Karl Rodmer, 1832-33: Wabash River Cutoff at New Harmony
Imagine a whole town devoted to faith, spirituality and the arts. That’s New Harmony, Indiana.
I got my second chance to visit New Harmony when Peter was here last month. I wanted to take him on a Best of Indiana tour, which I dubbed the “U.S. 41 Cruise.” I wrote about it earlier here.
We only got to stay one night in New Harmony, but I keep thinking about the place. It’s a town of about a thousand people, on the banks of the Wabash River.
It was the scene of two 18th century utopias. First came the Rappites, a group of breakaway German Lutherans looking to set up an ideal society in a pristine place away from other people. They lasted about ten years, but were wracked by internal disagreements, so they sold the whole town to Scottish reformer Robert Owen and moved back to Pennsylvania.
Owen, an industrialist, was your basic Socialist. He didn’t believe in religion, but tried to create a society without class distinctions, where no one owned private property and all goods were held in common. That experiment lasted all of two years, but did it ever have enduring effects.
Owen was a believer in public education, the dignity of workers and the importance of science and the arts. His son became a geologist who conducted some of the first studies of the landmass of the eastern United States. Indeed, the first headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey was in New Harmony, Indiana. Much of his work is located today in the Smithsonian Institution. Later Owens used their knowledge of geology to get involved in the oil business.
Owen’s three-great grandson married a woman named Jane Blaffer, heiress to a Houston oil fortune; her parents were art collectors and philanthropists. Jane’s husband told her about New Harmony, and shortly after they were married, they visited the town in 1941.
She was both fascinated and appalled—fascinated because two dozen of the old log cabins from the Rapp and Owen days were still standing; and appalled because the town itself was completely derelict.
It must have been like visiting an old abandoned gold mine out West, only to realize that most of the gold was still there, right under the inhabitants’ noses.
She promptly bought everything she could get her hands on, the granary, the mill, the old, decrepit buildings from the 1820’s, which she set about preserving.
Her motive wasn’t profit, but restoration. She set up a foundation, named for her father, to hold title on the lands, while she set about creating partnerships that would restore New Harmony to its former glory.
Sixty-odd years later, it’s quite obvious the lady succeeded, probably beyond her wildest dreams.
The town has a spiritual aura to it unlike any other settlement I’ve ever been to. In some ways New Harmony is a typical Indiana small town, not many people, not much business, but in other ways it’s now a grand, quiet outdoor cathedral.
Nowhere is this more true than in its Roofless Church, because no building is big enough to contain all the spiritual aspirations of God’s children.
The blocklong structure is four walls with a couple of entrances, including a magnificent gate. The walls have windows so you can see beyond them. A visual focal point is a central altar area, with an open-air shelter in the shape of an inverted rosebud. But all throughout the grounds are smaller meditation places; a little arbor with benches, a water sculpture reminiscent of baptism, and flower gardens.
A short distance away is a labyrinth modeled after the famous one at Chartres Cathedral—again, open-air, free to the public. Mrs. Blaffer Owen also built a gorgeous memorial to a lost daughter, called Carol’s Garden, which is sheltered by scores of gnarled pear trees.
Across the street is a landmark of modern architecture called the Athenaeum. A short walk away are the pioneer homes and workplaces of the original Harmonists. Galleries are around the corner, fine dining just up the street.
There can’t be another town like this anywhere in the world.
New Harmony is this lady’s life work. Her investments not only saved a historic place, she made it better than it’s ever been. And there isn’t a T-shirt shop or chain restaurant to be found.
Peter and I visited St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, always open for prayer. My hometown, 200 miles north, is twice the size of New Harmony but doesn’t have an Episcopal Church. What I would give to have one close by!
Next door is a potter’s shop; I bought two pieces. We don’t have any potters in my hometown either.
Peter and I stayed at the New Harmony Inn and Conference Center, and I must say I was amazed to find that much of the décor is Christian and spiritual art. It has its own oratory. When is the last time you stayed at a hotel with a place for prayer?
The Inn is one of Mrs. Owen’s projects too. The town has to have income to be a viable concern; she didn’t just pour money into the place, but helped develop an infrastructure that supports her artistic, scientific and spiritual vision. A partnership with the University of Southern Indiana has been a key component; USI archeology students were finishing up a dig while we were there.
It’s not wrong to say New Harmony is now a better utopia than it ever was before. Yes, Mrs. Owen has money, but she could have spent it jet-setting, not restoring a rustic Indiana town with one road in and one road out.
She’s given the town, the state and indeed the nation an incredible act of love. It honors her husband and family, but unobtrusively; the spotlight is on the Rappites and Owenites, and our response to their ideas of “living life higher” today.
I’d love to live in such an environment, so I’ve been checking out real estate websites. I would hate to leave my home and garden here, a quarter-acre of the richest loam on earth; but I’d love to live next to God. Wouldn’t you?
Paul Tillich, the famous theologian, fell in love with New Harmony, and his ashes are buried in Paul Tillich Park. He wanted to live next to God too.
Unfortunately I have no way to make a living in New Harmony, any more than I do here. I can fantasize about opening a Gay-friendly bed and breakfast, and guiding tours to all the fantastic recreational spots nearby, but thoughts like that aren’t realistic. I just want to live there, I don’t know anything about the tourism business. I have two religious credentials, but they’re not money-makers either. The parish already has a rector, who oversees the Roofless Church too.
“My bishop,” John P. Craine, was a good friend of Paul Tillich’s, and probably Mrs. Owen’s; that’s how a lot of this came about. I don’t know if she’s an Episcopalian, but she sounds like one.
So I fantasize, even though I know I couldn’t qualify for another mortgage. I have equity here; I’ve been five years here, and the tomatoes are going great guns. My Street with No Traffic is as peaceful as ever.
I just want to live close to God.++
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