Mason City, IA is home to roughly 27,000 people in northern Iowa, boasts the world's largest collection of Prairie School buildings in a natural setting. It's also includes the only currently operating hotel designed by the style's chief proponent, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Founded in 1853, the Midwestern retail and manufacturing center became an architectural magnet when local lawyers J.E.E. Markley and James E. Blythe commissioned Wright in 1907 to design a complex to house a hotel, a bank and law offices. During construction, Wright abruptly left to travel to Europe with his lover Mamah Cheney. His protégé, William Drummond, completed the project in 1910 per Wright's design.
Over time, the Historic Park Inn Hotel fell into disrepair and closed in 1972. It sat vacant for many years until some local preservationists in 2005 formed the nonprofit Wright on the Park, bought the hotel from the city for $1 and launched an $18.5 million restoration campaign. The hotel was reopened in 2011.
Most of the hotel's art glass and woodwork are original, said Peggy Bang, a founding board member of Wright on the Park. The group acquired the 25-panel art-glass skylight, which Blythe had removed and installed in his home in the 1920s, and reinstalled it in the hotel lounge during restoration.
The hotel was a prototype for Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, built in 1923 but demolished in 1968. Wright on the Park offers an hourlong guided tour of the Historic Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank for $10.
The best part is that you can stay overnight in one of the hotel's 27 spacious rooms, each with a private bathroom, for about $115 to $200 a night.
Wright also designed the Stockman House for a local physician. The 1908 house, which was Wright's idea of a middle-class home, is Iowa's only Wright-designed Prairie-style home open to the public. Tours through the nearby Architectural Interpretive Center cost $10.
Beyond Wright, the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District boasts more than two dozen Prairie-style houses built along the bluffs and banks of Willow Creek and designed by noted architects, including Walter Burley Griffin, Francis Barry Byrne and Curtis Besinger. Gems, such as the Melson House and the Blythe House, display typical Prairie School features such as overhanging eaves, rows of windows and stonework.
The private homes aren't open to the public, but you can take a self-guided or guided walking tour of Rock Crest-Rock Glen. Download a map from the Travel Iowa website or buy a $5 guidebook from the Mason City Visitors Information Center. Wright on the Park offers two guided walking tours: a 90-minute Historical Tour ($10) and a Prairie School Tour ($18) that adds a 60-minute tour of the Park Inn Hotel.
Thorncrown Chapel, located near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, stands out as a symbol of both aesthetic beauty and spiritual tranquility. This chapel delivers a sublime experience that goes beyond the limitations of conventional architecture with its soaring glass walls, engaging design, and peaceful connection to nature.
Created by famous architect E. Fay Jones, Thorncrown Chapel, is a masterpiece of organic construction. Its architecture harmoniously fuses with the surrounding environment, resulting in a space that is both ethereal and grounded. The chapel's elaborate glass walls that reach upward are its distinguishing feature. These walls permit an abundance of natural light to stream within, fostering a serene atmosphere and providing glimpses of the changing seasons. Celebrating the splendor of the Ozark Mountains while being situated in a woodland setting, an intense sense of unity is evoked by the delicate harmony of the built environment and the natural world.
The Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is more than simply a chapel; it is a work of art that captures the spirit of harmony with nature, spirituality, and beauty. Its design and importance invite visitors to find comfort, inspiration, and a greater connection to both the built and natural worlds. They also serve as a reminder of the immense impact that architecture can have on the human experience.
The Museum of Modern Art in NYC announces Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, an exhibition dedicated to both realized and unrealized projects that address ecological and environmental concerns by architects who practiced in the United States from the 1930s through the 1990s. On view from September 17, 2023, through January 20, 2024, in the Museum”s Third Floor North Galleries, Emerging Ecologies features over 150 works that reconstruct how the rise of the environmental movement in the US informed architectural practice and thought. Models, photographs, diagrams, and sketches are placed in context with archival materials such as posters, flyers, and articles to showcase innovative, fantastical, dystopian, and daring architectural projects that sought to navigate the fraught relationship between the built and natural environment. The exhibition celebrates the path- breaking environmentally conscious work of architects like Emilio Ambasz, Charles and Ray Eames, and Frank Lloyd Wright, while shining a light on many less familiar, historically significant practices like The New Alchemy Institute, Glen Small, and Mária Telkes. Seven newly commissioned audio recordings that draw inspiration from these little-known projects will feature contemporary practitioners—Mae-ling Lokko, Jeanne Gang, Meredith Gaglio, Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, Amy Chester, Carolyn Dry, and Emilio Ambasz—sharing their thoughts on what contemporary architects can do to mitigate against climate change. By highlighting projects that both foreshadowed and anticipated the ecological effects of overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, and rampant industrial pollution, the exhibition looks to the past to suggest solutions for the future. Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism is organized by Carson Chan, Director, the Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and Natural Environment, and Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, with Matthew Wagstaffe and Dewi Tan, Ambasz Institute Research Assistants, and Eva Lavranou, 12-Month Intern, Ambasz Institute.
Emerging Ecologies presents projects in five thematic groupings that illustrate the development of environmental thinking in architecture: Environment as Information; Environmental Enclosures; Multispecies Design; Counterculture Experiments; and Green Poetics. The exhibition will highlight several different approaches proposed by architects from the 1930s through the 1990s, beginning with an introduction that includes a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Edgar J. Kaufmann House, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1934– 37), which was built before the rise of environmentalism but served as a key inspiration in the pursuit to build in concert with natural systems.
