Downtown Mason City: Mason City, Iowa


Home to the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel and one of two remaining Wright-designed banks, the view from Federal Avenue and State Street is inspiring, reflecting the clean lines and character of Wright's vision and Mason City's late 19th- and early 20th-century Prairie School heritage.

Designated Area

The neighborhood is bounded by the blocks facing Washington Avenue to the west and northwest, the blocks facing Delaware Avenue to the east and northeast, and Willow Creek to the south.

The Historic Park Inn Hotel is the last inn designed by architect Frank Lloyd Right. Photo courtesy Wright on the Park, Inc.

Planning Excellence

Despite its heralded architecture, downtown Mason City is no museum exhibit or time capsule. A vibrant live-work-play neighborhood thanks to determined citizens and foresighted planning efforts, activities are informal and unscripted. People gather in Central Park, home to an 1884 Civil War monument; dine at a homegrown restaurant or cafe; grab a drink at an iconic tavern; or shop at locally owned boutiques, Fareway Grocery at the northern end, and retail outlets at the southern end. Easily traversed on foot, downtown is ideal for bicycling and as a site for events, many sponsored by Main Street Mason City.

There's no denying that downtown's pièce de résistance is Wright's Prairie School Historic Park Inn Hotel, which reopened in 2011 after decades of neglect. Although a grassroots effort resulted in the structure's listing on the National Register in 1972, the hotel closed in the 1980s. By 1999, it graced the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance's list of Most Endangered Properties. Residents, intent on rescuing the building, established the nonprofit Wright on the Park, Inc. in 2005 and bought the hotel from the city for $1. The subsequent $18 million restoration leveraged private donations and took advantage of historic tax credits to return the hotel to its original 1910 glory. Some 23,500 people toured or attended a meeting or stayed at the inn in 2012, funneling more than $5 million into the local economy.

The inn's restoration — along with a $3.6 million redesign of North Federal Avenue's streetscape and Federal Plaza that extends the Prairie School theme further into downtown — has catalyzed renewal efforts. Ten building facade improvements are expected to be complete by November 2013.

Urban renewal during the 1970s and '80s resulted in development of Federal Plaza, a public square that is a gateway to Southbridge Mall, which opened in 1985. While the mall's construction altered downtown's fabric — some architecturally significant commercial buildings were demolished — it retained retail anchors and the neighborhood's economic viability. Some 3.3 million shoppers visit the mall each year. Its design blends into the surrounding historic architecture and avoids compromising downtown's integrity.

Federal Avenue has always been downtown's main thoroughfare. It and Central Park were included in the 1857 Plat of Mason City. A recommendation in the city's 1940 comprehensive plan — to keep major civic functions within downtown — remains a guiding principle. Federal Avenue owes much of its charm to a 1965 downtown plan that moved U.S. Highway 65 to an outlying pair of one-way streets.

The neighborhood is part of the Mason City Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

Located in the middle of downtown Mason City, Central Park hosts multiple events, a war memorial, and a well-tended canopy of trees. Photo courtesy Steven J. Van Steenhuyse.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Planning Milestones

  • 1940 plan by Harland Bartholomew and Associates establishes downtown as civic center
  • Barton-Aschman Associates' 1965 downtown plan proposed moving U.S. Highway 65 to one-way streets on neighborhood's perimeter to retain downtown's character; implemented during 1970s
  • Grocery store at neighborhood's north end stems from 2002 Northbridge Redevelopment Plan
  • $3.6 million Federal Plaza renovation and Federal Avenue enhancements resulted from 2007 Downtown Mason City Plan by RDG Planning and Design; given 2012 Urban Design Award by APA's Iowa Chapter
  • Form-based zoning guides development and improvements, encouraging a mix of uses and specifying facade materials and treatments

Historic Architecture

  • Prairie-School Historic Park Inn Hotel (1910), sole remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel; 1972 National Register listing kicks off grassroots restoration effort, with hotel reopening in 2011
  • Major buildings include Classical Revival Parker Opera House (1883), Italianate City National Bank (1884), Classical Old Post Office (1907), Chicago-style City Center (1911), and Brick and Tile Building (1917)
  • Part of Mason City Downtown Historic District listed on National Register (2005)
  • 10 facades undergoing renovation; City of Mason City and Main Street Mason City administer public-private venture
  • Tax increment financing used for major projects; tax credits offered for building renovations, energy-efficient upgrades, creation of upper-story dwelling units

Complete Neighborhood

  • Although heavily commercial, neighborhood has several multi-family buildings, such as 1903 Kirk Modern Apartments, and upper-story dwellings
  • Shopping options include grocery store and farmers market, locally owned boutiques, major retailers
  • The Music Man Square is site of Meredith Willson's boyhood home and themed museum; River City Sculptures on Parade adds texture and interest to the downtown ; Central Park another place for respite
  • Major employment center including U.S. post office; federal courthouse; city and county government offices; financial, insurance and publishing businesses; retail and restaurants
  • Regional destination; Historic Park Inn attracted 23,560 visitors in 2012; Southbridge Mall is frequented by 3.3 million shoppers annually

Federal Plaza serves as the principal transition area between Central Park, the historic downtown, and the Southbridge Mall retail area. Photo by Dimension Images.

Transportation Enhancements

  • Scale and massing of buildings and attractive, active streetscape encourage foot traffic
  • Bicycling promoted through placement of bike racks and bicycle valet service at community events
  • Central Park Comfort Station is transfer point for city's transit system
  • Rerouting of U.S. Highway 65 off Federal Avenue enhances pedestrian access and safety
  • City and Iowa Department of Transportation analyzing downtown traffic volumes; considering new patterns, including abandonment of one-way flows on pair of streets designated as U.S. Highway 65

Active and Engaged Citizenry

  • Research, fundraising leads to incorporation of nonprofit Wright on the Park, Inc. (2005), which purchases historic Park Inn Hotel for $1 from city; group leverages grants, undertakes $18 million restoration
  • Volunteer-driven Main Street Mason City (2004) promotes neighborhood; annual events include Friday Night Live concerts; Cheers and Beers, highlighting midwestern craft brewers; and the Great River City Festival, including a reenactment of the First National Bank robbery by the John Dillinger gang
  • Mason City Youth Task Force raises funds for downtown bicycle racks
  • The Blue Zones Initiative, which focuses on community-wide health and well-being, promotes walking and biking within the neighborhood and highlights downtown restaurants that provide healthy dining choices and locally grown foods