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The death of Mason City's Wagner-Mozart Music Hall
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The death of Mason City's Wagner-Mozart Music Hall

Wagner-Mozart Music Hall

The Wagner-Mozart Music Hall once sat at First Street Northeast and Delaware Avenue in downtown Mason City. It opened in 1934 and stayed open for almost 50 years. 

When the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall opened on Sunday, Nov. 4, 1934, at First Street Northeast and Delaware Avenue in downtown Mason City, some 850 people from at least six states, including delegates from the National Music Association, showed up to hear the high school band play. Tickets for the event were 50 cents a pop and the money raised was to cover the costs of new uniforms for school band members. 

One attendee in good spirits, Bob Shepherd, an editor of the "School Musician" publication, said that the Kasota stone building would "have a far reaching influence on school music in this country."

About 48 years after that opening night, the building was gone. It was knocked down to clear room for a new office building for the Pioneer Federal Savings and Loan Association of Mason City which lasted even less time there as the space is now a parking lot used by the Mason City Farmers Market. Though the music hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 that designation wasn't enough to spare it from the wrecking ball. 

Wagner-Mozart Music Hall Concert

The all-school band is seen performing inside the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall in May 1957. Reports throughout its history called it "one of the few public school buildings in the United States used exclusively for instrumental music."

Last days

"I think I was probably in the last generation to play there," said Katrina Bowen, an archivist and historian for the Mason City Public Library. 

Bowen's limited memories of the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall come from time spent playing the flute in fourth grade concerts and rehearsals around about 1977. The three things that still come to mind for her are the noticeable lack of air conditioning, the stifling and smelly band uniform and the sound of the space itself. 

"The acoustics were amazing. It sounded really good in there," Bowen said. 

Wagner-Mozart Music Hall- Perfect acoustics

Along with being touted for its sole dedication to instrumental music, the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall, designed by the firm Hansen and Waggoner, received praise for its acoustics. 

Though the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall opened in 1934 with the superlative claim of being a first of its kind public school building in the United States dedicated solely to the performance of instrumental music, by Bowen's time it could no longer make such a claim. 

In fact, as early as November 1966 NIACC students in the psychology department were making use of the space. Flash forward to 1971 and the luster of the venue seemed to have been lost even for local music aficionados.

"The old Wagner-Mozart Music Hall and the new facilities in Mason City High are fine, but they can accommodate 250 persons at the most- and they really aren’t designed for that purpose," former Mason City High School Band Director Paul Behm, who brought state and national recognition to the program, wrote in a November 24 opinion piece for the Globe Gazette.

The piece also notes that Behm's hopes were tied up in securing a 1,200-seat music theater and concert hall as part of a Mason City community center. Eight years later, in 1979, Mason City did get the North Iowa Community Auditorium. Now the NIACC Auditorium, it can hold 1,200 people. And there's the Mason City Arena which is meant for multipurpose usage and has a capacity of 4,200 but a community center with such a space is non-existent in 2021. 

The best the nation affords

During the runup to Wagner-Mozart Music Hall's opening in November 1934, the only "lament" about the locale was that there weren't others like it in town named after composers such as Antonín Dvořák, who spent time in North Iowa where he the wrote the "American Quartet", and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

In an alternate universe, those names could've been chosen. An article from Saturday, Nov. 3, 1934, reports that the name "Wagner-Mozart Music Hall" was chosen by architects Harry Hansen and Karl Waggoner because it would fit the decorative scheme of the building which measured 75-by-91 feet. 

"Originally other names were to be included as well but, for financial reasons, that didn’t happen," the article goes on to report.

However, the designs were able to include: a large room with a graduated stage for the band and orchestra to practice as well as a room for the stringed instruments, four practice rooms, a musical library, two additional rooms and an office all on one floor with no basement and built by local labor

An Oct. 20, 1934, article reported that when the various bands first started unloading equipment into those rooms they cheered "On to the new building." A day later, the Mason City Civic Orchestra had the first ever rehearsal there. Less than a week later, the first practice of the Mason City High School Band happened.

A 2007 article about "Mason City’s Music Men" from Kristin Buehner notes that two national broadcasts were presented from the music hall: One on June 5, 1938 and the other on Jan. 25, 1942. 

