Jonathan, MN. The New Town

The following is a new article that I published in the StarTribune about an optimistic era in the 1960s when a better world seemed possible…. For a link to online article version with photo galleries, click this text.

The Jonathan development included clustered housing, a village center and an early version of Skype.

The Jonathan Village Center, built in 1970 as a retail hub for life’s daily needs. Photo courtesy of HGA.

A Worthy Experiment:

Although it ultimately failed, Jonathan, a 1970s planned development in Chaska helped transform how we live

By Frank Edgerton Martin Special to the Star Tribune June 18, 2016 

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.

A silo at the intersection of Highway 41 and Hundertmark Road in Chaska was built in 1990 and meant to reflect the earlier silos from the Jonathan community of the 1960s and Chaska's agricultural history. The silo is scheduled to be painted with a new design this summer.

Remnants of the rural past, preserved silos. Star Tribune File photo

These remnant 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.


Ralph Rapson designed only one home for the Jonathan community in 1966, the Red Cedar House -- aka the Weyerhaeuser Demonstration House D-1317. The home was featured in Better Homes & Gardens and the plans were made available to anyone for reproduction. It was intended for the self-supporting community to be linked to the Twin Cities via some sort of high speed rail system, much like the Satellite Cities of Stockholm, but the Jonathan Development Corporation folded in 1979 before that stage of the project was realized.

Red Cedar House, a model home that Ralph Rapson, FAIA designed for Weyerhauser. Jonathan was home to many such experiments. Photo courtesy of Rapson Inc. 
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 Abrahamson 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.



IMG_2316.jpgThe “Treetop Lofts” now known as Aspen Oaks were innovative modular townhouses that could be expanded as needed. They are now nearly 50 years old and express the experimental hopes of Jonathan. Photo by author.

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.


New article: Suburban Modern

Modernist buildings survive in Twin Cities suburbs

Hidden architectural gems – from corporate campuses to fast-food franchises – can be found in our first-ring suburbs.

TOM WALLACE, STAR TRIBUNE  With its canted windows and classic neon sign, this thoroughly modern Dairy Queen is still open for business in Roseville.

The postwar suburbs of the Twin Cities are home to a remarkable collection of modern architecture.

Some are high-style synagogues, churches and corporate centers — like the landmark General Mills headquarters in Golden Valley designed by celebrated Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

But most are humble, practical buildings, such as gas stations, dry cleaning shops and fast-food franchises, which often change with the demands of marketing.

Most of our old Dairy Queens, branch banks and pioneering suburban shopping centers (think Knollwood Plaza in St. Louis Park) are gone or altered beyond recognition. They were the victims of the “tween” years in the nostalgia-laden 1980s and 1990s, when modernism seemed stiff and cold and modern buildings were renovated or torn down. But some glimpses of untouched modernism can still be found.

Hidden modern

One of our finest examples of commercial modernism is the former Midwest Federal bank on Hwy. 55 in Golden Valley. Now serving as a lighting store, this delicate round glass building is the lone survivor of several Midwest Federal branches designed by Miller-Dunwiddie in 1963.

After generations of fortresslike banks, these glass structures (which were built in Bloomington, Edina, Robbinsdale, Roseville and St. Louis Park) seemed quite daring. Some Twin Cities residents even expressed concern about the security of a bank made out of glass. But what could be more modern than a bright, circular pavilion that you could see inside — while all the cash could be secured safely underground?

Another building that took the same approach to modernism was Dairy Queen, which featured bold and simple forms, visible structural elements and welcoming transparency.

One of the oldest and most intact Dairy Queens in the country still operates in Roseville. Located at 1720 N. Lexington Av., this playful walk-up structure, which dates from 1947, features tall canted glass windows, a band of neon along the roofline and the classic rooftop Dairy Queen sign with cobalt blue background, neon letters and signature swirl ice cream cone.

Civic modernism

Many modern-era government centers, fire stations and libraries survive. Most unusual is the Crystal City Hall. Designed in 1964 by Zejdlik and Harmala Architects and built by local contractor Peterson-Templin, it is notable for its white facade with light metal window screens. The building looks a bit like a small Guggenheim Museum and merits preservation as a striking and unusual interpretation of modern design with curves.

It’s worth a trip to Crystal to see City Hall as well as its next-door neighbor: the graceful, angled Rockford Road Library designed by Minnesotan Leonard Parker in 1972. A former member of Eero Saarinen’s design office, Parker also designed one of the more exquisite examples of late modernism in the Twin Cities: the Eden Prairie corporate headquarters for Gelco Corp. Opened in the mid-1970s, the Gelco building has glass wings that step down into the hilly landscape in a rare combination of respect for site and boldness of form.

The Minneapolis Neurological Clinic in Golden Valley is another example of a talented Minnesota modernist at work. Designed by Bruce Abrahamson, a founder of HGA, the clinic’s large picture windows, canted stone bases and flowing horizontal copper rooflines are tactile yet subdued. Though it was built in the late 1960s, it seems fresh and original today.

Leaving the city

For better or worse, corporate modernism was a product of urban flight. General Mills’ mid-1950s move from downtown to the fields of Golden Valley reflected trends nationwide. The city of Minneapolis was so concerned about losing companies to the suburbs that it sold land in Wirth Park to keep the Prudential regional headquarters in the city.

Designed by the Minneapolis firm of Magney, Tusler and Setter (now Leo A. Daly), the 24-acre Prudential complex is really a suburban campus on the city’s edge. Like the Rock of Gibraltar (Prudential’s symbol), the tower conveys strength and permanence. It’s an unusually heavy expression of modernism with Minnesota Kasota limestone, granite and punch-out square steel-framed windows.

Also in the mid-1950s, 3M commissioned St. Paul-based Ellerbe Architects to design a new headquarters campus in Maplewood after outgrowing its St. Paul facility. The brightly colored tower with angled window bays has long been a landmark on Interstate 94.

Though they were built for the long term, these corporate centers have been altered. General Mills has been added onto several times. The Prudential campus is currently for sale. Its desirable location on a parklike site makes it a tempting target for a new corporate campus, housing or mixed-use development.

Well-crafted corporate buildings such as Prudential are worth saving and re-using. Rarely do we build with such fine stone anymore. And re-use is a far greener solution than rebuilding on such a massive scale.

But even more modest modern buildings like the Roseville Dairy Queen and the last Midwest Federal can and should find new uses.

From branch libraries to glass banks, modern suburban buildings expressed an optimistic vision for the future. They still can.

Minneapolis writer Frank Edgerton Martin writes about urban design.