A surprising utopia

Special to The Times

New Harmony, Ind.

THIS place could be just another small Hoosier town basking on the banks of southern Indiana's Wabash River. It has a Victorian main street, cornfield-bordered basketball courts and Kiwanis Club meetings on Thursdays. But turn down a shady street and utopia shimmers in the soft Midwestern light.

Austere 19th century frame houses with beautiful gardens reside beside massive Germanic brick buildings resonating with a sense of hope and order. Pioneer-era log cabins cluster near the Modernist Atheneum, an angular porcelain-clad, steel-paneled building that looks dynamic enough to lift off. Gregorian chants, Shaker hymns and Tibetan mantras waft from a formal garden. Visitors wind through sacred labyrinths.

Utopian communities are rife in quixotic America, but New Harmony is one place where the dreamers were both deeply sacred and steadfastly secular -- and the modern manifestation is as idealistic and vital as its forebears.

In the early 19th century, when most of Indiana was still a vast, untamed forest, New Harmony was the home of two celebrated, dramatically different utopian experiments -- "a chimera in the wilderness," historian Anne Taylor, author of "Visions of Harmony: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Millenarianism" called it.

Fueled by the extraordinary minds drawn here, this little outpost was a center of American intellectual life far into the 19th century. After a sleepy hiatus, the town was revived in the 1960s, when the wealthy descendant of one of the original communalists embarked on a binge of historic renovation and cutting-edge architectural construction, as well as a plethora of spiritual undertakings.

Think of Williamsburg, Va., and Sedona, Ariz., humming together in some kind of paranormal convergence -- that's New Harmony today.

For decades, I've wandered New Harmony's peaceful lanes, where history is wrought in stone and timber, and world-changing dreams have become reality. I often come seeking tranquillity but instead find myself stimulated by the idealism in this little river town.

The German Harmonists who founded New Harmony in 1814 were celibate Christians. Under their charismatic leader, George Rapp, the Harmonists built an American frontier marvel: an engineered brick town, which had an orchestra and the largest library west of Pittsburgh and was surrounded by 2,000 acres of tended fields, vineyards and orchards. Lemon, orange and fig trees thrived in portable greenhouses. "They made the wilderness smile," wrote one traveler of the time.

Then, in 1825, wealthy Welsh industrialist Robert Owen bought out the Harmonists and established New Harmony's second utopian society. This one embraced progressive ideas and rejected religion completely.

Attracted by the vision of an intellectual haven in the virgin wilderness, some of the era's leading minds -- including renowned zoologist Thomas Say, progressive education luminary Marie Duclos Fretageot and William Maclure, the father of American geology -- traveled to New Harmony by keelboat, a vessel that came to be known as "the boatload of knowledge."

Though their utopian dream died in its infancy, many Owenites settled in the village.

Their scientific inquiry and radical ideas, including progressive education, labor unionism, abolitionism and feminism, had a broad and lasting influence on America.

In the post-Civil War era, industrialization and urbanism eventually drained the town of much of its intellectual capital as many descendants of the original utopians moved out.

A century later

NEW HARMONY slept for nearly a century before Texas heiress Jane Blaffer Owen, who married Robert Owen's great-great-grandson, Kenneth Dale Owen, began reinvigorating the town by mixing historic preservation and modern architecture with cerebral and spiritual exploration.

"New Harmony was a buried stream. All we had to do was to get it to flow again," Owen told me in her Southern accent. At 91, she still buzzes around New Harmony in her signature golf cart and wide woven sun hats. Owen talked to me of New Harmony as an epicenter of peace and serenity. "I agree with Dostoyevsky: 'Beauty will save the world,' " she said.

I decided she might be on to something as I walked around the town's gardens waving with blossoms and the leafy streets chockablock with elegant, finely proportioned buildings and listened to talk at the village tables as New Harmonites debated how they can change the world.

New Harmony today is still a tiny place -- its 850 residents number about the same as the Harmonists who started the village -- and visitors will find a few centuries compressed into a few blocks.

One morning last fall, I explored a lane at the edge of town, sauntering past a brown cornfield asymmetrical on a hillside, its striated rows as graphic as a Van Gogh painting.

The trail wound through a bower of trees to a low bluff above the Wabash. On the far bank of the river, egrets and herons stood like sentinels. Forest birds called out as rising fish dotted the river with circles. Low hills lay gauzy in the morning mist, the trees tinged with the promise of fall. As I sat on a sandstone ledge, I felt like I was back in the 1820s, when America was young and fresh, and Indiana was the Western frontier.

Within a few minutes' walk, I was back in modern times, strolling down North Street to see the Roofless Church, architect Philip Johnson's 1960 paean to pan-denominational spirituality. Inspired by the thought that only the sky was a big enough roof for people of all faiths, Johnson designed a sublime brick-walled garden. In the middle of it, he set a tall, shingle-clad dome in the shape of an inverted rose, honoring the Harmonists' golden rose symbol

Adjacent to the church, architect Richard Meier's small Modernist Pottery Studio stands as a counterpoint to the nearby rustic log cabins and the spare Harmonist David Lenz House. Just down the street, Meier's dramatic Atheneum/Visitors Center drew architectural raves when it opened more than two decades ago. Alluring interior ramps lead to a small theater, where a short film informs visitors about New Harmony.

