Arrested Development

How Minnesota philanthropist and developer Henry McKnight's utopian vision of suburbia became a blueprint for modern exurban nightmares

Developers were lined up for the money, though, and Smith recalls spending a lot of time wooing the various bureaucrats who held the purse strings. At one point, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development descended on Chaska to scrutinize McKnight's plans. Things were going well, Smith recalls, when McKnight suddenly invited the delegation to his farmhouse for lunch. McKnight's partners groaned.

True to form, McKnight was half-naked and perched astride a tractor when his visitors arrived. He led the functionaries down to a lake on his property where McKnight's wife, Grace, had draped tables with white cloths and set out wine and cheese and apples. "It was gorgeous," Smith recalls. "A scene right out of Renoir. For years afterward every time I went to Washington people would bring it up."

In 1970, Jonathan became the first of 13 new towns to receive assistance under the new law. (Minneapolis's long-derided Cedar-Riverside high-rise apartment towers--then envisioned as a "town within a town"--also got funding from the same program.) Planners from prestigious firms around the country quit their jobs to come build Jonathan. The Washington Post kept abreast of construction. Newsweek raved about the plan. People started moving in, some lured from as far afield as California. To hear the first residents talk, it was the start of an every-night block party.

Neighborhood Two, which was to have some of the nicest houses, also ended up with some of the boldest experiments, sponsored by the Stanford Research Institute, General Electric, and other companies. Ralph Rapson, the architect who designed the Guthrie Theater and Cedar-Riverside, was commissioned to build an Idea House topped by inverted trusses and featuring all sorts of then-futuristic gadgets such as a trash compactor.

The neighborhood also contains several "modular" houses designed to grow and shrink with a family. When the owners had kids, they could just order new rooms from the factory; when they became empty-nesters, they could simply send back the surplus space. There are tall, narrow "tree houses," numerous A-frames, and a "tsunami house" built by some Japanese visitors. Many homes were connected by a community information system, a very early internet precursor that, among other things, allowed Jonathanites to be "seen" via a system of cameras and monitors, by doctors at the hospital in Waconia.

And then, in November 1972, McKnight underwent surgery for a brain tumor. When he died the following month at the age of 59, Jonathan had grown to 1,500 residents, 30 industrial tenants, and retailers employing 800. The timing couldn't have been worse. The country had been plunged into a recession and the housing market had collapsed. HUD was inexplicably refusing to spend much of the money Congress had allocated to the new towns, and federal mortgage officials were grumbling that the experimental communities didn't look enough like typical subdivisions.

"Ah, Jonathan, you were such a big, beautiful test-tube baby," Newsweek intoned. "But you may never make it to 1990."

The critics were half right: Smith and a string of investors managed to keep the dream alive for three years, but by 1976, Jonathan had run out of money and HUD foreclosed.

Fast-forward 33 years. Exurbia has marched right up to Jonathan's fringes and is blowing past it, chewing up horse farms and apple orchards to the south and west at a rate almost without compare in the rest of the country. Carver County is one of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the nation. (Scott County, located next door, is the 12th-fastest-growing.) Since 1990, Carver County's population has nearly doubled to 82,000 people, many of them young families. The number is expected to hit 141,020 by the year 2030. Most of the growth is taking place in Chaska and its neighbors, Chanhassen and Victoria.

It's hard to spend time in the sea of taupe and ecru subdivisions lining the road to Jonathan without concluding that in the end, McKnight simply handed the real estate industry a playbook of ways to make more money. Consider the house at 9445 Riley Lake Road in Eden Prairie, for sale in June at a listed price of $829,900. Located four and a half miles east of Jonathan, it's perched just over the border between Carver and Hennepin counties. The address is prestigious: It's just across the road from the exclusive gated community of Bearpath, and not far from the sparkling waters of Lake Riley.

The house itself has a stone and shake facade, Craftsman detailing, and 4,401 finished square feet of living space. When it was brand-new, a year ago, it sold for $100,000 less than it's listed at now. At half a million less than other homes in the same subdivision, however, it's still a relative bargain.

In many ways it's the antithesis of Jonathan. The house sits three doors off Pioneer Trail, essentially a two-lane highway and one of two main routes into Carver County. At certain times of the day, it's as noisy on its diminutive front porch as it is in Uptown. The home's footprint takes up much of the third of an acre lot, so adjacent houses are just a few feet away. The smallish backyard abuts the backyards of several other houses, each of which sports its own wooden kids' playscape. The general impression is of a place someone commutes home to, driving into the three-car garage, lowering the automatic door, and not leaving again until morning.

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