If Mason City, Iowa, is easy to miss, blame Interstate 35. Untold legions of Midwesterners have surely cruised past the exits, completely oblivious to the fact this quiet little city of 27,500 (about 130 miles south of the Twin Cities) is home to one of the world’s best collections of Prairie School architecture.
Mason City’s artistic credibility hardly ends there. Just as neighboring Clear Lake is a fixture of rock ’n’ roll history — Buddy Holly performed his last concert at the Surf Ballroom — Mason City is a fixture of musical theater history. Long before composer and lyricist Meredith Willson was famous, he was playing in bands as a kid in Mason City, where his mother taught piano lessons.
Fans of “The Music Man” know Mason City as the loosely fictional River City, a place full of lovable yet unassuming small-town charms. Fortunately, some of these charms remain: a walkable downtown with angle parking, spacious city parks, an old-fashioned ice cream shop and a lovely public library. (Just don’t expect the librarian to break into song.)
Get Prairie Schooled
If you’ve ever dreamed of living in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architectural gems, you can do just that — if only for a night — at the Historic Park Inn, the last remaining Wright-designed and -built hotel on the planet. Originally built in 1910 as the City National Bank and Hotel, the property’s gracious public spaces and 27 rooms veritably gleam after a $20 million renovation.
On a Friday evening, wedding guests basked in the sun on the balcony adjoining the Ladies Parlor, while locals sipped after-work cocktails in the inviting bar adjacent to the 1910 Grille. In a town where interesting dining options have been historically scarce, the Grille has proved to be an excellent go-to casual dining option: Think luscious steaks and Italian dishes such as mushroom risotto and chicken Marsala.
Unwind with a book on a leather couch in the expansive lobby, resplendent in Prairie-style furnishings, while a self-playing grand piano trills in the background. Come evening, try your hand at a game of pool in the subterranean 1910 Lounge.
The nonprofit organization that restored the hotel also runs a small gallery of Wright-themed exhibits, with a spot for budding architects to distract themselves with Legos and Lincoln Logs (1-641-422-0015; historicparkinn.com).
If you’re even remotely interested in architecture, you’ll want to take a tour of the Stockman House. Designed by Wright in 1908 for a Mason City doctor, its horizontal lines, wide overhanging eaves and bold yet utterly simple design scream “Frank Lloyd Wright” from two blocks away — probably even if it’s midnight and you’re blindfolded (open May-Oct.; offseason by appointment only; 1-641-423-1923; stockmanhouse.org).
To check out the work of the master’s acolytes, otherwise known as the Prairie School architects, wander through the impressive houses of the Rock Crest/Rock Glen neighborhood. It’s just south of the Stockman House.
Marionettes and modern art
The MacNider Art Museum is a bit of a paradox: It draws admirers of contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Robert Rauschenberg and Alexander Calder, as well as fans of “The Sound of Music.”
MacNider’s showpiece exhibit displays marionettes and puppets by master artist Bil Baird. If you’ve ever seen the original “Sound of Music” or the film version, you simply can’t walk into the Baird collection without the insanely catchy “The Lonely Goatherd” popping into your head.
Among the marionettes featured in film, don’t miss the lonely goat himself, as well as the “little girl in the pale pink coat” and, of course, “her mama with the gleaming gloat.” Even children who haven’t seen the film will probably love the whimsical exhibit.
Enjoy a moment of repose in MacNider’s peaceful Chang Gallery, a sun-soaked atrium with a gurgling brook that overlooks the river (1-641-421-3666; macniderart.org).
Sip a post-museum cafe latte in the relaxing cafe at the Mason City Public Library next door: you’ll wonder why every small town doesn’t have a library this wonderful (1-641-421-3668; mcpl.org).
‘The Music Man’
Before strolling over to nearby Music Man Square, “Music Man” fans would be remiss not to snap a photo on the footbridge, where Marian the Librarian sings “Till There Was You” to Prof. Harold Hill in the film.
Once inside this temple of all things Willsonian, you may be tempted to break into a rousing chorus of “76 Trombones” as you stroll the 1912 Streetscape, a re-creation of the film set. While kids make a beeline past the faux barbershop to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor, head to the collection of midcentury musical memorabilia, such as Willson’s first Grammy, from 1958. Check out the actual 76 trombones hanging from the ceiling of the classroom area, as well as the reproduction of a vaudeville theater.
The Willson Boyhood Home — a lovely 1895 Queen Anne clapboard — goes beyond the composer’s star appeal: If you’d like to glimpse how the upper middle class actually lived at the turn of the century in the Midwest, this home is as evocative as any you’re likely to find (1-641-424-2852; themusicmansquare.org).
Budding brew culture
My family used to joke about the notorious Stoned Toad, a skeevy-looking bar that we’d pass on the way to my grandparents’ home. That was all I knew of Mason City’s so-called nightlife. So I was pleasantly surprised — more like shocked — when I arrived downtown on a Friday evening to find Mason City Brewing in full swing: all ages sipping pints (soda for the kids), a food truck grilling authentic tacos outside, and a live band kicking off at 8.
Co-owner Arian Schuessler, who used Kickstarter to partly fund the venture in 2013, explained that he and his friends hoped that their brewery would contribute to downtown’s renaissance. “You can complain about how there’s nothing to do,” he said, “or you can be the positive change” (1-641-423-1080; masoncitybrewing.com).
After sampling one of the eight brews on tap, pop over to the locals-recommended Fion Barra — that means “wine bar” in Gaelic — for a sake or a glass of wine. Fion Barra also hosts live music some nights (1-641-201-1687; fionbarra.com).
Cherry on top
It’s worth the detour solely to duck into Birdsall’s Ice Cream for a fresh peach shake. Or a fresh peach sundae. Or just the plain old cone: The homemade peach ice cream is a reliably to-die-for summer treat. Opened in 1931, this palace of ice cream isn’t self-consciously retro, but something feels delectably midcentury about the chrome freezers and red-and-white checkered walls. I love ordering a hand-mixed malt at the same counter my mother and uncles did as kids in the 1960s (1-641-423-5365).
Sarah Chandler is a Minneapolis-based writer whose travel writing has appeared on Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, CNBC and the Eurail Blog.