Jonathan… 1960s-1970s “new town” of the future

jonathan-silo2

Jonathan was a “new town” of the future in the 1970s, when John was a grad student in architecture and city planning at NDSU. We lived in Fargo, ND but I remember making a “field trip” to the Twin Cities to visit Jonathan… it was so cool! The silo still marks the town, but Jonathan is now just a neighborhood in the suburb of Chaska. Its history, however, is unlike any other in the state.

Jonathan got its start in 1965, the passion of Henry T. McKnight, a state legislator, rancher, real estate developer, futurist and conservationist who saw it as an opportunity to create a 21st century community. It came at the time of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic reform package, The Great Society, targeting both poverty and racial injustice, with housing at the core of both these issues. The plan addressed improvement for existing urban and suburban settings, but also encouraged the idea of new, planned communities. An early example of these planned communities was Reston, Virginia, which McKnight greatly admired and which provided the inspiration for Jonathan.

The plan called for self-contained communities built in harmony with nature, featuring a high-density core for commerce and service and lower-density housing at the edges; open spaces with lakes and green areas; various styles and sizes of housing, serving different income and age groups; and space reserved for business, to provide employment and a tax base.

The plans for Jonathan were bold and ambitious, built on three key concepts…

First and foremost: ecological balance.

Nearly one-fifth of Jonathan’s land was set aside for open spaces, with backyards and neighborhoods connected by a large park and greenway system, with winding paths that go under major streets.

jonathan-subway1

Second: development of community, informal as well as formal.

McKnight envisioned residents building a sense of community through their “basic living module” or “village” which would provide opportunities for interaction at parks, schools. Original plans called for five villages, each offering a variety of housing styles and sizes, and serving its residents with its own infrastructure including schools, shopping, a medical clinic and post office. These villages would be arranged around a town-center complex, which would contain major retail, entertainment and service facilities as well as proposed transportation links to the Twin Cities and surrounding communities.

jonathan-design plan2
from Jonathan: Planned City of Tomorrow, Minnesota Historical Society Collections

Adjacent to the town center was industry, with an emphasis on pollution control. Connected to the concept of community was the goal of attracting people of all incomes by offering multiple housing styles, sizes and prices, both for sale and for rent. As it turned out, business development actually grew faster than housing so the goal that any person who works in Jonathan should be able to live in Jonathan no matter what their income never came to fruition.

Third: harness existing and future technology for the common good.

Jonathan was one of the nation’s first ‘wired’ communities, with all homes linked by coaxial cable that could turn a television into a two-way telecommunications system to allow education anytime and medical consultations. (Sound familiar in these days of COVID-19?!)

It was the first interconnecting community cable system in the world. Each house was given a an identification number, which was also a forerunner of our current zip code system. It allowed people to communicate with each other using a television… forerunner to Facetime? The identification numbers were six digits which specifically identified a household. For example, the address 110928 Von Hertzen Circle means…

  • 1 – Jonathan, the first “New Town” in the nation
  • 1 – the first village or section of Jonathan developed
  • 09 – the neighborhood number
  • 28 – the house number within the neighborhood

Keep in mind this was before most people had computers in their homes, let alone our current world of having computers on our phones… Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were in grade school while Jonathan was leading the world in the development of the Internet!

JONATHAN in 2020

It seems hard to believe that all this took place about 50 years ago. Original plans called for five “villages”, beginning with the construction of Village One in 1970. It was designed according to plan, and this is what I remember visiting in the 1970s. I think of it as the forerunner to today’s ‘walkable’ neighborhoods, with a maze of trails running through the village away from the streets, connecting homes and other services. Unfortunately, the new town ran out of money and the rest of the project was never built. But Village One is still intact, feeling somewhat like a Utopian village from ‘back to the future.”

We explored and walked Village One and I was fascinated to see this experiment ‘all grown up.’ It was designed in the late mid-century-modern era, and much of the architecture reflected that. The ‘modern’ city shopping center has now become the Family Learning Center for Carver County Schools and the convenience store and gas station were abandoned. The weathered painting on the side of that building reminded me of the original village 50 years ago, similar to  the painting on the silo marking Jonathan from years ago.

city center

What struck me as we drove into the village was the wide variety of types of housing, all within a short distance of each other. This was a concrete reflection of the intent that it should serve people of all income strata, and the attitude that anyone who works in Jonathan should be able to live in Jonathan, no matter what their income.

We decided to get out and walk… and first explored the Tree-Loft apartments. The photos on the left are from 1972… we were surprised and delighted to find our son and daughter’s high school art teacher pictured in one of the apartments! The unique apartments are still there, with lots of trees surrounding the buildings and elevated walkways.

tree top apartments

We followed the walkway system behind the apartments onto the trails behind the houses in Neighborhood One. As you can see on the walkway system map below, the trail system is very extensive yet compact.

jonathan-walkways

We walked behind the houses pictured above from 1975, with trees now towering beautifully. What amazed me was how vast the open spaces were… it really demonstrated how McKnight’s vision of being surrounded by nature was fulfilled.

It also amazed me how many different styles, sizes, designs of housing were compressed into such a small space while still feeling private and surrounded by nature.

jonathan-housing styles

The whole concept of Jonathan smacks of mid-century-modernism, and a well-known Minnesota modernist is Ralph Rapson, head of the school of architecture at the University of Minnesota at that time. He was commissioned to design a model home in Jonathan… the Red Cedar House – aka the Weyerhaeuser Demonstration House D-1317. It was to be “a house for everyman”, using Weyerhaeuser products.

You can see the design sketch in the photo below, along with current photos… yes, it is still there. The home was also featured in Better Homes & Gardens and the plans were made available to anyone for reproduction. Evidently it was purchased by someone to build a home in Bemidji… and it is currently for sale, pictured in the bottom right photo in the picture below.

jonathan – red cedar house

Although Jonathan never became the city McKnight had dreamed it would become, it nevertheless helped transform how we live and today feels like a living museum of the great ‘new town’ experiment.

Sharlene Hensrud, RE/MAX Results – shensrud@homesmsp.com 

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I love what I do! Highly insightful, analytical and creative, there is nothing I love more than helping you find the right solution for your real estate transition. My mission is to serve my clients with honesty and integrity, exceeding their expectations in service and support… and to help others by donating a portion of every transaction to Habitat for Humanity.

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