MANKATO — Two are going, two are gone as the transformation of South Front Street begins.
"This is really going to change the look of this area," said Gregg Anderson of the project that will eventually bring a seven-story office tower, a four-story retail/residential building and a parking ramp and lot. The buildings will begin going up next summer in a $16 million development by Tailwind Group.
Anderson, who runs a photo studio in his Front Street building, said the demolition of buildings to clear the way for the project is removing the last remnants of some old Mankato businesses.
This week, crews demolished two smaller buildings on the corner of Warren and South Front Street — one that had housed Survey Services and one that was most recently an antique store. Those spaces, across Front Street from where the construction will take place, will be a surface parking lot.
Demolition of the Survey Services building marks the end of the site of one of Mankato's first pizza parlors — Pizza Kato.
Chuck Dahline, raised in Willmar, was attending the University of Minnesota in 1957 when he went to work at a restaurant and tasted his first pizza. "I didn't know what a pizza was."
His boss soon recommended Dahline to a friend who was opening a new pizza parlor in Mankato and Dahline applied for a job. "Not many people in Mankato knew anything about pizzas, so I got the job," Dahline said.
In December of 1958 Pizza Kato opened in a new building — just four months after the city's first pizza place, Beasey's Pizza, opened on Main Street.
Ten years later Dahline bought Pizza Kato and ran it for another 20 years until 1988. The original parlor had a large neon marquee sign that was later replaced with a wall sign to meet new city sign ordinances.
Nearly every day, Dahline could be seen through the large window in front of Pizza Kato tossing and rolling pizza dough.
When Dahline closed the business the building was sold to Warren Smith and a partner who operated Survey Services. Smith recently moved his business to St. Andrews Court.
The antique store building was previously a cafe and Mexican grocery.
More demolition is slated for mid-November, across the street, when the Miller Motors and RedSky Lounge buildings are razed.
The RedSky building was once a pool hall and then a carpet store, before hosting two well known bars — the Hurdy Gurdy and TJ Finnegans — before becoming RedSky.
The land under those buildings will be the site of the four story building, with RedSlky planning to relocate there. The office tower will be built on land that is now a parking lot on the corner of Riverfront Drive and Warren Street.
Bernie Hogan, who owned Miller Motors for 50 years, said the building had an illustrious business history in Mankato.
Herman Miller opened a Ford dealership there in 1927. Miller was an orphan from New York who, although a minor, lied about his age and joined the military in WWI and fought in Germany. He moved to northern Minnesota and worked at a Ford dealership before moving to Mankato, said Hogan, who retains all of the business' financial books back to the '20s.
"He got into an argument with Henry Ford himself because they wanted him to build a fancy new building and he wouldn't," Hogan said.
Ford dropped him so Miller switched to selling DeSotos and expanded his tire offerings, which became the mainstay of business in the decades since. Miller would go on to have more business success, starting Kaye Corp., which still operates in North Mankato selling commercial lawn mowers and other equipment. Kaye Corp. also created a successful off-shoot business.
"One of his guys welded some barrels together and put a piece of plywood on it and made one of the first pontoons," Hogan said. "They started Kayot and made pontoons." Kayot was later sold to another boat maker.
Hogan said that prior to the 1970s, Miller Motors and the other South Front businesses were impossible to miss as they were in the city's only business district. "Anyone traveling from the south and headed to the Twin Cities had to use Front Street to get through town."
Riverfront Drive didn't exist and the railroad tracks ran close behind the back side of Miller Motors and the other downtown businesses.
Hogan remembered sandbagging behind his building in the 1960s, a task that saved the building — barely.
"The water came in the low spot in back and filled the basement and water came right up through the floor."
The new owners of Miller Motors are in the process of moving the business to its new location about a block away, next to the old Barnett Photo studio near Hy-Vee.
While Hogan loves the history of the downtown, he's not sentimental about the building coming down.
"The roof leaks, the floor was giving way. It's time for it to go."