Often listed among America’s top architectural destinations, Mason City has a rare wealth of Prairie School landmarks.
This is the only place in the world where you can stay in a hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), part of a complex with one of the last remaining bank buildings by the architect.
Wright’s contemporaries were also involved in the Rock Crest-Rock Glen district, officially the highest concentration of Prairie School-style buildings in the country.
Mason City is the birthplace of Meredith Willson (1902-1984), remembered for The Music Man, which was set in a fictionalized version of the city. There’s a superb museum devoted to Willson, combined with his childhood home.
1. Stockman House Museum
Wright’s first Prairie School-style building in Iowa was this residence for Dr. George C. and Eleanor Stockman.
The couple approached the architect during one of his visits to the city while researching his Park Inn Hotel & City National Bank.
Completed in 1908, this is a smaller adaptation of his “Fireproof House for $5,000”, intended for a family on a more modest income.
The Stockman House had a checkered history in the 20th century, and even needed to be moved four blocks in 1989 to avoid demolition.
The interior has received a sympathetic restoration, complete with period appropriate furnishings by the likes of Arts and Crafts designer Gustav Stickley.
Tours begin at the Architectural Interpretive Center, presenting an excellent overview of Mason City’s Prairie School architecture.
2. Historic Park Inn Hotel & City National Bank
Commanding the south side of Central Park are the brick and terra cotta facades of a pair of extremely rare buildings by Wright.
The Park Inn Hotel is the only survivor of the six hotels designed by the famous architect, while the City National Bank is one of only two remaining banks by Wright.
He drew up his designs in 1907-1908 and the buildings were ready in August 1910. Coming through a meticulous six-year restoration completed in 2011, the Park Inn Hotel continues to serve its original purpose but you can take a docent-led tour, Wednesday to Sunday.
On your way you’ll find out interesting facts about the building, its sumptuous fittings and a design philosophy rooted in the open spaces of the Midwest.
3. Music Man Square
A fitting homage to Mason City’s most famous son, Music Man Square is a few things rolled into one. Meredith Willson is the soul of this attraction of course, and you can take a look around his boyhood home (more later).
Something that will dazzle fans of the 1962 movie version of The Music Man is the 1912 Replica Streetscape. This is an accurate reproduction of the River City set from the movie, with a wonderful level of detail.
At the Meredith Willson you can delve into the life, career and inspirations of the playwright and composer, while 76 Trombones Above Madison Park is a literal tribute to that famous song.
4. Charles H. MacNider Art Museum
A cultural reference point for North Iowa, this celebrated art museum is housed in a historic, Tudor-style convent building.
At the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum you can get up close to the extraordinary work of Bill Baird (1904-1987), the famed puppeteer, who grew up in Mason City.
Together with his wife, Cora Eisenberg Baird, he produced and performed The Lonely Goatherd sequence in The Sound of Music (1965).
The collection for Baird is the largest to be found anywhere, and includes the puppets from the movie, along with a big cast of other marionettes.
Also in the museum’s holdings are modern and contemporary paintings, sculpture, ceramics, drawings, photographs and prints from a wide range of styles and periods.
At the end of the year, the juried Iowa Crafts is an annual exhibit showcasing the finest workmanship in The Hawkeye State, while June’s MacNider Arts Festival brings an outdoor art market, live music and free kids’ activities.
5. Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District
A few steps south of the Stockman House is the largest cluster of Prairie School-style houses in the country.
Made up of eight buildings, all belonging to a planned development flanking Willow Creek, the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District is a treat for architecture enthusiasts.
Sixteen houses were intended, including one by Frank Lloyd Wright, but he departed for Europe in 1910 when the neighborhood was developed.
Many of Wright’s associates are represented at Rock Crest-Rock Glen, including Walter Burley Griffin, Marion Mahony Griffin, William Drummond and Barry Byrne.
There are 90-minute tours of Mason City’s Prairie School wonders, taking place May through September on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 9:00am.
6. Meredith Willson Boyhood Home
In the summer months you can take a tour of Meredith Willson’s childhood home, an integral part of Music Man Square.
This Queen Anne-style residence dates to 1895 and opens to the public in the afternoons, Tuesday to Sunday.
The restored interiors are a window on domestic life in Mason City in the early 20th century. There’s a trove of Willson family memorabilia to pore over, as well as authentic furnishings from Meredith’s childhood and all kinds of music-related artifacts.
7. East Park
Littered with historic structures, Mason City’s favorite park has a gorgeous setting where Willow Creek flows into the Winnebago River.
On the National Register of Historic Places, East Park has been here since 1909 and steadily grew in size until 1957.
This is an extremely romantic spot for a stroll, with a two-mile trail system tracking those watercourses in the shade of tall old trees and featuring two picturesque crossings.
