Right here in River City: An Iowa Community at the Prairie School’s Edge
A review of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City by Roy R. Behrens
By Jerome Klinkowitz
1. Mason City, Iowa hosts the highest concentration of integrated Prairie School architecture in the world. Between 1908 and 1916 coherent groupings of commercial and residential buildings took their place on the quite literal Midwestern prairie as designed by the cream of the crop of young Chicago architects innovating in the direction first proposed by Louis Sullivan. On a corner of the downtown square Frank Lloyd Wright produced a three-part structure that wrapped around the intersection of two principal streets to house a bank, a hotel, and a connecting set of office and retail space. He tossed in a home for friends of his developer clients. Nearby, his former associates Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony envisioned and mostly realized a gathering of Prairie Style homes uniquely situated with an eye to each other and to the larger landscape. Another Wright associate, William Drummond, superintended the commercial project and designed a home for a second friend of the developers. Barry Byrne, a fourth alumnus of this informally organized school, finished up Griffin and Mahony’s work after they had won an international contest to design the capital city of Canberra and left for Australia to see it built. Duties for completing the final house were given to a young local, Einar Broaten, who in coming decades would extend the Prairie School influence into other northern Iowa towns.
2. The results read like a catalogue of modern American architecture at its inception. Wright’s City National Bank and Park Inn, its connecting unit of offices and store, plus his Stockman House; Griffin and Mahony’s Rock Crest/Rock Glen neighborhood; Drummond’s Yelland House; Byrne’s and Broaten’s finishing touches to Rock Crest and Rock Glen, with homes on each side of its unifying central stream and common area—all of it qualifies Mason City as one of the most interesting and important architectural destinations in America. Since 2011 there has been a purpose-built free-standing Architectural Interpretive Center named for Dr. Robert E. McCoy, the orthopedic surgeon who took early retirement from his practice to save the Stockman House, publicize the Rock Crest/Rock Glen neighborhood (where he and his family live in the original Blythe House, the development’s anchor), and help begin efforts to preserve Wright’s commercial complex.
3. How did all this happen? Mason City was not as far from Chicago as one might think, even in the twentieth century’s first decade. The town’s major rail link was with Chicago, not just for goods but for news and travel as well. Developer and bank board member James E. E. Markley had a daughter in the Hillside Home School run by Frank Lloyd Wright’s aunts, and would send another daughter there soon; moreover, his mother-in-law was an acquaintance of Wright’s uncle, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a frequent visitor for Unitarian religious events. So in terms of the era’s forward looking Progressive movement, everything was up-to-date in Mason City. If there were conservative elements involved, they were traditional Midwestern values of family centered home life and shelter, both of which Prairie School architecture championed. Yet in the spirit of homeowner Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, some of the locals may not have known what they were getting. But also like the magically happy ending to Willson’s musical, all turned out well —at least until Wright’s scandalous affair with a client’s wife in his own Oak Park, Illinois neighborhood tarnished his image and opened the way for his associates to finish up his work and plan their own.
4. So far, this story has been told in a small library of excellent books, many of them published in recent years; the most useful of these are listed in this essay’s bibliography. What is new in Roy R. Behrens’s Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City is the design sense behind it. Better yet, Behrens takes that design sense and extends it the last crucial step to make not just the Mason City scene but all of Prairie School architecture hang together as a synthesis of visual and spatial elements. Everyone knows that Louis Sullivan said “form follows function,” and those looking into Wright’s thought remember that he modified his mentor’s phrase to read “form and function are one.” By making the point even more basically, that “form functions,” Behrens qualifies this type of architecture as one of “enduring value,” the quality “of any design, regardless of whether the subject at hand is architectural, graphic, product design or whatever” (17).
5. The right to make this judgment is established in the first chapter of his book, but the foundation for it is Behrens’s seminal essay, “How Form Functions: On Esthetics and Gestalt Theory,” published in Gestalt Theory 24 (2002): 317-25. Italicize the word how and note that the term “functions” is given in the plural and you have the keys to the author’s insight, both for his essay and for his Mason City book. Again, anyone in the least familiar with Wright’s work understands how crucial were the components of educator Friedrich Froebel’s kindergarten exercises with geometric blocks and the great architect’s idealization of their shapes: the cube and its square as integrity, the sphere and its circle as infinity, the cylinder combining both with the straight line of rectitude. The great architect used these shapes to divine to the abstract principles informing nature, and hence as the organic structures of his art. Behrens takes this understanding and applies it to the City National Bank and Park Inn with their connecting unit of offices and stores, showing how the bank’s and the hotel’s contrasting rectilinear forms are synthesized by the “waist” that joins them (80-81). In a similar manner he reviews the forces for unity in Wright’s understanding of the work, from the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman to the long tradition of Unitarianism in this mother’s family, and demonstrates how this makes his buildings what they are. “Each part should function as a whole, a discrete fragment,” Behrens indicates, “while at the same time contributing to a larger unit, a unified reality” (p. 40). No scholar has identified both the process of organic architecture and its sources more succinctly or with such clarity of thought.
