04 – 20th Century Architectural History in Mason City

20th Century Architectural History in Mason City

History Welcome

Buildings help tell a story about the places where they are located. One of the ways historians and architectural historians understand a city is by looking at the buildings that are in that location. Mason City has many buildings that help us understand its history.

Mason City’s most famous landmark helps tell the city’s history. In 1909, local attorneys J.E. Blythe and J.E.E. Markley contacted Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century, to commission a hotel and bank building for downtown Mason City. The resulting Park Inn and City National Bank, finished in 1910, contained hotel rooms, bank space, and Markley’s law offices. Mason City was a prosperous town at this time, with its local industries bringing in a lot of money. Prominent Mason Citians like Markley and Blythe wanted to use this prosperity to create memorable and unique buildings in the city.

The Park Inn was not the only building built around this time. Many of the city’s architectural landmarks come from this period and represent achievements in the Prairie School style. Frank Lloyd Wright also designed a house for local doctor George Stockman and his wife, Eleanor, in 1908. The Stockmans were introduced to Wright through Markley, who was their neighbor. The Stockman House is a type that Frank Lloyd Wright spent several years perfecting, first previewing the design in 1907. The compact house has an open floor plan and wide, low-pitched roofs, and large balconies and verandas.

Many other houses in Mason City are designed by other Prairie School architects. The Rock Crest and Rock Glen developments were designed by husband-and-wife team Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin mostly between 1911 and 1914. This neighborhood contains many high-style examples of Prairie School dwellings. Several more are seen on River Heights Drive, across Willow Creek from Rock Crest and Rock Glen, a street which is home to many of Mason City’s most ornate residences.

The city did not stop building new buildings in the 1910s. Mason City continued to grow, and new buildings used new styles to tell the story of the city’s evolution and growth. Hansen and Waggoner and later Waggoner and Waggoner were a key part of this story. Unlike someone like Frank Lloyd Wright, who had a distinctive style, the Waggoners built in a more diverse set of styles, adapting their own designs to fit with the needs of clients and the surrounding environment. For some of their residential and church buildings, they used traditional styles. Many of their buildings, however, fit into what is broadly called Modern Architecture.

Modern Architecture is often used as a catch-all term for a variety of styles and designs that became popular over the 20th century. Modern architecture covers a huge variety of buildings, but a few commonalities can be seen in the work of the Waggoners:

-Large, boxy forms are prominent.

-Vertical lines are emphasized, especially in window arrangements.

-Simple exterior designs are common.

-Local materials are used when possible.

Note the application of some of these mid-century principles, such as boxiness and vertical lines, on their Mason City City Hall building. Photo Courtesy of Tallgrass Archaeology LLC.

A variety of factors influenced the rise of these new styles. New technology meant larger and more structurally unique buildings could be designed, and a wider variety of materials could be used for these buildings. Additionally, there was an intellectual push by academics and architects to think differently and move outside of the previous norms of architecture. Many of these people wanted to create something new outside of previous architectural categories. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright famously refused to be categorized within a specific style during their careers. A strong idea of individuality and being different than what came before was part of architecture at the time.

The Waggoners were not as dramatically different from past architects as some others. However, their designs do show a willingness and interest in adapting to changes in the ways buildings are designed and built. The firm embraced new technology, using innovative methods for buildings like Holy Family Catholic Church and McAuley Hall on the Mercy Hospital campus. Many of their buildings use a mix of modern materials and locally available stone and clay tile. In buildings like the Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Office, the Waggoners made conscious choices to design something different than what was around it in Mason City. These buildings help tell the story of Mason City, as the city evolved into the 20th century.

McAuley Hall at the MercyOne North Hospital campus in Iowa City. Photo Courtesy of Tallgrass Archaeology LLC.