It was, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright who set up the ground for modern architecture to happen in Los Angeles. Then came the Viennese, Rudolph Schindler in 1920 and Richard Neutra in 1925 at the invitation of Schindler. Both worked for Wright choosing to learn from him what they saw as essential—by focusing on spatial and formal clarity, transformability, restrained materiality, and the living environment to achieve a desirable quality of life within. Neutra and Schindler collaborated at first, and then each built a rich portfolio, mainly comprising houses and apartment blocks. Universal in principle, these abstract robust structures defined and led the development of a local building vernacular. These buildings, of which there are several hundred, are now strongly associated with the two architects’ adopted city.
Raymond Neutra, the youngest son of Richard Neutra, discusses Neutra’s friendship with Schindler, the Silver Lake Colony dotted with houses and buildings by both architects, the origin and purpose of “spider legs” in his father’s houses, the iconic Kaufmann House, the architect’s desire to open up his buildings, and the mission of Neutra Institute.
Raymond Neutra was born in 1939 in his father’s seminal VDL House. Built on a tight 60 by 70-foot lot, this experimental triplex overlooks Silver Lake in the east-central area of Los Angeles. The house, Richard Neutra’s true laboratory, was built in three stages—in 1932, 1940, and finally in 1966, following the 1963 fire that destroyed much of the house. Apart from Neutra’s family, the VDL House accommodated the architect’s office and two renters—a family with a child and a lady who shared her bathroom with the drafting room. The house is a National Historic Landmark and serves as a platform for exchanging and exploring ideas in art and architecture. The residence is under the stewardship of the College of Environmental Design and the Department of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. It is open for tours by appointment.
The Fine Arts Building looks as if it has been at 410 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago, IL forever — even though tenants have come and gone, of course. But the building itself remains a constant presence, seemingly living up to the inscription etched in the entranceway: ALL PASSES—ART ALONE ENDURES. Tenant Blair Thomas acknowledges the significance of the building by asserting that it is “more powerful” than any one person; that it is “greater than the individual artist.” He pauses for a moment to offer his own take on the motto. “I don’t think all art endures,” he says, “but artistic impulses endure. Creativity endures.” He pauses again. “We’re all temporal.”
In October, the building, which was declared a Chicago landmark in 1978, will celebrate its 125th anniversary with public events that will include a free concert in the Studebaker Theater as well as additional performances and demonstrations throughout the building. Mayor Brandon Johnson even proclaimed October 13, 2023, to be Fine Arts Building Day in the city. For those who want to learn more about the building’s past, a permanent exhibit on the fourth floor chronicles the history of the building while historic plaques are mounted outside many of the studios.
The Fine Arts Building was one of two arts colonies in Chicago when it opened in 1898. The other was the Tree Studios in a neighborhood once called Towertown because of its proximity to the historic Water Tower. (Today we know it as the more prosaic River North.) The Tree Studios lost its art colony status years ago while Fine Arts retains its landmark status and its link to arts-related businesses.
The building owes its existence to the Studebaker Brothers, wagon and carriage makers based in South Bend, Indiana––the same family that manufactured the famous Studebaker cars. The Studebakers acquired the land that the building stands on in 1885. The following year the family hired renowned architect S. S. Beman—who designed the Pullman community on the far South Side as well as the still-standing Kimball Mansion in the Prairie Avenue Historic District—to build them a showcase building that would attract attention. And a showcase it was: an eight-story architectural wonder consisting of four stories for their showroom and four stories where the brothers could assemble their carriages. An annex was built next door but even so the success of their carriage business outgrew the space, which led to a larger building on South Wabash Avenue to store and display their carriages, leaving Beman’s masterwork essentially empty. Enter Charles C. Curtiss.
Inspired by Tree Studios, Curtiss, the son of James Curtiss, a former Chicago mayor, persuaded the Studebakers to convert the building into a 10-story complex of artists and artist-related studios, essentially creating a high-rise arts colony in the heart of Michigan Avenue. Given its location––its neighbor was the Auditorium Theatre––it seemed like a reasonable idea. Two floors were added and a six-story open space called Venetian Court created in the center of the building. Upper floors were dedicated to artist studios and galleries as well as various clubs and organizations. To cap it off, the building was given a new name that reflected Curtiss’ vision: the Fine Arts Building. Curtiss Hall on the tenth floor is named after him.
During its early years, the building was the home to architects, artists, writers, publishers, illustrators, booksellers, musicians, art galleries, bookbinders, sheet music publishers, and more—many of them household names to this day. L. Frank Baum and William W. Denslow collaborated on The Wonderful World of Oz in their tenth floor studios. For a few short years Room 1020 was the studio of an obscure architect by the name of Frank Lloyd Wright. Sculptor Lorado Taft, best known today as the designer of Fountain of Time at the west end of the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, also had a studio on the same floor and there were plenty of others to keep him and the others company.
The Fine Arts Building has been home to several bookstores since it opened. Frank Lloyd Wright designed Browne’s Bookstore in Room 733 (Browne was also the founder and editor of the Dial). With its fireplace, long reading room, and armchairs, Margaret Anderson called it “the most beautiful bookshop in the world.” And it was at Browne’s, she noted, where tea was served “and everyone was smart. All Chicago society came to Browne’s Bookstore.”
The Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a public event, on Friday, October 13, from 5 to 9pm, which will open all ten floors of the artists’ studios. For more information, see www.fineartsbuilding.com.
If you'd like to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright's connection to the Fine Arts Building, then be sure to order a copy of the OA+D Journal on the topic!