n January 1908, the Board of Directors of the City National Bank in Mason City, Iowa, announced plans to further develop the downtown. The Bank would build a new building and hotel in the city center. One of the City National Bank's board members , J. E. E. Markley suggested Frank Lloyd Wright be commissioned. Markley was impressed with Wright's work and thought the young architect would design a structure of exceptional quality. The City National Bank's main competition, the First National Bank, had already built the city's largest building; Markley felt his bank would compete in quality not quantity.
hile Wright was designing the City National Bank, he heard of plans about future developments in Mason City. James Blythe and developer Joshua Melson hoped to work with Wright on these projects.
ut in September 1909, the Mason City plans came to a sudden stop when news of Wright's scandalous departure reached the city. Blythe and Melson were left without an architect to complete their grand development.
wo years later, Joshua Melson contacted Marion Mahony Griffin to see if she would be interested in picking up the pieces. Marion in turned recommended her husband. Within a week Walter visited Mason City, and at the end of the visit a contract was signed giving him complete approval over the development of the property. He talked the developers into building on a site they had previously overlooked because it had been turned into a garbage dump. Griffin envisioned that an 18 acre parcel along Willow Creek would be a beautiful natural setting for a group of houses.
he development would be called Rock Crest, Rock Glen. Griffin's vision was to create a development that would conserve the natural area. He sited all the houses along the perimeter to create the greatest amount of open land along the creek. True to his philosophies on democracy, he insisted the land along the creek was a "commons area" to be enjoyed by all the homeowners. Griffin planned all the houses to face the glen and forbade any out-buildings to be built within the commons area. Griffin's plans for each home incorporated this natural backdrop. Today Rock Crest Rock Glen remains the largest collection of Prairie Style homes surrounding a natural setting.
he first house built on the Rock Glen side was for Harry Page. Using Japanese influences, Griffin fit the building exactly to its site by extending it three floors on the creek side but only two on the street side.
long the State Street bridge, he proposed three houses be built in proportion to the sloping site. Each highlighted his interest in cubic forms, and the middle contained a roof garden. A site was also chosen on the lower creek side for the residence of investor James Blythe.
he James Blythe House was built next to the Page House. It is the most spacious of Griffin's houses in Mason City with a 33-foot living room allowing beautiful views of the glen and creek. Built of hollow tile and reinforced concrete, the exterior of the house is a symmetrical arrangement of blocks. But inside Griffin used the same elements as in most of his Prairie style homes, a flowing floor plan and a floating ceiling. The most striking feature inside is the fireplace. Designed by Marion, it is without a mantle and is decorated with interwoven Italian tile.
n a site opposite of Blythe's, Joshua Melson finally realized his dream of a house along the creek. Wright previous design for Melson was for a beautiful linear home that allowed a good view of the creek. But Griffin created a home that provided more than good views. Griffin's design envisioned a home that was a physical extension of its surroundings. Melson and Marion Mahony became such good friends that she nicknamed him "Don Melancholio" or old sad face. But Marion said that the house was such a success it wiped away the melancholy from Joshua Melson.
he Castle, as it was so dubbed, caused quite a stir among the residents of Mason City. Melson even joked that Griffin would have to pay his electric bill since he felt the need to keep the construction site illuminated all night long to entertain on lookers on the State Street Bridge. Marion claimed that Griffin himself was so overjoyed with the finished product he scaled the cliff side of the house in celebration. A task that certainly would have been quite an accomplishment for the 37 year old architect.