1853, the Midwestern retail and manufacturing center became an architectural magnet when local lawyers J.E.E. Markley and James E. Blythe commissioned Wright in 1907 to design a complex to house a hotel, a bank and law offices. During construction, Wright abruptly left to travel to Europe with his lover Mamah Cheney. His protégé, William Drummond, completed the project in 1910 per Wright's design.
Over time, the Historic Park Inn Hotel fell into disrepair and closed in 1972. It sat vacant for many years until some local preservationists in 2005 formed the nonprofit Wright on the Park, bought the hotel from the city for $1 and launched an $18.5 million restoration campaign. The hotel was reopened in 2011.
Most of the hotel's art glass and woodwork are original, said Peggy Bang, a founding board member of Wright on the Park. The group acquired the 25-panel art-glass skylight, which Blythe had removed and installed in his home in the 1920s, and reinstalled it in the hotel lounge during restoration.
The hotel was a prototype for Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, built in 1923 but demolished in 1968. Wright on the Park offers an hourlong guided tour of the Historic Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank for $10.
The best part is that you can stay overnight in one of the hotel's 27 spacious rooms, each with a private bathroom, for about $115 to $200 a night.
Wright also designed the Stockman House for a local physician. The 1908 house, which was Wright's idea of a middle-class home, is Iowa's only Wright-designed Prairie-style home open to the public. Tours through the nearby Architectural Interpretive Center cost $10.
Other notable architecture
Beyond Wright, the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District boasts more than two dozen Prairie-style houses built along the bluffs and banks of Willow Creek and designed by noted architects, including Walter Burley Griffin, Francis Barry Byrne and Curtis Besinger. Gems, such as the Melson House and the Blythe House, display typical Prairie School features such as overhanging eaves, rows of windows and stonework.
The private homes aren't open to the public, but you can take a self-guided or guided walking tour of Rock Crest-Rock Glen. Download a map from the Travel Iowa website or buy a $5 guidebook from the Mason City Visitors Information Center. Wright on the Park offers two guided walking tours: a 90-minute Historical Tour ($10) and a Prairie School Tour ($18) that adds a 60-minute tour of the Park Inn Hotel.
The 'Music Man' connection
Mason City also is the hometown of the late Meredith Willson, composer of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." The Music Man Square features an indoor replica of the 1912 streetscape from the set of the Hollywood movie version, plus a museum and Willson's boyhood home. Entry costs $10.
The city's annual holiday event, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" (Nov. 29-Dec. 30), transforms the square into a winter wonderland.
More art and culture
The Charles H. MacNider Art Museum features world-class art by the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol. It also features a large puppet collection, including Bil Baird's marionettes used in "The Sound of Music" film. It's free.
For a trip on the wilder side, stroll through downtown's Rancho Deluxe, a half-acre folk-art garden filled with recycled bicycles, hubcaps, license plates and more. Or get a free online map or a paper one at various locations for a DIY walking tour of 81 sculptures across the city.
Where to eat
Mason City has many restaurant options, including Mexican and Thai, downtown and spread along Hwy. 18.
Markley & Blythe, the restaurant at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, offers a small, curated menu with choices such as strawberry balsamic salad, grilled ribeye and lemon and herb linguini scampi. For a larger menu and leatherette banquettes, head to the Quarry Restaurant and Tapas Bar for sharables such as steak eggrolls and entrees like pork osso buco. At Fat Hill Brewing, you can order from a rotating lineup of food trucks.
Where to stay
No matter where you sleep, it likely will cost less than $200 a night.
The big draw for many visitors is to sleep at Wright's hotel, but another downtown option is the six-bedroom Decker House Bed and Breakfast ($115-$155).