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UTOPIA ON THE WABASH
New Harmony, Indiana

getaway-chicago logo In August 2011 along with Vincennes, Neil and Alan explored New Harmony, Indiana, too. Smaller by comparison, New Harmony is best known for its Utopian origins and, although not far from the former, no epic battles were fought and no conflicts of interest with Native Americans seem to have occurred. New Harmony is equally unique and fascinating.

newharmony1The story of this utopian community begins in Germany with Johann Georg Rapp (1757-1847), a charismatic religious leader whose followers were encouraged to take their beliefs someplace else. Rapp and company first established themselves in Harmony, Pennsylvania (1804-1814), but abandoned that prosperous enterprise to move to Indiana in 1814. A third move occurred in 1824, back to Pennsylvania (this time to Economy). Reminiscent of other early 19th century experimental communities based on piety, celibacy, hard work and collective ownership, Harmony, Indiana also failed because of human frailty. Once the Indiana Rappists built their ideal community (while waiting for the second coming) there was less to do and time for mischief, idle hands being the Devil’s playground. Harmony was sold lock, stock and barrel to Robert Owen (1771-1858) in 1824. A successful Welsh industrialist and Utopian believer, Owen perceived a chance to establish a commonwealth community based on intelligent inquiry and shared responsibility, using the substantial infrastructure (Harmony) of the departing Rappists. The Owenites renamed the town New Harmony. In brief, Owen’s New World experiment did not work despite an influx of enlightened intellectuals and scientific types seeking an environment of inquiry. Collective ownership was too much for the participants to swallow.

newharmony2Nevertheless, New Harmony did survive under the tutelage of Owen family members who chose to stick with the general concept; a place for useful intellectual inquiry in a frontier community where important geographical and geological research could be launched into the largely unexplored North American landmass. Almost 200 years later, New Harmony, Indiana 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 to get their bearings because there is so much to see. newharmony3First up was Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church (right) with its Jacob Lipchitz sculpture and inventive architectural elements. Occupying a city block, this restrained, non-sectarian, but 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/Vistor Center (below, left) by Richard Meier. In stark contrast to Johnson’s organic Roofless Church, newharmony4this 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 on their own. The walking tour is not only modestly priced and convenient, but almost indispensable because the town has so many sites to see. Their guide was terrific and very well informed about every stop along the way.

For such a small community there is 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 lecture hall. Following Owen’s death (1860), it contained a grain mill and woolen factory. Presently it is a stunning conference center. newharmony5On Tavern Street there is the Working Men’s Institute and Library (1838, left), Indiana’s oldest, continuously used public library. On the main drag, Church Street, the Guys toured Thrall’s Opera House (1824, below, right) a restored venue for theatricals and musicals once used by the well known Golden Troupe between 1875-1891. Originally a Rappist dormitory built of unpretentious style, the Thrall was renovated in the late 19th-century, newharmony6hence its present appearance. Otherwise an ordinary 19th-century structure externally, 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.

bodmer2Last but not least on their tour, the Guys visited the Maximilian-Bodmer Exhibit housed in a non-descript building at the corner of Tavern and Main Streets. Exhibited in an up-to-date, climate controlled space, this was a mind blower. Perfectly preserved, these are hand-colored illustrations depicting the early 19th-century explorations of Prince Maximilian of Wied on the American frontier and rendered by Johann Karl Bodmer. Extremely rare, these illustrations are very surprising find in little New Harmony and rewarding because they help to pictorially explain much about a vital territory in U.S. history. A must see.

Early on someone had their thinking cap on and helped to rescue New Harmony from possible oblivion. That person was Jane Blaffer Owen, Texaco and Exxon oil money heiress, who married Kenneth Dale Owen, a descendant of Robert Owen. Jane 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 France (Neil recently visited), America has an odd relationship with its past. Either enough people do not care or, more depressing, so few have any idea of about the value of what they are discarding.

For a delightful place to stay or dine, the New Harmony Inn/Red Geranium is excellent in every way. November 2011

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