The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 16, 2013

Krohn: Signs of the times spoke well

Mankato signs of past sold tires, fixed windows, predicted weather


The Mankato Free Press

---- — In recent weeks the long-standing overhang signs above Miller Motors in Mankato and Mutch Hardware in North Mankato were taken down to make way for redevelopment.

They'd been part of the landscape for many decades, advertising "brakes and alignment" at Miller's and "Window Repair" at Mutch's.

While there to promote a business, many advertising signs hold an iconic place in a community, either through their longevity, the popularity of the business or the sign's design.

Several current Mankato advertising structures have become comfortable pieces of the landscape, including the Tire Associates girl in the swing and the Happy Chef restaurant statue along Highway 169. The Chef statues once dotted the upper Midwest — most of them including a button kids could push to hear the chef talk — when nearly 60 of the restaurants existed. Today, the chef statue in Mankato remains one of the only ones left.

Just down the road from Happy Chef towers perhaps the city's most historically important sign — the lighted sphere atop the Dutler's Bowl sign.

The dramatic, neon Roto-Sphere signs were produced by Warren Milks in the 1960s. According to Roadsidearchitecture.com, 234 were made and only about 17 are left, with only seven fully operational.

Milks said he based the design on a children's toy or spinning Christmas ornament.

The 8-foot-long multi-colored spikes are mounted on a ball that spins in three directions.

The Dutler's sphere was installed in 1965. In 1980, the motor gave out and it was not replaced. Soon thereafter, the inside of the sphere was gutted. However, the sign is still lit at night. Dutler's restored the sign in 2007 with multi-colored neon, but it no longer spins.

Some well-known signs aren't big or dramatic, such as the Gunther's Cafe sign on Madison Avenue. The sign doubles as advertising for Gene Braam Accounting, located upstairs in the small building that formerly housed Hilltop Tavern. For decades Braam has posted clever sayings on the sign to amuse motorists.

For many, bygone signs hold memories. Paul Vogel, the Mankato community development director, who oversees sign regulations, recalls many signs he remembers from years past.

"The Brett's sign was iconic. The Grand Theater had a cool sign and the Burton Hotel had a dramatic neon sign on top of the building."

Many memorable signs are tied to restaurants. Vogel recalls the rooftop, giant, lighted letters spelling out "Robbie's" on a fast-food joint where Zanz is now. There was the A&W sign on north Riverfront, and the big rotating chicken-bucket sign at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

And there was the Stone Toad bar sign (now Tav on the Ave). The sign, of a toad holding a martini glass, disappeared one night, not to be found again.

One of the most classic advertising pieces had to be the weather ball atop the Northwest Bank (now Wells Fargo) building in downtown Mankato.

The giant globe turned colors to advise people of the weather forecast: red for heat, white for cold, green for no change and blinking for storms.

A more famous cousin was atop the Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis and served as a landmark for decades. That weather ball had its own jingle — "...when the weather ball is wearing green, no weather changes are forseen...." and each WCCO radio weather forecast started with a "weather ball weather forecast" introduction.

Vogel said the often more dramatic, overhanging signs that dotted downtown Mankato and other communities fell out of favor with city planners in the 1970s. "A lot fell into disrepair. There was some over-reaction that they could be a danger and fall."

But driven by nostalgia, Mankato eased its rules, allowing for overhanging and retro signs. The rules also allow building owners to repaint old signs that were often used as advertising on the side of buildings, such as the Coca Cola sign in Old Town and a Wrigley's Spearmint sign uncovered on the side of a building on Front Street when two other buildings were razed recently.

Vogel said the resurrection of the retro signs — produced in much higher-quality ways today — have benefited the city.

"You have the Olive's sign, Mom & Pop's (ice cream), Cactus Tatoo. There's a lot of signs like that that look good and have good artwork."

The resurrection of great signs will likely be confined mostly to downtown as the hilltop businesses have more space for large ground signs or pylon signs.

Many of those businesses are also part of franchises, Vogel said.

"One of the casualties of those iconic signs is the growth of franchises, where they have very standardized signs."

Tim Krohn can be contacted at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 344-6383.