Conde Nast Traveler twice named Mason City, Iowa, to its list of “World’s Best Cities for Architecture.” The Midwestern metropolis keeps prestigious company, with Paris, Dubai, Istanbul and Miami making the same list. Why was Mason City included?
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style of housing is part of the reason. The Park Inn Hotel he designed, which opened in 1910, underwent an enormous restoration prior to reopening in 2011 to emphasize its status as the last remaining hotel that Wright designed. In addition, the Stockman House was a custom Wright design for a local physician and his wife: It, too, has been restored and is now open for tours.
But the historic William C. and Margaret Egloff House is at the top of the list of reasons. It was the first house where a two-stall garage was positioned at the front, rather than behind in an alley. The 1939 World’s Fair made much of this positioning as the wave of the future, recognizing America’s increasing love of automobiles.
Egloff House is a rare example of the International Style of architecture and features such details as a wall of glass block windows, built-in dressers and rounded corner shelving, a smokestack fireplace and a recreation room that resembles the inside of a ship, with porthole windows and an inlaid rubber compass on the floor. These details may have been included because William Egloff loved to sail, though local lore believed he was in the U.S. Navy. He had actually served in the Army Air Force Medical Corps.
Because the house is a treasure in so many ways, in 2008, after a flood had damaged the house, volunteers successfully moved it to its current location between the Park Inn Hotel and the Rock Crest/Rock Glen Historic District. Obviously, this was no small project, and it could not be quickly achieved. Robin Anderson, president and CEO of the Mason City Chamber of Commerce, and Steven VanSteenhuyse, development services director, shared details.
Anderson said, “This was a huge undertaking, and not one part went smoothly. The group that took this project on was comprised of five volunteers, and they all had full-time jobs. We did not have the necessary expertise and had no future need for the lessons learned to save this historic structure. But to avoid demolition it had to be moved, and due to its enormous size, it had to be cut into two pieces with diamond blade saws and moved it to its new location. Then, en route, it would need to cross a historic bridge that could not withstand the weight, so it became necessary to build a ‘bridge over the bridge’ just for the move.”
“Mason City lost 163 homes in that 2008 flood, second in Iowa only to Cedar Rapids,” he continued. “To provide architectural context and save additional housing stock, we purchased and moved three additional homes from the Park Place neighborhood and relocated them along the Architectural Walking Tour in the new Egloff House neighborhood. This necessitated purchasing a bunch of crack houses that were already either white-tagged by the city or otherwise uninhabitable.”
“Our architecture is important,” VanSteenhuyse added. We have the only remaining hotel designed by Wright, plus a prairie-style house. His work was unique and very important, and we didn’t want it to be destroyed. Egloff House was significant enough to be moved. And we got tax credits beginning just as the 2008 recession started.”
Mason City had devised a program through which it would move historic homes to save what is irreplaceable once lost, and those credits were a big part of it.
But, Anderson said, “We learned not to trust cost estimates that were provided to us prior to taking on this project. Everything was complicated, cost more and took longer than we had been told it would. We faced many difficult issues and some of them are yet to be resolved.”
Chief among the challenges was that bridge over a bridge. The Egloff House Move Feasibility Study had not considered the issue of crossing the 100-year-old Carolina Avenue Bridge, which carries major water and sewer lines within its structure.
Most of the potential sites didn’t involve crossing the bridge, and further study concluded that based on truck information such as loads and axle spacing, the bridge was too old to withstand it. The other most likely route involved avoiding railroad underpasses and moving the house sections through residential areas. But any route bypassing the Carolina Bridge would increase the moving costs up to 40%, far beyond the budget for the project. So, a plan was devised to redistribute the weight of the house and cross it.
But the bridge terminates at the south with a sharp incline, and the 92-foot beams on which it was proposed the house would travel would not allow the load to clear the incline. The mover’s engineer developed a plan to utilize temporary reinforcing on top of the Carolina Bridge, which would transfer some of the load weight to the underlying bedrock and ease the incline.
