In the 1960s, a brighter future seemed possible — going to the moon, ending race discrimination, renewing the cities and finding new solutions to urban sprawl.

The community of Jonathan in Chaska was designed as an alternative approach to suburban living. It was a bold experiment from an optimistic time.

Envisioned as a “new town,” a planned, stand-alone community by State Sen. Henry T. McKnight, Jonathan is named for Jonathan Carver, the 18th-century explorer from whom Carver County also takes its name. An heir to a fortune made in real estate and milling, McKnight grew fascinated by the new towns of Scandinavia.

In the mid-1960s, many architects and planners began calling for denser and more mixed-use communities. New towns in Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va., were attracting media attention and McKnight sensed the time was right to introduce one in Minnesota. These communities were planned to have housing, parks and green space as well as office and commercial areas.

With a handful of private investors and McKnight’s financial backing, Jonathan got off to a promising start. A nationally renowned landscape architecture firm, Sasaki, teamed with Minnesota landscape architects Bailey & Associates to plan ecological preserves, greenways, entries and landscapes around Jonathan’s signature silos.

Those silos, painted in 1970s style, provided a stark contrast between Minnesota’s rural history and the bold, community-oriented vision for a high-tech future.

Many of Minnesota’s leading architecture firms also took part in Jonathan. Ralph Rapson, Minnesota’s most famous modern architect, designed and built the Red Cedar House, a model wood home. Hammel, Green and Abramson designed the 1970 Village Center, a small retail and service hub set into the woods overlooking Lake Grace. The center included the services you might need for daily village life: a small grocery, café/bar, clinic, hair salon, post office, bank and a futuristic looking gas station/convenience store. There was also an industrial office park with the novel concept of a facility for computer time-sharing. With trails connecting the neighborhoods and workplaces, you could almost live in Jonathan without driving (a radical concept at the time).

Wired and connected

Jonathan was also one of the nation’s first “wired” communities. As a prototype for General Electric’s Community Information Systems project, all the homes were linked by coaxial cable that could turn a television into a visual telephone for local broadcasts, along with an early kind of Skyping with neighbors. Each house had a six-digit address that doubled as a network ID number — an address system still in use.

Jon Thorstenson, a retired architect, has lived in Jonathan since the heady days when residents started moving in around 1970. “When I first came, it was like taking part in an experiment,” he recalls. “The community was very close, almost like an extended family.”

But Thorstenson’s connection to Jonathan dates back even earlier to the mid-1960s when he was an architecture student at the University of Minnesota. The Jonathan Development Corp. had just announced the plan for five villages with 10,000 residents each plus a town center on an 8,500-acre site.

McKnight and his chief planner, Benjamin Cunningham, came to the university to share their vision — the small village centers, trails set following topography and ravines, clustered neighborhoods and ample common space.

Thorstenson felt inspired. “A friend of mine had a car, so we drove out there. It was just fields and woods.” Just a few years later, the young architect was one of the first “settlers” — and he never left.

Lessons learned

Jonathan was the first planned community from the wave of Great Society optimism to receive federal loan support. President Richard Nixon signed the Title VII funding authorization in 1970. Yet, Nixon’s support for new towns and pubic housing programs soon diminished and only a few other planned towns were funded. Then, Henry McKnight, only in his early 60s, died of a brain tumor in 1972. The energy crisis, tight credit and ensuing recessions also took a toll.

Only about 4,000 people — of the planned 50,000 — ever lived in the development in about 1,000 housing units. Ultimately, Jonathan’s assets were sold and what there was of the planned town was absorbed by the city of Chaska. The retail hub, long closed, now serves as a public preschool and kindergarten. You can still see the bank’s drive-up window near the front door. The bold and angular convenience store is currently abandoned. Jonathan lost out to more typical suburban growth that has engulfed it. The car-driven landscape won out, at least for now.

It wasn’t just the loss of its champion that spelled the end for Jonathan. Many things went wrong. Still, many inventive design ideas — like the trail system and varied housing — were not only right, but ahead of their time. Experiments like this one teach the value of trying new ideas, even if they don’t quite go as planned.

 

Minneapolis writer Frank Edgerton Martin writes about urban design.