Mason City, Iowa

What puts Mason City, Iowa on the list of places to see? . . . Seventy-Six Trombones and a hotbed of architecture!

Mason City, located in northeastern Iowa, is the hometown of “The Music Man” composer Meredith Willson.  He based the musical’s fictional River City on his experiences growing up in Mason City.




To learn more, I visited Music Man Square, a complex in downtown Mason City that is all about Meredith Willson.  It features a River City streetscape, meeting and activity rooms, and a museum that celebrates Willson’s life.  There’s a lot to see.




Furniture and items from Meredith Willson’s California office



In a nod to the popular song, one room showcases seventy-six trombones suspended from the ceiling.  Our guide told us that they put out a request for donations of trombones and received over 120.  She also said they periodically bring the trombones down and play them.


Right next door to the Music Man Square is Meredith Willson’s boyhood home, which is part of your tour.  It’s a cozy 1895 house with family memorabilia scattered throughout.


Willson lived in Mason City for seventeen years before leaving to study music at the Julliard School in New York.  He toured with John Philip Sousa’s band for a couple of years and then moved to California where he lived the rest of his life.  But he returned to his hometown many times, usually for the annual North Iowa Band Festival.

Along with “The Music Man” fame, Mason City is also well-known for its architecture.  In 2012, Conde Nast Traveler named it among “the World’s 14 Best Cities for Architecture Lovers.”  That’s because it has the largest collection of Prairie-style homes in one geographic area.

At the top of the list are two Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings: the Historic Park Inn Hotel and the Dr. George C. Stockman House.


The Historic Park Inn is the last remaining hotel designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright.  It opened in 1910 as part of a business block that included the First National Bank, law offices, shops, and the hotel.  After falling into steady decline, the building was restored and re-opened in 2011.  It took six years and $20 million to complete the project.

The hotel now uses the entire space.  It’s a great experience to stay there.  The rooms have been nicely restored, and it’s a pleasure to just wander around the building and take in all the Frank Lloyd Wright details.  There’s a guided tour if you prefer the official story and walkabout.





Be sure to dine at the 1910 Grille, located at the west end of the hotel building.  It’s an upscale place with delicious food.

While Wright was in town for the hotel project, he met Dr. George Stockman, a local physician. Wright was hired by Dr. and Mrs. Stockman to design a new home for them.  The resulting house was based on a plan of Wright’s Fireproof House for $5,000, which was published in the April 1907 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal.


The Stockman’s home was moved from its previous location to its present site in 1989.  (the Methodist church next door needed a parking lot.) After its move, the house was restored and opened to the public for tours.




Behind the Stockman House is the Robert E. McCoy Interpretive Center with displays about Prairie architecture.    There’s also a nice little gift shop with Frank Lloyd Wright-ish items.  You can get a photo with Frank, too!


Right across the street is the Rock Glen and Rock Crest neighborhoods.  That’s where you’ll find all the Prairie-style houses.  Pick up a self-guided walking tour booklet for $5.00 at the Interpretive Center and you’re all set.  It’s best to walk the neighborhood, rather than drive, so you can see the properties up close.

Joshua Melson House (street view)
1.  VIEW FROM NORTHEAST - Joshua G. Melson House, 56 River Heights Drive, Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, IA
Joshua Melson House ( back of house)           Library of Congress photo

In 1912, owner Joshua Melson felt obliged to keep a light on his home’s construction site all night as it was being built at 56 River Heights Drive.  Townspeople had a great interest and liked to gather at all hours on the nearby State Street Bridge for a look.  It was nicknamed “the Castle.”  In 2004, the Melson House was selected by the Iowa Chapter of the American Institute of Architects as one of the 50 most significant structures built in Iowa during the 20th century.  The architect was Walter Burley Griffin.

Curtis Yelland House

Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Park Inn/ First National Bank building, and construction began in 1909.  About that time, Wright somehow thought it was a good idea to leave his wife and 6 kids and run off to Europe with the neighbor’s wife.  Wright’s assistant, William Drummond, ably finished the hotel project and picked up the commission for this house at 7 River Heights Drive as a bonus (pictured above).

James Moore Home

It’s not all Prairie style in the neighborhood – this Neo-Classical Revival can hold its own amongst the Wright-inspired houses.  It was built for James and May Moore, who named their property “Stonyacre.”



For another fun walking tour, take the self-guided stroll of Mason City’s public art.  You can find the map on your computer – just look for River City Sculptures on Parade.

At the left is Mr. Eggwards, a favorite in town.




Mason City Public Library

So whether it’s music history, art, or architecture, you’ll enjoy culture on the prairie in Mason City.  Your Memorable Moments Await!


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