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A surprising utopia

New Harmony, the site of two attempts at communal living -- one sacred, one secular -- still exudes a culture of experimentation.

May 07, 2006|Douglas Wissing | 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.

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