When Neil and Alan explored Vincennes (see Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 25 issue) in August 2011, they explored New Harmony, Ind., too. Smaller by comparison, New Harmony is best known for its Utopian origins and, although not far from Vincennes. It seems to have seen no epic battles were fought and no conflicts of interest with Native Americans seem to have occurred. But New Harmony is equally unique and fascinating.
The story of this social-experiment community begins in Germany with Johann Georg Rapp (1757-1847), a charismatic religious leader, and his followers, who were encouraged to take their beliefs elsewhere. The group first established themselves in Harmony, Penn., in 1804, but abandoned their prosperous enterprise to move to Indiana in 1814. They moved back to Pennsylvania in 1824 (this time to Economy). Reminiscent of other early 19th-century experimental communities based on piety, celibacy, hard work and collective ownership, Harmony, Ind., failed because of human frailty. Once the Indiana Rappists built their ideal community, there was less to do (while waiting for the Second Coming) and, as “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” there was time for mischief. Harmony was sold lock, stock and barrel to Robert Owen (1771-1858) in 1824.
A successful Welsh industrialist and Utopian believer, Robert Owen perceived a chance to establish, using the substantial Harmony infrastructure of the departing Rappists, a commonwealth community based on intelligent inquiry and shared responsibility. The Owenites renamed the town New Harmony. In brief, however, this New World experiment did not work: Despite an influx of enlightened intellectuals and scientific types seeking an environment of inquiry, common ownership was too much to swallow.
Nevertheless, New Harmony did survive, under the tutelage of Owen family members who chose to stick with the general concept, as a place for useful intellectual inquiry in a frontier community – a place from which important geographical and geological research could be launched into the largely unexplored North American landmass. Almost 200 years later, New Harmony, Ind., remains largely as it was when the Rappists and Owenites occupied it: a very small community (900+), but rich in history and preservation.
August in southern Indiana is hot and humid. Arriving on an early Friday morning, the Guys biked around town first to get their bearings, because there is so much to see. First up was Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church with its Jacob Lipchitz sculpture and architectural elements. Occupying a city block, this restrained, non-sectarian, elegant complex was dedicated in 1960 and is world-renowned architecturally. A signature work, the Roofless Church celebrates New Harmony’s origins. Next up was the Atheneum/Visitors Center by Richard Meier. In stark contrast to Johnson’s organic Roofless Church, this all-white, angular, modernist structure housing a comprehensive interpretive center is stunning and iconic of New Harmony’s determination to preserve its past. The Guys signed up for a guided walking tour despite usually preferring to discover things on their own. For New Harmony a walking tour is not only convenient, but almost indispensable; it is also comprehensive and modest in price. Their guide was energetic and very well-informed about every stop along the way.
For such a small community there is so much to see and learn about, starting with the restored Rapp-Owen Granary (1818), a three-story masonry building used by David Dale Owen for workshops, a laboratory and a lecture hall.
After Owen’s death in 1860, it contained a grain mill and a woolen factory. Presently it is a stunning conference center. On Tavern Street there is the Working Men’s Institute and Library (1838), Indiana’s oldest continuously used public library. On the main drag – Church Street – the Guys toured Thrall’s Opera House (1824), a restored venue for theatricals and musicals once used by the well-known Golden Troupe between 1875 and 1891. Originally a Rappist dormitory of unpretentious style, the Thrall was renovated in the late 19th century, hence its present appearance. Externally an ordinary 19th-century structure, the interior holds many surprises, including a dynamite costume collection. Leaving the Thrall, the guided tour made its way into side streets containing many preserved Rappist-Owen houses. Despite their prescribed Rappist dimensions and configuration, these small dwellings are very desirable and carefully maintained by local owners. There are too many to mention.
Last, but not least on their tour, the Guys visited the Maximilian-Bodmer Exhibit housed in a nondescript building at the corner at Tavern and Main streets. Perfectly exhibited in an up-to-date, climate-controlled exhibition space, this was a mind-blower. Perfectly preserved are hand-colored illustrations, rendered by Johann Karl Bodmer, depicting the early 19th-century explorations of Prince Maximilian of Wied on the American frontier. These illustrations are extremely rare and a very surprising find in little New Harmony. They are rewarding, because they help to explain pictorially many blanks in our understanding of a vital territory in U.S. history. This is a must-see exhibit.
Early on someone wearing their thinking cap helped to rescue New Harmony from possible oblivion. That person was Jane Blaffer Owen, a Texaco and
Exxon oil heiress who had married Kenneth Dale Owen, a descendant of Robert Owen. She died in 2010 after almost 70 years of devotion to the rescue and preservation of her adopted town. Her contributions are everywhere.
Every village or community should have a Jane Blaffer Owen. The majority do not and thus languish in disrepair until it is too late. Unlike a country like France (where Neil recently visited), America has an odd relationship with its past. Either enough people do not care or, more depressing, few have any idea of what they are discarding.
For a delightful place to stay or dine in New Harmony, the Red Geranium is unique.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.