Wagner-Mozart Music Hall first mention

This newspaper clipping of the Globe Gazette from Sept. 1, 1934 includes what's likely the first reference of the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall in downtown Mason City.

Why must this go?

By 1978, when the venue was added to the National Register, there was a different rallying cry for the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall: "Let's fight to save it!"

That campaign was organized by the Committee to Save Wagner-Mozart Music Hall. In a leaflet from September of that year, the group wrote that "some people want to destroy this landmark."

A year later, Pioneer's agreement to purchase the site was completed. The offer to buy the place came in at about $310,000. 

Pioneer- Wagner-Mozart Music Hall

Architects look at the concept of a new office building for Pioneer Federal Savings and Loan Association which replaced the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall in 1982.

In 1981, Mason City officials raised questions about the bonding process Pioneer pursued for the project, which was meant to give the business more office space, but those queries were eventually answered.

Then, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 1982, demolition crews started plucking the first pieces from the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall. A photo caption from the Globe Gazette's Jeff Heinz noted that: "The building – long the practice and recital hall for hundreds of young musicians – is among several on a downtown site previously owned by the Mason City School District now being torn down to make way for a new office building for Pioneer Federal Savings and Loan Association of Mason City."

By Thursday only the entry way of the decades-old building still remained.

Wagner-Mozart Music Hall- Last remains

By February 1982, this was all that remained of the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall which was torn down to make way for a Pioneer Federal Savings and Loan Association building.

"Being designated is not a guarantee against demolition or any changes to the property," Mason City Director of Development Services Steven Van Steenhuyse said.

A slight exception to that is if any federal funds were used for the space. Then there can be a delay where further research and documentation is done.

According to Tricia Sandahl, the city's planning and zoning manager, Mason City's Historic Preservation Commission can work to place a hold on the demolition of a building that's been around 50 years or longer. But those holds are for 60 days.

Van Steenhuyse pointed out that owners can also take steps of their own to preserve historic buildings.

"What happens in some communities, an owner will put a perpetual easement so that basically any future owner will have to maintain that property but that also is a private action. The city doesn’t have the ability to force something like that to occur," Van Steenhuyse said.

Whether or not the city gets involved comes down to money, Van Steenhuyse said. If there's money and energy behind a campaign to save a building, the city will assist. 

The Wagner-Mozart Music Hall isn't actually the only building in Mason City that got listed on the National Register and then torn down. Both the F.M. Norris House, at 108 Fourth St. NE, and the C.P. Shipley House, at 114 Third St. NW, were designated and later demolished.

"It’s always sad to see a big house go down. But to me the Wagner-Mozart was the real loss," Commission Chair Terry Harrison said. When Harrison first got to town, he said that he looked all over for the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall only to end up in a parking lot.

Ice cream ad for Wagner-Mozart Music Hall

Excitement for the opening of the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall was such that this ice cream company actually took out an ad to celebrate.

Where is the trail to lead?

"Once historic buildings are gone, they’re gone. You can’t replace them," Sandahl said. Van Steenhuyse expanded on that idea.

"The reality is that a lot of these older buildings you couldn’t build today without significant expense. Preserving a building is always more sustainable than tearing it down and building it new," he said.

Wagner-Mozart Music Hall's reality when it first opened was about as bright and hopeful as possible. Favorable quotes about it from both local folks and out-of-staters were plentiful. Like this one from John Vance, of Vance Music Company, speaking about the site's opening night and what it would show: "(The) appreciation of our townsmen of the real value of music to our children now and for the future generations."

An Oct. 24, 1934 article further imagined those future generations that the Wagner-Mozart Music Hall could impact.

"Where is the trail to lead? Eventually, if we continue going in the direction we have started, to a greater appreciation of good music on the part of the American people. The type of music taught in the Mason City and other high schools is an assurance of that. And greater appreciation of music is indisputably something the country needs."

Jared McNett covers local government for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Jared.McNett@globegazette.com or by phone at 641-421-0527. Follow Jared on Twitter at @TwoHeadedBoy98.

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In his life, longtime Mason City resident Hob Mason played with Count Basie, hung out with B.B. King and was a Bandfest grand marshal. He also cut a rarer-than-rare record that can now fetch at least $75. 

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