As I stood on the Atheneum's upper floor overlooking the Wabash, I mused on a scale model of New Harmony in 1825, the year Robert Owen took possession, imagining the awkward exchanges between the pious Harmonists and the iconoclastic Owenites. It must have been like a band of Harvard hippies taking over a Shaker village.

Across the street, a blond woman in shorts entered the shady environs of the Cathedral Labyrinth and Sacred Garden. The space replicates the perimeter and labyrinth of the great 12th century cathedral at Chartres. The maze allows walkers to untangle their own quandaries as they solve the knot of the labyrinth. I watched the woman slowly negotiate the polished 42-foot granite circle, turning this way and that, and finally emerge quietly with a smile.

In 1818, the Harmonists built the massive stone Rapp-Owen Granary barely a block away from the Atheneum, not too many years before they sold New Harmony to Owen and left for new challenges in Pennsylvania.

Within a few years of its founding, Owen's utopian endeavor collapsed in acrimony. Unlike the industrious Harmonists, there were too many brainy Owenite chiefs and not nearly enough workers.

Several of Owen's cerebral colleagues who remained after the collapse, including William Maclure and Thomas Say, made this little outpost on the Wabash a hub of America's natural sciences for several decades in the 19th century.

Owen's two sons also settled in New Harmony, educator Robert Dale Owen, who helped form the Smithsonian Institute, and David Dale Owen, the first geologist hired by the federal government to classify public lands. In the 1830s, David Dale Owen began to use the Rapp-Owen Granary as his laboratory. Today, the granary has been reborn as a stunning hall and performing space.

My stomach was rumbling as I headed up Main Street, past the brooding redbrick Community House No. 2, a gender-segregated Harmonist dormitory. During the Owen period, it served as a school run by Parisian innovator Fretageot.

Crossing Church Street, I was in the middle of New Harmony's Victorian commercial district, an exuberance of gingerbread and Italianate- and Gothic-styled small-town mercantilism. But unlike many near-abandoned Midwestern downtowns, New Harmony's Main Street is thriving. The town has a hardware store, grocery and cinema, along with two art galleries, antique shops, a bookstore and a variety of eateries.

I stepped into the Main Cafe, where the breakfast crowd sat at pushed-together tables under the high, pressed-tin ceiling. As I ate my ham and eggs and half order of biscuits and gravy, the talk turned to the state of the union -- natural disasters, the high price of gas, a boy coming home from Iraq in a coffin.

I watched the veteran waitresses hustle between ruddy farmers, businessmen in white short-sleeve shirts and a small detachment wearing T-shirts that proclaimed EMT and coroner.

It struck me that New Harmony is an authentic place, where a farmer is a farmer, a waitress is a waitress. It gives the town an honesty and immediacy that is absent in some parts of the country.

People put roots here or endeavor to come back when they can. Descendants of the Owenites still populate the town, along with folks drawn here by the utopian hope of New Harmony. They are often pragmatic visionaries who keep New Harmony's dream of a better tomorrow alive.

Sherry Graves is the great-great-great granddaughter of Robert Owen and directs the Working Men's Institute, itself a living legacy of Maclure's determination to educate the masses.

"When I think about new people," Graves said, "I think they are people who walk to the beat of a different drummer."

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In the heartland

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Delta, American and Northwest have connecting service (change of plane) to Evansville, Ind. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $314.

WHERE TO STAY:

The New Harmony Inn, 504 North St.; (800) 782-8605 or (812) 682-4431, www.newharmonyinn.com, is a contemporary hotel with a refined Shaker-inspired elegance. Doubles $70-$175. The inn also offers three antique houses at $150-$600 a night.

The Old Rooming House, 916 E. Church St.; (888) 255-8256 or (812) 682-4724, www.oldroominghouse.com, is a vintage boardinghouse, decorated with 1940s ephemera. Doubles $42.40 a night.

WHERE TO EAT:

The Red Geranium, 504 North St.; (812) 682-4431, at the New Harmony Inn. Often hailed as New Harmony's top restaurant. Ask for a seat in the Tillich Room's atrium. Dinner for two about $75.

The Cooper House, 610 Church St., (812) 682-3607. Offers updated fare in an 1814 Harmonist building. Dinner for two about $50.

The Yellow Tavern, 521 Church St.; (812) 682-3303, has been serving local favorites since Owenite days. Menu of American foods includes fried brain sandwiches. Dinner for two about $20.

WHAT TO DO:

The New Harmony Atheneum Visitors Center, North and Arthur streets, (800) 231-2168, www.newharmony.org. Offers maps for self-guided tours, as well as guided tours ($10 for adults) of the town at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. March 15 through Dec. 30.

TO LEARN MORE:

Indiana Department of Tourism, 1 N. Capitol Ave., Suite 100, Indianapolis, IN 46204; (888) 365-6946, www.enjoyindiana.com.

-- Douglas Wissing

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