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‘Ex-town’ Jonathan still has distinct touches of its futuristic beginnings

Utopian futurism is its heritage, because the history of Jonathan is utterly unlike that of any other place in the state.

Map of Jonathan MinnesotaMinnPost illustration by Andy SturdevantUtopian futurism is Jonathan’s heritage, and it’s a heritage that’s easy to spot once you park your car, get out, and have a walk around.

Jonathan, Minn., is no longer a town, in the strictest sense — it’s a neighborhood association within Chaska. Driving past it on Highway 212, it looks very much like many of the postwar suburban developments in that part of the metro. The only thing that looks fairly unusual for a suburban development are a series of wooden signs at the entrances that read, in neat green Helvetica, “Neighborhood 1,” “Neighborhood 2,” etc. Each sign has a logo, a stylized daisy-like flower inside a drop-shadowed “J.”

Jonathan MN neighborhood signMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantNeighborhoods designated by number? That seems vaguely futuristic.

“Neighborhoods designated by number? That seems vaguely futuristic,” you might think. (My first thought, actually, was of The Village, the mysterious community in which Patrick McGoohan’s secret agent finds himself trapped in the cult 1960s television show The Prisoner.)

And you’d be right to think that. Jonathan is vaguely futuristic, because the history of Jonathan is utterly unlike that of any other place in the state. Utopian futurism is Jonathan’s heritage, and it’s a heritage that’s easy to spot once you park your car, get out and have a walk around. Last week, I brought some friends with an interest in utopian futurism out to do just that.

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First, some necessary background: Jonathan (named whimsically for the county’s namesake, Jonathan Carver) was created as a “new town” planned community in the 1960s, the first of its kind in the nation. It was funded in part by financial assistance from the Department of Housing Urban and Development, headed then by former Michigan governor George Romney — you may have heard of his son Willard. The initiative was spearheaded by Henry T. McKnight, a state legislator, rancher, real estate developer, futurist and conservationist who saw Jonathan as an opportunity to create the model 21st century community (I thought initially this all sounded like classic New Frontier liberalism, but it says something interesting about the times that McKnight in fact caucused with the conservatives in the nonpartisan Legislature of the era). The town of Jonathan would incorporate technology, conservation and planning, and could serve as an alternative to the sprawling suburban growth of the era.

The town was to grow to a population of 50,000 by the turn of the century, a completely self-contained community with nature preserves laced throughout, high-speed rail access to the core cities, and a ring of industrial parks surrounding it to provide jobs for the families that lived in its technologically sophisticated, fully-wired houses.

Now here’s where it gets truly science-fictionish. Each house was to be wired with interconnected cables as part of a General Electric Community Information Systems (CIS) project that would turn each television into a telephone that allowed you to communicate visually with your neighbors. Each house shares a six-digit address that would have acted as an address and ID number: for example, if your house’s CIS number was 110612, that means you’re in City One, Village One, Neighborhood 6, House 12. Someone dials up 110612 on their television, your TV makes a futuristic ringing sound, and you can have a video conversation. These numeric designations still remain for each house and neighborhood.

McKnight died of a brain tumor in 1972, after which the project lost its momentum. The association folded in the late 1970s, and Jonathan was annexed by surrounding Chaska. But much of the original vision remains intact, and Jonathan is nothing like a typical suburb once you’ve stepped inside it. This is despite the fact that the houses themselves don’t look particularly special; they’re mostly wood or vinyl siding, built in a uniform, somewhat nondescript modernist style.

However, the patterns in which they’re organized are quite unique. The town is built around a series of pedestrian trails that move behind the backs of the houses, completely out of sight of the streets and vehicular traffic. It’s a complex network, running around oasis-like patches of forest, parks and marshland. These trails are marked every few hundred feet by a “you are here” map bearing the logo of the Jonathan Association and notated in a very modern sans serif typeface I can’t quite identify.

Jonathan signageMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantJonathan is built around a series of pedestrian trails that move behind the backs of the houses.

At dusk, as we walk, it’s very quiet. In fact, it’s almost a ghost town-like experience — we run into one or two joggers, but otherwise, no one seems to be out. There aren’t any kids around, even on the many playgrounds (designated as “tot lots” on the map). That’s not entirely surprising, given that it’s intermittently storming out over the course of the evening. But the houses, despite being lit and presumably inhabited, seem very quiet within. We hear some conversation wafting out over the yards, but not much.

Despite very little evidence of people, the yards and gardens of Jonathan are as immaculately tended as any neighborhood I can think of. Nearly every backyard has a garden of some kind, whether with flowers or vegetables or fruits or exotic trees.

Halverson sculptureMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantFerrocement sculpture by D. Halverson

As we walk, we come across a ferrocement abstract sculpture in one of the public areas. It’s signed in a corner “Halverson ’70.” It’s the work of D. Halverson, a Minneapolis-born artist that studied sculpture at the U in the 1960s. Halverson had a penchant for sailing, so shortly after completing this commission, he headed west to build boats, and ended up sailing to the South Pacific in the early 1980s. Once settling there permanently, he started what he claims is the first and only lost wax bronze foundry in the South Pacific, where he sells bronze sculptures of dancing nude women that bear little resemblance to his work in Jonathan.

Ferrocement is a method of mixing Portland cement and sand over layers of steel mesh. Unsurprisingly, given Halverson’s background, it is often used in building boat hulls. The piece is an almost textbook example of the sort of monumental public sculpture of the era: massive in scale, kind of ugly but also kind of lyrical, thoroughly non-representational, and completely non-ideological. My favorite part of the sculpture is the fact there are benches set up, facing the sculpture, so one can sit down and contemplate the artwork with maximum efficiency. In this sense, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the sort of modernism that animated much of Jonathan.

birdhouses in JonathanMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantEven the birds of Jonathan, like its human citizens, have numeric designations for their homes.

Along one of the paths, leading past what look like an acre of marshland, there is a colony of truly remarkable modernist birdhouses. I couldn’t find much information on them digging around online, but they seem to be of the 1970s vintage. There are a few varieties, but the best are these white plastic, modular orbs suspended in a starburst pattern. They fit right into the visual landscape of the town. And the best part is each individual birdhouse is numbered! Even the birds of Jonathan, like its human citizens, have numeric designations for their homes. I watch a sparrow fly into Birdhouse 4, and wonder if it has built a nest in there permanently. I wonder if it chirps to its colleagues that it lives in City 1, Zone 1, Neighborhood 6, Birdhouse 4.

Of course, wherever there is high modernism in Minnesota, Ralph Rapson is sure to turn up. Sure enough, the noted architect and creator of the original Guthrie Theater and Cedar-Riverside Plaza was commissioned by the Weyerhausen Corp. to create the “Red Cedar House,” a model home with an inverted truss roof, to be filled with the most cutting-edge domestic technology of the time. We don’t have a street address, only a street name (if only we had its six-digit CIS number!), and by the time we find it, it’s almost totally dark and has started to hail. I snap one quick photo of it before running back to the car.

Red Cedar House by Ralph RapsonMinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant‘Red Cedar House’ by Ralph Rapson

But there it is in the dusk, surrounded by sparkling white orbs of rain set off by the flash, looking as strangely and wondrously out of time as the community it sits in.