South of the Border

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Photo courtesy of Iowa Tourism Office


Heading south for spring break? Sure! But Daytona Beach may be a petri dish of infection. So…try Iowa.

Steer down I-35 to the Clear Lake exit, then swerve east to Mason City. For fans of Frank Lloyd Wright, it’s like driving into Mecca. It boasts the largest collection of Prairie School architecture in the entire world: 23 notable buildings designed by the master and his disciples. Credit goes to one of the town’s patriarchs, who lobbied for the renowned architect to design a bank and a hotel.

That Park Inn Hotel debuted in 1910 and, following recent decades of disuse, was spruced up and reopened in 2011. Not only was the iconic building saved, so was the town. It led to its River City Renaissance, which includes a sculpture walk (maps available) and a gussied-up Central Park, where a bronze Civil War hero oversees the barbecue grills. Nearby, Northern Steakhouse, launched in 1920, has seen its customer count catapult, too; but the menu still honors its famous Iowa beefsteak with a side of Parmesan-dusted spaghetti.

You’ll find all-American art at the MacNider Art Museum (Chuck Close to Andy Warhol) and “art” of, let’s say, a “different” genre in the collection of town iconoclast Max Weaver, who salutes the detritus of  Mason City—old gas station signs, road repair cones, broken bicycles—forming a rusty collage on a vacant lot.

Grant Wood Studio. Photo courtesy of Tourism Cedar Rapids

Mason City’s second favorite son is celebrated at Music Man Square in a museum dedicated to Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” written about his home town (Mason City = River City, as in “trouble right here….”). A silent-movie theater plays songs he wrote for Charlie Chaplin, his collection of band instruments, and a repro of the 1962 movie set. Linger to tour his Victorian boyhood home. www.visitmasoncityiow.com.

Clear Lake, where you left I-35, is home to the famous Surf Ballroom, since the ’40s known as the “home of rock ‘n’ roll”—and, more somberly, where Buddy Holly played the night the music died—when his plane crashed nearby in 1959. Tour the ballroom, then pay homage at the crash site (ask directions at the Surf), marked by a giant pair of Buddy’s black-framed glasses in the middle of a cornfield, where devotees leave tokens, like a whirligig of revolving Jell-O molds. www.clearlakeiowa.com.

Bop west a few miles to Forest City, where Pilot Knob State Park marks the second-highest point  in all Iowa (you won’t need an oxygen tank). A bigger draw is the world HQ of Winnebago—the biggest manufacturer of mobile homes. On a free tour, you can watch  the behemoths come together, and, if you can spare upwards of $200,000, take home one as a souvenir. www.forestcityia.com.

The Iowa farmer with the pitchfork, the stoic lady in the apron—close to the most-recognized painting in the whole wide world (bested only by “Mona Lisa”). That icon, “American Gothic,” was painted by Iowa homeboy Grant Wood in his Cedar Rapids studio in 1930. It won third place in the Art Institute of Chicago’s contest that year, and there it resides today. But everything else about Grant Wood belongs to Cedar Rapids.

Like Dorothy, the artist discovered there’s no place like home. After studying at our own MCAD and a stint in France, he returned to Cedar Rapids to paint what he knew and loved best: those rolling hills and earnest portraits of the locals.

Inside the city’s Museum of Art you’ll find the world’s largest collection of his work—300 pieces—which hail his skills as a carpenter and metalworker, too (Yes, a corncob chandelier—and a bench produced by students in the high-school woodworking class he taught, where it sat outside the principal’s office, inscribed with the admonishment “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard”) but it’s the paintings that cause your jaw to drop: “Woman with Plant” (his mom in 1929). Landscapes like “Young Corn,” with its corrugated rows.

A few blocks way stands his miniscule loft apartment-cum-studio, which he designed in a sort of Surrealism-Meets-Frank-Lloyd-Wright style of curvy walls and built-ins (but no stove—only a hot plate). He shared the digs with his mother and sister Nan, his frequent models (Nan is “Gothic’s” farmwife). A docent is eager to share a naughty story about his get-even-with-Conservatives painting of Ladies of the D.A.R. (You can giggle at a copy in our own Black Forest Inn).

Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Iowa Tourism Office

His front door, fashioned from a coffin lid, flaunts a clock-face dial that indicates his whereabouts: taking a bath, throwing a party, etc. The adjoining visitors center is the carriage house of a patron who earlier owned the sweeping Brucemoor Estate with its Queen Anne mansion, open to visit. Here, Grant was hired to decorate a sleeping porch for the family’s daughter—a bower of plaster roses and forest creatures for which, in 1924, he was paid $182 (currently worth: $3.5 million).

