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

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.

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.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/30/2012 - 09:31 am.

    Very cool article

    Thank you.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/30/2012 - 09:43 am.

    …and then there was Jonathan…

    Do the birds know the silver globes are birdhouses?

    We’ve got a robin nesting on a column on our front porch. It’s one messy looking nest built on top of another bird’s nest; twigs and grasses carelessly overflowing.

    This bird is no Rapson that’s for d… sure. Worst case of nest architecture I have ever seen…but ‘she will posssibly make a good mother.

    Every time protective robin screams her displeasure at me for disturbing her egg warming, I will threaten to send her to Jonathon…

    Afterthought:You forgot to knock on any resident’s door just to verify the homes were not inhabited by architectural stick people in the flesh…probably suffering from modular dystrophy?

    The final photo is nature’s statement I suppose…respectfully honoring, not rapping Rapson?

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 05/30/2012 - 04:49 pm.

      Birdhouse 4 may have a vacancy.

      The birds seemed to enjoy the futuristic birdhouses very much, so I am sure there is plenty of space for your feistier neighborhood specimens in Jonathan. And there are real people in Jonathan! Some of them emailed me, and they enjoy it very much. 

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/30/2012 - 09:59 am.

    ..and a second thought…

    What about the firm of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson who were hired initially by Senator McKnight…one of the finer city firms in their prime?

  4. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 05/30/2012 - 11:26 am.

    The Jonathan Development Corporation folded in the late 1970s, but the Jonathan Association continues today — maintaining the trails and tot lots and other community features. It still somewhat functions as its own little city inside of Chaska in many ways, and is the largest homeowners association in the state. And new neighborhoods have been added to the association over the years, including the large Clover Ridge development that has gone in over the last decade or so.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 05/30/2012 - 04:19 pm.

      Thanks!

      Thank you for the background information, Sean.

    • Submitted by Mary Collins on 08/05/2014 - 04:35 pm.

      I lived in Jonathan, MN during the summer of 1972. I was an intern at the Univ. of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. I lived in an apartment in Jonathan. I loved it! The trails down to the natural areas, the smell of the wood walks, etc. It was quite new. I seem to remember Chaska as a 1-stoplight little town.

  5. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 05/30/2012 - 12:14 pm.

    New Towns

    I wonder how many Jonathanans are aware of the connection in federal largesse their neighborhood has to the state’s other “New Town”, Riverside Plaza? McKnight of course was also instrumental in that development, and presumably stood to benefit from the profits that were never to develop. An example of the degree to which corporate welfare greased the much-vaunted bipartisanship of the pre-Roe v. Wade era?

    On a lighter note, I’d call that typeface “Gov Doc Mod” due to its ubiquity on post-war planning documents.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 05/30/2012 - 04:57 pm.

      The public good.

      The fact that one of McKnight’s top credentials upfront was “real estate developer” actually did surprise me (though he did resign his legislative position to work on Jonathan). I wonder what people at the time had to say about potential conflicts of interest involved in that sort of arrangement.

      Though it’s possible what you (and I) might call “corporate welfare” was looked at more as an example of corporations serving that elusive chimera, “the public good.”

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/30/2012 - 01:19 pm.

    The house that Ralp built for others bu…

    Was Jonathan the forerunner of the gated neighborhood; separate and self sufficient where the ‘alley’, a archaic icon lost in the swirl of paths behind; loosely defined? I suppose that’s a stretch but yet, I do wonder, do they have collaborative well designed dumpsters? i applaud the survival of this early planned community nd do appreciate the story immensely.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/30/2012 - 01:27 pm.

    This is the house that Ralph built…

    (Unfinished piece,sorry) ….for others, but you could say he lived in a bi-polar house in Prospect Park in the 60’s house…classic, traditional with Georgian columns in the front and an appendage in the back; a modular glass structure…one foot hanging onto the past for warmth…striking out boldly into the future…yup, bipolar maybe, who knows?

    Thanks for a great artic…enough already.

  8. Submitted by Richard Parker on 05/30/2012 - 01:36 pm.

    How Utopia turned out, or back to the future

    Thanks for a great article! I don’t know why I haven’t gone back to look around Jonathan in decades. In the very early 1970s Jonathan and Cedar-Riverside were in the news as (literally) groundbreaking experiments in planned urban/suburban/exurban living to accommodate the surge in Baby Boomers starting their adult lives. Minnesota was in the forefront, of course. The Ralph Rapson-designed Cedar-Riverside towers were billed as a mixed-income “new town in town” and often paired up with Jonathan in the news coverage of utopian plans.

