By the Wabash River, two Utopian communities tried to create their own experimental paradises. They failed, of course. But going to New Harmony today gives one a light, dare I say, harmonious feeling.
New Harmony is the second oldest town in Indiana. And charming little red brick houses and old timbers cabins still line the streets.
Harmony Society members, led by George Rapp, established Harmony (or Harmonie) in 1814. Harmonists were a sect of German Lutherans. They emigrated to America in hopes of establishing a utopian community. Hard work and abstaining from sex would lead them to heaven in their teachings. In only a few years they had created a thriving orderly town. A decade later Harmonists felt eager to be closer to others who shared their German heritage. So, they returned to Pennsylvania to found the town of Economy (present-day Ambridge).
But in 1824, Robert Owen purchased the whole town of Harmony. He was fresh from his efforts at New Lanark, Scotland. And he wanted to flex his utopian muscles in America. But he had in mind a self-sufficient secular socialist community. Harmony became New Harmony and Owen and his family settled there.
Though their experiment failed in two years it was a serendipitous failure. Many naturalists findings, paintings, and reform ideas were nurtured there. (By and by, thank you, Owen, for the 8 hour work day!) Owen returned to the UK and resumed his efforts. His children stayed in America.
Both the Harmonists and Owenists left their mark on New Harmony. Though their methods diverged, they both sought out peace and healthy living for their followers. I recommend reading more about these fascinating men. I realize that’s a very short and scattered intro to these Utopian societies in America.
Pottering About in New Harmony
First stop, the Visitors Center. Atheneum Visitors Center is fascinating in itself. When you enter it’s like an angel chorus should great you. It’s all white, bright, and well lit.
Designed by Richard Meier, of the Getty Center fame, it won many awards after it opened in 1979. Not least of all the AIA’s prestigious Twenty-five Year Award. Take a look at other recipients and you’ll see it’s in good company. Not bad for a visitors center.
I recommend renting a golf cart at the visitors center. Locals drive around on them, too. And you’ll miss out on some of the charm if you drive around a car car. It’s a serene area, and part of that is the small feeling and quietness. Of course, everything is so close walking works perfectly well, too.
There are maps at the center but we just drove around.
I liked this building not too far away – the Double Log Cabin. It’s the oldest in town.
New Harmony Labyrinth
One of the major draws to New Harmony is the gardens.
The stunning labyrinth is sure to charm.
It’s not a maze, so don’t expect to get lost in it. Mazes are meant to confuse. Labyrinths are basically glorified meditation paths. Like life, there are many twists and turns, but ultimately one entrance and exit. I’m a sucker for a labyrinth.
It’s based on the original Harmonist labyrinth made from currants and hazel bushes. The iconic layout is the same.
Walk through it. Don’t rush yourself. Listen to the wind and your footsteps. It’s a great place to relax and muse on, well, whatever. A leisurely walk will take you an hour – but there are “quick exit” routes if you’re short on time.
There’s a host of other gardens to see, too.
As we drove around we saw a barefoot girl rode her bike around this pond. She did circles around her grandmother. Locals talked about religion and who in the neighborhood needed help and prayers. Friendly people waved at us in our golf cart as we motored to the next garden or historic house.
I felt like I was in Big Fish. (Incidentally, you can visit the actual film set in Alabama.) It felt friendly, accepting, and out of time.
I found this piece moving. It’s an architectural monument designed by renowned modernist architect, Philip Johnson. You may recognize his name attached to projects like The Glass House. He’s also the man responsible for many famous skyscrapers, like the Seagram Building.
The Roofless Church invites anyone and everyone to worship under what is above us all – the sky.
It looks a bit like a hooded spirit from an anime to me. Others think it looks like a sheet.
Owen’s utopia revered roses, so maybe Johnson built it in the form of an inverted rose. But, there’s no evidence he intended this similarity. Either way, it’s become a symbol of tolerance.
There’s an oculus at the top of the building. Like a porthole to the sky itself. Right under it is a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz, “The Descent of the Holy Spirit”.
It’s a place of contemplation and peace.
The garden itself felt like a metaphor. One side looked out into farmland. The other into town. One gate looked like Buckingham Palace’s.
While another was plain. There was also a ring of pear trees across the path from a zen-like garden with a shrine. It was fun to ponder the meaning. Or if there was one at all. I found it all very beautiful and thought-provoking.
Downtown New Harmony
This is small town America at its best.
I sneezed and a stranger in a car driving by yelled, “Bless you!”
Maybe it’s the state of things (or me) now, but that friendliness caught me off guard.
All the houses and storefronts are bright and well-kept. Locals and their pets are happy to discuss their wares with you. A content cat basking in the sunlight at an antique store yawned at us.
Find some of the local ceramics. If you’re a ceramicist, check out their residency. New Harmony attracts lots of optimistic creatives types. And no wonder, it’s a slice of solitude. And a perfect place to write or paint and rejuvenate.
People seem to relax here. Slow it down a little.
I know I did.
Where to next? There’s a lot of major cities within a few hours drive. St. Louis, Nashville, Louisville and Indianapolis. We stayed in Evansville with family friends. But managed to go to St. Louis and to Mammoth Cave National Park. There’s a host of National Forests and recreation areas. Get an idea of what to do when looking for smaller things locally.