Utopia, Hoosier-Style

New Harmony has a peaceful past and present

By Glenda Winders

A stone bench in New Harmony bears the inscription, “If we cannot reconcile all opinions, let us endeavor to unite all hearts.” The author of the quote was Robert Owen, who in 1825 was the second person to attempt establishing a utopian community on the idyllic banks of the Wabash River. His experiment failed, but his influence remains, and today his bench and the sentiment behind it provide the perfect place to begin exploring this fascinating town.

History-rich New Harmony, located in southwest Indiana’s Posey County, is an excellent spot for a weekend getaway or a longer stay. And the shops, galleries and restaurants that embrace and celebrate the town’s storied past make the visit just that much more fun.

“Many of the businesses are housed in historic buildings, and we all take pride in New Harmony’s historic past,” says Lynn Clark, president of the New Harmony Business Association and owner of Lowry Hollow, an antique store housed in the historic train depot. “Sara’s Harmony Way Wine Bar and Pub serves the Rappite recipe for Harmonie Bier, and Firehouse Antiques is housed in the old historic firehouse. In a town of approximately 850 people it takes everyone to help connect the history of the past with the living events of today.”

A look back

First a little history to get you into the local spirit: George Rapp and a group of German Lutherans who called themselves “Harmonists” or “Rappites” were the first to settle the town. They hoped to find the isolation that had eluded them at their first home in Pittsburgh. They built an orderly town and set up a successful economy with mills, factories and breweries, but after a decade they returned to Pennsylvania to be closer to other German-speaking people.

Rapp sold the town to Owen, a wealthy Scottish industrialist who had made his fortune in textiles. Owen envisioned a “new moral world” based on social reform and happiness achieved through equality and enlightenment, science and technology. The ideals were lofty, but individualism soon replaced socialism, and the experiment failed after two years.

Fast-forward to 1941, when Jane Blaffer Owen, the wife of Robert’s great-great-grandson, Kenneth, visited New Harmony and fell in love with it. She pledged to restore the town to its original glory, and her effort was a success. Many of today’s must-see spots are the results of her ideas and commissions.

It seems the town’s original goal, that of isolation, was met: At the time of the 2010 census, New Harmony boasted a population of 789.

In the present

When visiting, the logical first stop is the Athenaeum, a sweeping white modern building designed by architect Richard Meier, whose designs also include Clifty Creek Elementary School in Columbus and the Getty Center in Los Angeles. You’ll find a museum, as well as the visitors center, where the walking tours begin. These two-hour tours will bring the community’s utopian past to life and begin at 1 p.m. daily.

During the tour you’ll see some of the original buildings, such as a house built by Robert Owen and rented to some of his followers; Community House No. 2, a dormitory where single Harmonists lived and which Owen later converted into business space; and the home of Harmonist David Lenz and his family, among others. You’ll visit Harmonist-built Thrall’s Opera House and the Harmonist Cemetery and go for a stroll through the Harmonist Labyrinth, a 1939 re-creation of the original.

Some of these attractions are free and available to see on your own, though not the buildings. Other sites to see independently are the Cathedral Labyrinth, which duplicates the one at the 13th-century Chartres Cathedral near Paris; Church Park, built on the site of two Harmonist churches; Carol’s Garden and Fountain of Life, created as a memorial to Jane and Kenneth’s daughter; and Our Lord’s Wood, where the art- and poetry-lined path leads across a turquoise bridge and to a waterfall.

Make sure to visit the Roofless Church, designed for Jane Owen by another famous architect, Philip Johnson. The idea was that the only roof big enough to cover a world full of worshippers was the sky; the “church” is a park enclosed by a brick wall. At one end is a bronze sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz titled “The Descent of the Holy Spirit.” Covered by the cedar dome the sculpture has become a New Harmony icon.

Before you return to the present for more modern shopping and dining, you might want to check out the Working Men’s Institute, which was established by William Maclure, a business partner of Robert Owen who shared his vision that knowledge should be available to everyone. This functioning library — the oldest continuously operating one in Indiana — also houses rare books, papers and artifacts, such as a letter from Robert Owen to Abraham Lincoln. The 1894 Victorian Romanesque Revival building also houses traditional and contemporary art galleries.

Save some time to browse in the town’s other art galleries, some of which spotlight local, Indiana and Midwestern artists, such as the Hoosier Salon and the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art. There’s also the Women’s Institute and Gallery, so named because of New Harmony’s early efforts toward women’s suffrage. The Antique Doll Shoppe is a museum filled with dolls and related objects.

Fresh air and fresh shopping

New Harmony is also a perfect destination for anyone seeking outdoor fun, with its miles of riverfront and wooded trails as well as its state and city parks. Thanks to its proximity to the Wabash, boating, canoeing and fishing are all available, as are golf, tennis and horseback riding. You might want to finish your day with a massage or scrub at the Moon River Spa in the New Harmony Inn, but be sure to call ahead for an appointment.

As you might guess, New Harmony shopping is heavy on antiques. In addition to Lowry Hollow and Firehouse Antiques are the Antique Emporium; Cookie Jar Antiques, where many dealers display their wide variety of offerings; and The Mews, which carries items ranging from antiques to current fashions.

For unusual gift items and fun places to browse, visit Arbor House and Garden, the New Harmony Soap Co. and Creation Station, where if you can’t find what you want they’ll make every attempt to create it for you. The Golden Rose, named for the symbol of the Harmonists, is the place for fresh and silk flowers as well as chocolates and gifts. Several of these businesses are closed on Wednesdays, so plan accordingly if you’re coming to shop.

The Red Geranium, also part of the New Harmony Inn, has long been a favorite of visitors for fine dining, so when you’re ready for a meal, be it breakfast, lunch, dinner or brunch, you might want to give it a try. The three dining rooms range from casual to elegant, and the menu features American food with Midwestern favorites.

Other good places to eat are Mary Scott’s Kitchen for Southern, Cajun and Mexican dishes; the Yellow Tavern for burgers, pizzas, tenderloins and their signature bread pudding; and Main Café for family-style dining and good pie.

At day’s end there are plenty of places to lay your head, and most of them abound in character. The New Harmony Inn Resort and Conference Center is one popular choice. The A.C. Thomas House Bed and Breakfast Inn features luxurious accommodations in a Victorian home, and Cooks on Brewery Bed and Breakfast offers locally sourced breakfasts and complimentary bicycles. Or rent The Loft on Main, which bills itself as a “home away from home” and is an apartment that sleeps four.

And that’s just a start. For more places to explore, eat and stay and for the many festivals to which New Harmony is host, check out visitposeycounty.com.

“New Harmony is the perfect place to get away to relax, refresh and renew,” says Kari Mobley, executive director of Visit New Harmony. “Our one-of-a-kind arts and architecture and beautiful scenery will leave you feeling enlightened.”