Cerro Gordo County: Not Fade Away
Cerro Gordo County in north-central Iowa, twenty miles from the Minnesota line, has my number. How could anyone not be drawn by its mixed magnetism?: lovely, nostalgic, quirky, and deeply meaningful.
To begin, the county seat is Mason City. That’s right, the place thinly disguised as “River City” in native son Meredith Wilson’s musical The Music Man, source of “Till there Was You” and all those songs I loved to sing as a kid. Mason City is also the location of the last remaining hotel of six designed by Prairie School architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
About 10 miles west, connected by the umbilical cord of Highway 122, is the town of Clear Lake. That’s the location of the Surf Ballroom, a legendary dance hall I’d always hoped to visit. Buddy Holly, J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson and Richie Valens played their last gig there before a short but fatal plane ride ended in a nearby corn field. Songwriter Don McLean commemorated this event with his song “American Pie.” The musicians and 21-year-old local pilot Roger Peterson are honored by a low-key memorial at the spot where the plane hit a fence line.
These are genuine claims to renown, but it’s the name “Cerro Gordo” that actually struck me first. As in most states, Iowa counties bear names like Jackson, Washington and Adams and include some local explorers like Dubuque and Native Americans references, such as Black Hawk and Cherokee. But Cerro Gordo is the name of a battle in the Mexican-American war, fought in 1847. General Winfield Scott defeated famed Mexican General Santa Anna: apparently this news excited enough folks so that when Iowans needed to name a county in 1851, they dubbed it Cerro Gordo.
Fifty years later, Meredith Wilson was born here. He composed and wrote The Music Man in 1957, setting it in the time of his Mason City boyhood, 1912. The show premiered on Broadway and five years later, 1962, the movie starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones was released. In the tale, con man Harold Hill masquerades as a traveling marching-band leader. He sells instruments—such as those “76 Trombones”—and band uniforms to the unsuspicious townsfolk, planning to skip off with the cash and leave the locals not just unmusical but broke. In River City, however, Marian “the Librarian” sees through his ploy but falls in love with him anyway, as he does with her, which makes him rethink his flim-flam plan.
The city so embraced the musical that a local museum features set pieces from the film’s streetscape. Festivals celebrating Wilson and his creation bring visitors, marching bands, and music lovers of all sorts to downtown Mason City every year. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the movie, so celebrations are in double time.
It was during the same period that fictional River City underwent its drama that City National Bank in Mason City determined it could use a better building. It happened that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed Wisconsin’s Hill Top School, attended by a daughter of one of the City National board member’s daughters. The school was renamed Taliesin II, after Wright’s studio. The bank board member, also an attorney, liked the architecture so much that he hired Wright to build not only the bank but his own law offices and a hotel all in one structure. Although Wright designed the building, he left it to his associate William Drummond to build to his specifications. Wright did not return to Mason City to view the result or spend time in the hotel.
All three businesses in the building opened in 1910. Wright’s fetish for tight entryways proved impractical for a hotel, so in 1915 the lobby was redesigned and the mezzanine removed to create one large room. In 1917 the law offices moved to another location in Mason City. Then in the early 1920s a farm crisis hit Mason City hard and the City National Bank even harder. The building sold through foreclosure in 1926. The new owners drastically changed the structure, adding a story and retail space and replacing the exterior brick with large plate glass so passersby could window shop. Bringing the structure “up to date,” as Meredith Wilson might have said, had a terrible result, at least in the minds of those who favor structural longevity and architecture in which original form follows intended function.
Fast forward to 2005: Devoted local Mason Citians were determined to save the hotel, which for years had hosted mostly pigeons and spiders. As the building was on the National Register of Historic Places, the group Wright on the Park had a firm base for its efforts. Led by an energetic board, with a retired CEO as executive director, Wright on the Park raised funds faster than you can say “Taliesin.” According to executive director Ann MacGregor, the group purchased the building, directed an 18.5 million restoration, and opened the doors to guests in 2011.
MacGregor, who gave us a tour of the building, said that various programs from the state of Iowa contributed about 44 percent of the funds, with a mix of corporate donations and assorted gifts of “five dollars from Mrs. Joe Blow” filling in the rest. Visitors from 22 different countries and 49 states have stayed at the hotel just in the past year.
Renovation and restoration work was completed with lightning speed, though some is still ongoing. Considering all the authenticating details, down to the pattern of the plaster and color of the floor tiles, it is no wonder that artisans-at-work seemed more plentiful than guests the afternoon of our visit. Taking a break from inspecting the building outside and in, we lounged for awhile in the restored Skylight Room. MacGregor speculated that the original skylight panels might have been removed in the 1920s because they leaked. But where did they go? In a twist right out of a Broadway musical, it turns out they’d been stored all those years in the attic of a Mason City home designed by another Prairie School architect. Various occupants of the home had wondered what those large glass panels in the attic were, but fortunately no one disposed of them. Coincidentally, a Wright on the Park member eventually purchased the home. Aha! Shortly thereafter, the skylights went in, with only a few cracks to indicate they’d spent time in storage.
MacGregor came out retirement to work on this project and knew its details intimately. Yet she said she “couldn’t begin to judge” what the economic or social impacts of the restored hotel had been or would be on Mason City. She meant this literally. She was focused on the architectural details —the smartly constructed “waist” connecting the building’s original three functions, the art glass windows, the barrel chairs and library tables that Wright designed himself, the statue of Mercury lights that had illuminated bank teller boxes. When I asked her to tell me why anyone should find it important that a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel had been restored, she looked at me as if I had a crack in my own skylight.
“Because it’s Frank Lloyd Wright!”
She ticked off a list: The man who so influenced modern architecture that his “organic” aesthetic is immediately recognizable, even if designed by a follower. The man who has more books and societies and scholarship devoted to him than any other architect. The man who once wrote, “If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.” To her list I silently added, the man of whom Simon and Garfunkel sang, “When I run dry I stop awhile and think of you.”
Later that night, we sat in a Clear Lake tiki bar overlooking the white-capped lake, soaking in the pink flamingos, party lights and endless Jimmy Buffet soundtrack. I considered Wright’s central idea of beauty and its manifestation in the architecture of a bank/hotel/law office – and in the 1930s Polynesian-modern of the Surf Ballroom with its wood booths, clamshell-shaped dance floor and green room walls signed by decades of performers. The Surf still holds regular concerts but also operates as a museum during daylight hours. I’ve long held the somewhat mystical belief that theater spaces contain the energy of all the stories ever told there. As I stood alone on that stage with only a mirror ball and some softly gelled stage lights for illumination, I could hear that world roar, just as if I held a seashell to my ear, evoking a distant ocean.
Earlier that day I’d stood at the site that memorializes the four plane crash victims. When I slipped my head through the open lens of the giant “Buddy Holly” glasses marking the turnoff from the gravel road, I imagined the show these musicians played at the Winter Dance party’s stop at the Surf. I wondered if the crowd had loved them, if the bands had had a good time. Then we strolled the trail, tight between the fence line and the newly planted corn, to the plane crash site, which the landowner generously makes available to visitors.
We stood at the exact spot the plane nosed down whole, on an arctic February 3, 1959, consuming the lives of four men in wreckage that wouldn’t be discovered until the following morning. Standing there, I thought about how we erect monuments to big ideas, or loved ones, or to the doings of flim-flam artists who come to con only to be seduced by honesty. I added to the little memorial, tossing my pair of sunglasses near a dandy guitar cutout a fan had crafted from steel. Memorial sustains, just like beauty, art, and architecture, I thought. Or as Buddy Holly sang in my head, “a love for real, not fade away.”