6. The most recent of Wright scholarship makes the case that organic architecture, so popular now in the century after Wright’s achievement, effectively bypasses the high modernism of the International Style that opposed it in favor of a contemporary manner of thought. Behrens follows the same path in establishing his own understanding of how Prairie School work functions. Without citing Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, he nevertheless enunciates the principles by which both Saussure and Wright, working independently at the time, pioneered the notion that individual components (whether of language or of design) can only work together successfully when operating as functional units in a coherent grammar. Philosophically, this understanding did not start shaping thought and its resultant products until the age of deconstruction more than fifty years after the two men had begun their work; even then it was resisted until near the twentieth century’s end. Behrens cites this key example from Frank Lloyd Wright himself:
Every house worth considering as a work of art must have a grammar of its own. “Grammar,” in this sense, means the same thing as in any construction—whether it be of words or of stone or wood. It is the shape-relationship between the various elements that enter into the constitution of the thing. The “grammar” of the house is its manifest articulation of all its parts. … Consistency in grammar is therefore the property—solely—of a well-developed artist-architect. (53)
Apparently so simple and obvious, this manner of thought in fact obviates the self-described modern architecture Wright despised, and which had little tolerance for Wright’s own work. Today it is different. Beginning with the great revival of Wright studies following his wife’s death in 1985, his own work and that of an entirely new generation of organic architects is seen as the dominant style, one that corresponds to parallel developments in all the arts and society at large.
7. From Behrens’s training as a designer comes another of this book’s contributions, a demonstration of how the grid lines for planning a layout operation work just as well for Wright’s bank and hotel as they do for such classic exercises as the painting of Whistler’s mother and Klimt’s Portrait of Fritza Riedler. While the line distribution of the Klimt painting shows best when superimposed on Wright’s contemporaneous Robie House in Chicago, the bank and hotel present a perfect complement when viewed together, as they are when looking south. Here Wright sets up a “web of rhymes,” as Behrens aptly puts it, “by aligning the overhanging roofs; by matching the heights and proportions of various key components; by repeating the widths and thicknesses of horizontal concrete bands; by the continuity of color (including, on the upper floors, colored terra-cotta tiles); by the selective positioning of abstract art glass windows; and by the repeated use of the same building materials (especially brick, concrete, and glass).” (83-84).
8. And then there is the author’s eye, so adept in expressing the visual in verbal terms. Can a word be worth a thousand pictures? Only artists who know how to write so well can suggest this, as Behrens does when he addresses Wright’s problem of making the desired effect of the bank as a “strong box” harmonize with its “markedly different topmost floor of inviting, well-lit offices” (84). Each principle was dear to Frank Lloyd Wright; his banks looked safe, and his offices were open, bright, and happy places in which to work. How could they be combined in Mason City? Behrens solves the puzzle much as the architect did, by anticipating where the eye will go when taking in the structure, being drawn to the topmost frieze of windows as the last of three horizontal bands of fenestration for the office portion:
Viewed from the street, this creates the impression of a structure of two equal layers. The effect is reinforced in the upper half by a sequence of thirty-two brick pillars—six of which run across the front and rear, with ten each spaced along the sides. Because of those square-shaped pillars (or columns) the top half of the building appears to be just as substantial as the half below.
In the end, the building’s bottom portion (the so-called strong box) appears to be reassuringly thick, as one would expect of the wall of a bank, yet the top is conspicuously playful because of its colorful art glass windows and ornate interplay of tiles (85).
9. Behrens is a capable scholar as well. He knows the latest work that has been done on the Prairie School, and for Walter Burley Griffin’s great achievement in designing the Rock Crest/Rock Glen neighborhood he turns to what impresses him as one of the “most vivid accounts” of this former Wright associate’s success with the Melson House, the Rock Crest structure that towers above the development. The source is Alasdair McGregor, whose 2009 study Behrens quotes:
Rather than approaching the cliff in Melson’s site as something to be feared and avoided—as if seized by an attack of architectural vertigo—Griffin designed his building to erupt in a burst of vertical rock, all the way from its Silurian foundations. This was no Prairie School expression of ground-hugging horizontally topped with wide eaves and a prominent pitched roof. Instead, in its profound respect for both the terrain and materials garnered from the site, it was a masterly essay in organic design. (105)
In Griffin’s work, with Mahony as a silent partner, organic architecture would grow in another direction from Wright’s, and it is to Behrens’s credit that his comprehension of the movement reaches well beyond the limits that some commentators would impose.
