From time to time, I run across an idea so cool, stunning, and creative that I just have to share it. And, suggest that it be done here in Racine.
A few weeks ago, a visit to my home state of Iowa included a stop in Mason City. It’s a smallish city (population 27,800) situated on the prairie in the north-central part of the state. One thing that caught my attention was the utility boxes throughout its downtown area.
Utility boxes are those things that hold electrical switching gear for traffic signals, street lights, and the like. You see them all the time and probably never pay much attention. At worst, utility boxes are magnets for graffiti. At best, they’re boring – usually painted an unobtrusive, mundane beige or green.
But not in downtown Mason City, Iowa. The utility boxes there are wrapped in a vinyl sheeting material bearing colorful, dramatic Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired geometric designs. Those things are works of art.
When I followed up with Robin Anderson, Mason City Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, I learned that those decorated utility boxes are part of the city’s overall branding initiative.
Mason City, like Racine, has a strong Frank Lloyd Wright connection. The only surviving Wright-designed hotel in the world has been restored and welcomes guests in downtown Mason City. A private home, designed by Wright, was saved from the wrecking ball and is now open for tours. The city also has a small neighborhood of Prairie-style architecture homes designed by several architects who were Wright contemporaries a century ago.
The local chamber of commerce has embraced all this beautiful, existing architecture by promoting the painting of huge, colorful geometric design murals on the walls of downtown buildings. A sizable array of outdoor sculptures has also been installed in the downtown Mason City commercial districts in recent years. All this activity has boosted the city’s profile with tourists and sparked civic pride.
It also led to Mason City’s artful utility boxes.
“Ugly utility boxes have always annoyed me,” Anderson said. Then, one day, she noticed that one of the chamber members had applied the same mural design from his building wall to his delivery truck.
“It got me to thinking that perhaps we could use the same technology used to create vehicle wraps (and that material) to ‘wrap’ our ugly utility boxes. It worked!” she said.
The Mason City Chamber of Commerce hired a graphic artist to develop the Wright-inspired, durable vinyl wraps that were made and applied by a local sign company. The results are stunning.
This leads me to the question – why NOT here?
The Racine area has a considerably more celebrated Frank Lloyd Wright connection than does Mason City. The SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower in Racine and the Wingspread Conference Center in Wind Point are known worldwide. Architecture fans are also familiar with the Wright-designed Thomas Hardy House along South Main Street and the Johnson-Boyd House on Valley View Drive.
Heaven knows, we have lots of utility boxes!
More importantly, there are sections of Racine that would be well suited for utility box beautification. I’m thinking of the Downtown Racine, Uptown, and Douglas Avenue business districts. Each could have its own distinctive utility box design. I’ll leave it to others to work out the creative details, but a Wright-inspired design in at least one of the three areas is a natural.
I bring up the Downtown, Uptown, and Douglas areas because each has an existing funding mechanism called a Business Improvement District, or BID, that could help pay for the development and installation of the artfully wrapped utility boxes.
So, take another look at the photos accompanying this column and imagine this initiative making Racine a prettier place to live, work, and play. Let’s make it happen!