Highlight—or lowlight—of the gorgeous mansion is a man-cave called the Tahitian Room: an exuberantly tacky homage climaxing in a dripping rain wall. And where other manly men might keep a hunting dog, this guy kept a lion—and not just any lion, but the one from the MGM logo. The fellow—who clearly had connections—was allowed to visit the set while “Gone with the Wind” was being filmed, and to bring his home-movie camera. Today in the Visitors Center you can catch that film capturing Clark Gable sneaking a smoke and Olivia de Havilland touching up her lipstick.

Speaking of movies, a gorgeous downtown movie palace of 1928 has been restored as home of Theatre Cedar Rapids, where Wood was a founding member. Continue to the pretty campus of Coe College, whose library contains Wood’s seven immense mural figures, originally painted to decorate a coffee shop. P.S.: The library also houses works by the likes of Picasso and Matisse.

Do not miss the Veterans Memorial building, where Wood created an immense stained glass window depicting six soldiers—one for each American war—including the shirtless figure representing 1812, rumored to be Wood’s boyfriend. The artist had never worked in glass before, but sped off to Munich for a crash course, which irked Cedar Rapids’ citizens no end—like sleeping with the enemy so soon after World War I.

The surrounding village boasts a treasury of bakeries (think: kolaches), antiques shops, and the Lion Bridge Brewing Company (tour, sip and eat). Cross the iconic Lion Bridge to NewBo, aka New Bohemia, and its meeting place, the NewBo covered market, built during the rehab after the city’s disastrous 2008 flood and today also hosting free gatherings ranging from yoga classes to bike crawls. Across the street, a bookstore rests under a performance space, and beside it, Brewhemia, an artist-forward coffeehouse (breakfast bonanzas like cinnamon rolls far too big to be legal). It looks out upon Raygun, a retail space sporting snarky designs for mugs, towels and T shirts with bold slogans like “Listened to NPR Before It Was Cool” and Kamela’s “I’m Speaking.”

OK, OK, but what to eat? Start munching at the forward Class Act, in the design-y Kirkwood Hotel—on pork ribeye with ginger gastrique and corn fritters, or head to White Star Ale House for brews galore, abetted by entrees like more of that pork that put Iowa on the map. And don’t miss a breakfast at the ultimate diner, Riley’s Café, famed for eggs-plus-meat-plus-biscuits-plus more, with waitresses that call you “Baby” and keep the coffee coming. Obama ate here in 2012 and signed the wall to prove it. www.gocedarrapids.com.

It’s all about the river in the Quad Cities—the quartet of river towns straddling the Mississippi where Iowa meets Illinois. Yet each town boasts its own persona. Rock Island rocks as the party port. Moline is all about John Deere. Bettendorf is a pretty bedroom community bordering Davenport, the largest, which lays claim as the Quad’s arts mecca.

Its Figge Museum showcases modern artists from Andy Warhol to more Grant Wood. The Putnam traces the region’s history via wildlife dioramas and artifacts like homeboy jazz icon Bix Beiderbecke’s golden horn. The German American Heritage Museum tracks immigration from its heyday in 1848 to those escaping Nazi persecution, while the Bucktown Center houses the open-to-visit studios of working artists.

Brucemore, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Iowa Tourism Office

The prize for quirkiness goes to the Palmer Mansion of 1879, built by the founder of Palmer Chiropractic College (after he ran away from home to join the circus and before he bought the first radio station west of the Mississippi and hired Ronald Reagan as sports reporter). It houses Palmer’s eccentric, more-is-never-enough collections, including bronze Buddhas aside a stuffed moose head; the chess set of Czar Nicholas atop furniture made from tree trunks by ex-convicts; and a solarium furnished like a Chinese bordello, sporting ashtrays made from cats who misbehaved.

Visitors are lured to Moline by the iconic green-and-yellow of John Deere. In what’s now the world’ largest combine plant, climb aboard the lobby’s $378,000 model with tires taller than most basketball players. It’s the star of a (thankfully) motorized tour of the 28-acre plant to watch humans and robots at work. Shop for your must-have feed cap or toy tractor, proving the motto true: “It’s not work, it’s a way of life.”

Check out the lifestyle of that fab family at the Deere-Wiman Mansion, which includes show-off-y modern conveniences, like electricity (since 1899) and a power shower with valves for “kidney and liver spray.”

Crossing over to Rock Island, splash away at Whitewater Junction, an indoor water park, or patrol the Broadway Historic District for finds from the Fifties in Fred & Ethel’s Vintage Shop. Grab a cone at Whitey’s Ice Cream or a mug at one of Quad Cities’ craft breweries—including Davenport’s Front Street, the oldest brewpub in the state.

Back in Davenport, Bix Bistro, named for that local jazz legend, anchors the grandly-renovated Hotel Blackhawk of 1915, which, back in the day, hosted bands like Guy Lombardo and Stan Kenton in its elegant Gold Room. The Bix Jazz Festival occurs in August, so float on down! www.visitquadcities.com.

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