    Around 1971 I was lucky enough to get acquainted with Edith Herman and Anne Neils, who ran a nonprofit called Carver-on-the-Minnesota that had bought and restored several houses in the historic Minnesota River town of Carver. Anne Neils was a friend of Henry McKnight; Edie Herman had some connection with the family that owned Levi Strauss & Co. Two of their associates in their organization were Mary Lee Dayton, wife of Wallace, and Helen McNulty, whose husband, Robert, was one of the original owners of the Minnesota North Stars. I photographed the houses for a magazine article by Carol Buckmann, a friend of the women, and we did some socializing that included hanging out in Jonathan and at Edie Herman’s farm in Carver County. The Minnesota Renaissance Festival began in Jonathan and was held there for its first few years.

    It’s bittersweet to reflect on how things have turned out. We all know that Cedar-Riverside, is at the center of a Somali immigrant population that wasn’t foreseen. Your article satisfies my curiosity about the promise of Jonathan. And in Carver, the old town not far away, a historic district was established because of Edie and Anne’s restoration efforts although they passed away in the 1970s. In 1980 Carver became one of the first historic districts in Minnesota to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
    ( http://www.carvercountyhistoricalsociety.org/150th/Historic%20District%20Long%20Draft%20(2).pdf )

    Maybe it’s my aged perspective, but I think Minnesota has lost much of the leading-edge uniqueness the state used to have. .

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 05/30/2012 - 04:42 pm.

      The women are strong…

      Thanks for the backstory, Richard. I think I know what you mean about the “leading-edge uniqueness” we’ve lost. I wonder sometimes — and I say this as a person without the benefit of having lived through much Minnesota history personally — if the state has come to absorb its own “we’re just a bunch of nice, simple prairie folk” mythologizing to an unhealthy degree.

  9. Submitted by Richard Parker on 05/30/2012 - 02:05 pm.

    P.S. — Kudos to Minnpost

    It’s original enterprise stories like this that make Minnpost valuable to me. Thanks. And now to get silly: Jonathan is a curious monument to an unfulfilled utopian dream, the Twins have lost Joe Nathan, but luckily we still have education expert and activist Joe Nathan.

  10. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 05/30/2012 - 02:49 pm.

    Clover Field

    Thanks for pointing out the trails that circulate through the older Jonathan neighborhoods — I never knew they existed! I’ve only read a little bit about Jonathan in passing, mostly as a sidenote next to the Cedar-Riverside complex which was a related project. My interests in recent years have often circled around New Urbanism, and I randomly noticed at one point that part of the Jonathan area is being built on a New Urbanist model. While the older Jonathan neighborhoods are fairly low-density, the newer Clover Field neighborhood has homes packed much more closely together, has more apartment buildings (including some mixed-use structures), and even has alleys!. They’ve still got a landscraper elementary school, but there are paths to connect to it.

    I went and visited the Clover Field area back in 2010 to take some pictures — http://www.flickr.com/photos/mulad/sets/72157625938622283/ — but ultimately I felt that it fell a bit flat, especially compared to the fairly nice small-town urbanism of downtown Chaska along the Minnesota River (though the old town area could really use some up-zoning…). Many of the homes in the Clover Field development seemed to be built with low-quality materials (at least on the exterior), even though they seem to sell at pretty high prices, so I wasn’t exactly enticed to move there (and my workplace at the time was 30 miles away in St. Paul).

  11. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 05/30/2012 - 03:57 pm.

    Name that Typeface

    The typeface used on the trail signage is Trade Gothic Bold Extended.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 05/30/2012 - 04:18 pm.

      The official typeface of The Stroll.

      Great catch, Mark — thanks! Trade Gothic Bold Extended is now the official typeface of The Stroll.

  12. Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/31/2012 - 11:43 am.

    Those birdhouses are blowing my mind clear to smithereens.

    Other parallel new town pedestrian / backalley designs include: FDR’s Greenbelt towns (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenbelt,_Maryland MD, OH, WI) and Reston, VA (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reston,_Virginia).

    I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on whether these off-street pedestrian sidewalks ‘work’, i.e. on a nice day, are the populated with people? Are they pleasant, kept up, and non-scary, etc.?

    Another interesting question would be, which ‘new town’ can be considered a bigger success: Jonathan or Riverside Plaza? (I’d argue for Riverside Plaza, in an odd way.)

  13. Submitted by Joe Duea on 10/16/2013 - 01:48 pm.

    8mm video of Jonathan development

    My father in law lived in Chaska in the early 70’s when they were developing much of Jonathan. He took some 8mm video that I have since converted to digital for him and put online.
    You can watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82XmBga1K8k
    Enjoy! If I find anymore I will post it here as well.

  14. Submitted by Kimberly Johnson on 11/15/2013 - 06:40 pm.

    New article on Jonathan

    Note the article in the newest MN History Journal (MHS Press) by historian Thomas Saylor. More great discussion of the planned “city of tomorrow.”

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