With that problem solved, along came another. Mason City had planned to host more than 20,000 bike riders and their support personnel July 23, 2014, on an overnight stop for the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across America. The riders would camp across the river and across the street on cleared buyout space, so it was decided to leave Egloff House on its foundation until the RAGBRAI riders left town and then lift the structure and move it into the street. Then the final demolition occur that would make the lot open-space compliant. RAGBRAI came and went without incident, and the plans continued for moving.
The process hit another snag. Plans had been considered to repair the seam where the house would be split, as well as for the interior layout of the new basement level. But when the foundation excavation began, trouble became apparent. The contractor encountered shallow limestone, which meant chiseling through three feet of rock rather than digging a hole in the dirt.
HVAC was removed and roof drains were rerouted. Interior finishes were removed, and the interior trim was cataloged in order to reinstall it properly. Precautions were taken to avoid asbestos release, and the garage section had to be rolled forward to provide the space needed to finish the severing of the house from the interior walls of the foundation. Finally, the openings were all reinforced and the two halves sealed to prevent any weather damage while the house waited to be moved to its new home.
Moving the other houses purchased at the same time served as a sort of dress rehearsal for the Egloff House move. There was care taken with utilities in the area, which could not be off for other residents for any lengthy period. Those houses were moved in what had been planned for a single day, but actually took several more. Then the move of Egloff House was delayed by heavy rains, which created slippery surfaces. Three days passed before everything was dry enough to proceed safely.
The Egloff House finally began its move Aug. 20, 2015, and completed it three days later. Trees along the route had been trimmed for the previous three houses to move, but the house section of Egloff House was as wide as the city streets: This made getting around corners especially challenging. Height, as well, was an issue.
Once the house settled, Anderson said, “We dug an extra-deep basement and finished it as an apartment for an onsite caretaker. The five bedrooms, four bathrooms, kitchen, rec room and first floor laundry room are utilized as short term furnished housing for students who are assigned to North Iowa as part of their professional training — student teachers, college interns, medical students, physical therapy students, physician assistant students and so on. In the past, employer pools were limited to students who could arrange their own housing. But Mason City doesn’t have any short-term rental property, and there is not an extended stay hotel — a residence inn — within a hundred-mile radius. Although we received our occupancy permit in March 2020, coinciding with the pandemic and quarantine, since early 2021 the occupancy has been very strong.
“This is truly a workforce attraction strategy,” he continued. “These students have a cool place to live, have the opportunity to connect to the community and to each other. And just as we had hoped, they are more likely to accept permanent employment in North Iowa when they complete their course of study. In addition, this is a great model of an adaptive re-use of a historic property. Several of the rooms — living room, office, foyer and dining room — are finished historically, and the house is periodically open to tours.”
The house is now owned by the nonprofit association that took on the work and is managed by the Chamber Foundation.
Although the project received a Judith A. McClure award recognizing outstanding preservation of a residential property, Anderson said, “We don’t seek awards for this project. We are seeking a future workforce.”
“Field of Dreams, cornfields and Meredith Willson — we are the ‘River City’ from ‘The Music Man,’” VanSteenhuyse said. “We’re not far from Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper performed their last show. This is a special place, and we are proud of it.”
Anderson agreed. “In addition to the Meredith Willson attractions and the Historic Surf Ballroom nearby, our art museum has a wonderful collection of American art, including several pieces by Iowan Grant Wood. He sometimes summered in the area.” The museum, she added, also contains the marionettes featured in the puppet scene of “The Sound of Music.” Puppeteer Bil Baird is a graduate of Mason City High School.
“In the end, I think we’re proud that we accomplished our goal of saving this house and transforming a neighborhood. We’re proud of coming up with an adaptive repurpose that is filling a community need, but it was expensive. It was difficult. To any other city considering a project such as this, I would make sure the property is truly significant and worth the effort, because these projects do not always make financial sense.”