Along the trails are several shelters, as well as a gazebo, bandshell and formal garden plantings.
East Park also has no lack of recreation amenities, and these include three tennis courts, basketball courts, a 9-hole disc golf course, children’s play equipment and a volleyball court. On the south side is a genuine steam locomotive, which we’ll come to a little later.
8. Rancho Deluxe
A gallery of outsider art to rival Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, Rancho Deluxe is a half-acre packed with art that is constantly evolving.
Rancho Deluxe. Hubcaps, bicycles, windmills, football helmets, road signs and many more mass-produced items have found a new purpose, integrated into strange sculptures layered with decades of Iowa history.
These creations are a photographer’s dream, and there are countless hidden details to hunt down. Everything has a part to play, including a 3,000 lb chunk of granite from the old Cerro Gordo County Courthouse.
9. Cannonball 457
At the south end of East Park is a majestic piece of railroad history. The Cannonball 457 is the last surviving steam locomotive from the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway, which closed down in 1960.
Sitting under a shelter, No. 457 was built in 1912 and has been restored to its 1920s appearance.
The locomotive sits at the heart of Cannonball Gardens, made up of a delightful series of terraces and patios, with an Educational Plaza dedicated to local railroad history. You can take a closer look at the locomotive on weekend afternoons, May through October.
10. Kinney Pioneer Museum
Close to Mason City Municipal Airport in the west of the city you can get a taste of life on the Iowa frontier.
The Kinney Pioneer Museum mixes historic artifacts with living history as you make your way through a pioneer village with a jail, school house, blacksmith shop, log cabin and more.
Check the calendar for details of special event days when you can watch live demonstrations of trades and crafts from the pioneer days. The museum is open May through September.
11. Lime Creek Nature Center & Conservation Area
This pretty tract of nature is in the north of Mason City, enclosed on three sides by the Winnebago River.
The conservation area covers more than 440 acres, with a patchwork of habitats including upland forest, floodplain forest, limestone bluffs, restored prairie and open fields.
These can be experienced along nine miles of trails, for hiking, biking, horseback riding or cross-country skiing in winter.
The nature center sits atop the bluff and was renovated in 2019, with live animal displays, natural history exhibits and mounted animal specimens with a wildlife-viewing area at the back.
12. Prairie Land Trail
At 240th Street, where southwest Mason City meets the North Iowa farmland is the rather unceremonious trailhead for a path that will eventually stretch for more than 20 miles across Cerro Gordo County.
It’s easy to see that this is a former railbed, and indeed the Prairie Land Trail is on an abandoned Union Pacific line.
When we wrote this article, six miles of the eventual 21 had been developed, as far as 190th Street, just past the tiny community of Burchinal. This is still a trip worth making, especially in early summer when the prairie is dappled with wildflowers.
13. Suzie Q Cafe
In downtown Mason City look out for this cute Valentine Diner, open since 1948. Prefabricated in Wichita, Kansas with Art Moderne stylings, Suzie Q Cafe’s exterior has been given a facelift in the last couple of years, emphasizing its 1940s design.
The ten-stool interior has a lot of original features and offers a cozy dining experience. The cafe is still a favored lunch spot, most of all for its Spic-N-Span Tenderloin, hand-battered and served on a grilled brioche bun, with onions & pickles.
The cheeseburgers have authentic cheese, using a house blend, which is something you don’t often see at fast food spots.
14. Fat Hill Brewing
Fronting Central Park, this locally-owned craft brewery has a great location in a handsome building from 1925.
The seven-barrel brew house opened in 2016, and the taproom has 16 taps. This is a hub for entertainment and events in downtown Mason City, with live music and tons of regular events, from sit-and-knit to a film appreciation society.
As for the beer, some picks include the flagship Robust Porter, American Wheat, West Coast IPA, Scottish Ale and Blonde Ale, while the Rongorongo NEIPA is a seasonal favorite, along with the Braggot, Oktoberfest and Doppelbock.
There’s a kitchen at Fat Hill Brewing, but you’re welcome to order food to be delivered or check out one of the regular food trucks,
15. North Iowa Band Festival
Normally taking place over Memorial Day weekend is a festival honoring Meredith Willson’s legacy. This is the largest free marching band festival in the region, and now into its ninth decade.
The North Iowa Band Festival invites high school bands from across the Midwest to compete for the title of best band.
Willson himself returned to Mason City to take part on several occasions, and you can bet that “Seventy-Six Trombones” will come up.
The feast of music is accompanied by a craft market, carnival and the signature Big Parade. Local ensembles like the Mason City High School and Newman Catholic High School Marching Bands take part in the Big Parade but do not compete in the contest.