By Amanda Dyslin
---- — MANKATO — Don Korpal remembers well his college geography class, even if it was almost 50 years ago.
In a classroom in Old Main, he and the other Mankato State College students sat in folding chairs. One of the students was his now wife, whom he swears he didn't pass notes to while the professor was talking.
“We sat so close, it was pretty easy to just talk,” he said with a laugh.
That was the mid-1960s, he said, when most classes were being offered on the hill where the Minnesota State University campus is now located. Shortly after, the rundown building of Old Main stopped hosting classes altogether, making it kind of special for Korpal to know he was one of the last classes to come through.
But that was far from the end of Old Main's story, as was evident at a celebration Thursday afternoon at the now Old Main Village. The building has functioned as a senior-living community for the past 25 years. Residents, elected officials, and students and teachers from the Old Main campus days gathered to reflect on its history.
Part of the program included the unveiling of a plaque honoring Old Main Village for being on the National Register of Historic Sites. The passage of so much time was jarring to many in attendance — even just the past quarter century since the building was rescued from demolition and turned into a senior living community.
“I can't believe it's been 25 years that it's been functioning in this capacity,” said Mayor Eric Anderson. “It's a landmark.”
The original Old Main building was built in 1869 and served as the administration center of Mankato Normal School. After a fire destroyed the first building, the current one was built in 1922.
By the 1960s Korpal said the condition of Old Main had deteriorated, although you could still get a pretty good meal in the building's cafeteria. By the mid-1970s, the building had been abandoned.
But a group of seniors called the Senior Development Corporation made it their mission to save the old building, said Curt Fisher, the original Old Main Village developer. Gladys Olson, a retired MSU professor, was one of the first investors, Fisher said.
“We all worked to keep it alive,” he said. “If it wasn't for the seniors staying strong, it wouldn't have happened.”
The building was purchased in the 1980s and renovated as an upscale retirement community, returning the historic building to its original glory. A year after it opened, Olson moved in, although she said that wasn't her intention.
Olson couldn't find an apartment she liked in Mankato, and someone who worked at Old Main said if she came there, she could have a beautiful apartment that she would love.
“I came. I stayed. Like Julius Caesar,” said Olson, who was in the front row for Thursday's program.
Korpal, a retired Mankato teacher, said it was nice coming back to the old building again. It looks nothing like he remembered from college, and that's a good thing, he said.
“They did a beautiful job with it,” Korpal said.