10. In sum, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City is a superb study of what a stellar group of architects accomplished in the Iowa locale, not to mention the vision of the locals who recruited and employed them. As a notice to mariners, a few minor errors should be posted. Frank Lloyd Wright built three home studios during his career: the Oak Park, Illinois complex from his early years, Taliesin in Wisconsin in 1911, and Taliesin West in Arizona commencing in 1937 to serve during successive winters. On page 44 Behrens misnames the second place as “Taliesin East,” a term Wright and others used in the 1950s for his semi-permanent suite in New York City’s Plaza Hotel, where he lived and worked for periods while supervising construction of his Guggenheim Museum. More disconcerting is that the photo identified as the rebuilt Taliesin (after its 1914 destruction by fire) is in fact the untouched Home School facility from 1902. Other photos are not supplied that would have been helpful, such as interiors of the City National Bank; nor is the stunningly panoramic presentation panel drawn by Marion Mahony for Rock Crest/Rock Glen included. But these illustrations are readily available in other books on the Mason City projects, as listed below. Finally, a testament to the lost art of proofreading is the month when Wright absconded with his client’s wife, the most notorious act in his widely controversial life; Behrens has it successively as October (35), September (99), and once again October (119); but then, Frank and his new flame surely had other things on their mind than the calendar. The love of Walter Burley Griffin’s life, Marion Mahony, married him the year after this, in 1911, because Walter had given up on courting Wright’s little sister and Marion despaired of a better relationship with Frank, with whom she’d created an aura of magic during their Oak Park Studio days. Behrens has her dying in 1961 in his text (119), which is correct, but 1962 in his Chronology (128). The important fact is that he understand thoroughly how important were her contributions to both Griffin’s and Wright’s careers, how both contributions were until recent years neglected, and how her quarter century after Griffin’s death were years of deep sadness and disappointment.
11. Most winningly among toilers in the open fields of Prairie School scholarship is Behrens’s success at adding something new, always a challenge for those who write on such a popular topic. For more than a century it has been assumed that Frank Lloyd Wright never returned to see his City National Bank and Park Inn as completed in 1911, given the scandal he caused in 1909 and his serial notoriety for decades afterwards. On an internet auction Behrens has found a postcard purportedly written by Wright in 1941 that indicates a planned visit. No one knows if it happened. One would like to think that it did, and that the Grand Old Architect appreciated the scene in Mason City as much as the author does in this book.
Behrens, Roy R. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie. Charleston, SC: History Press/Arcadia Publishing, 2016. https://www.amazon.com/Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Mason-City/dp/1467118605
Bang, Peggy L. The Melson House Revealed: An Owner’s Perspective. Mason City, IA: ControlPrint Creative, 2015.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Frank Lloyd Wright and His Manner of Thought. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.
Korporaal, Glenda. Making Magic: The Marion Mahony Griffin Story. Sydney, Australia: Oranje Media, 2015.
Kruty, Paul, and Robert E. McCoy, Paul E. Sprague, and James Weireck. Rock Crest/Rock Glen, Mason City, Iowa: The American Masterwork of Marion M. and Walter B. Griffin. St. Louis, MO: Walter Burley Griffin Society of America, 2014.
Kruty, Paul, and Mati Maldre. Walter Burley Griffin in America. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
McCoy, Robert E., and Jim Smith, eds. Mason City Walking Tour. Mason City, IA: River City Society for Historic Preservation, 2012.
McGregor, Alasdair. Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Lantern/Penguin Books, 2009.
Schultz, Pat, ed. The Historic Park Inn Hotel and National City Bank. Mason City, IA: Wright on the Park, Inc. 2010.
Schultz, Pat, and Dana Thomas and Scott Borcherding. Wright Again: Transforming Frank Lloyd Wright’s City National Bank and Hotel. Mason City, IA: Wright on the Park, Inc., 2012.
Van Zanten, David, ed. Marion Mahony Reconsidered. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Wilson, Richard Guy, and Sidney K. Robinson. The Prairie School in Iowa. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1977.
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