A Quirky Utopian Town Embraces its Past while Forging its Future
Tucked away on the southwestern tip of Indiana on the banks of the Wabash River, the tiny town of New Harmony has evolved from an 1800s social experiment into a modern-day spiritual sanctuary and gathering place for scientists, spiritualists, artists, and scholars. Its placemaking story is guided by people who have taken note of its unique qualities and adapted them to the needs and demands of the current times.
Founded in 1814 by Johann Georg Rapp and his Harmonie Society, the town was purchased in 1825 by Robert Owen, who turned it into a utopian community. Although Owen’s experiment ultimately failed, the town racked up some notable claims to fame in its early years. It was home to the country’s first free library, the site of the first geological survey in the United States, and it even boasted a public school system open to both men and women.
More than a century after its founding, in the 1940s, Jane Blaffler Owen, picked up where her ancestor left off and took the lead on the town’s revitalization efforts. Ms Owen, joined by the State of Indiana and Lilly Endowment, snapped up nearly every historic building in town, many of which had fallen into disrepair. She turned to some of the nation’s leading architects to develop designs for the buildings incorporating sacred and natural geometry. She chose Richard Meier to design the striking white Athenaeum, which is now home to New Harmony’s visitor center. She picked Philip Johnson for the town’s iconic, non-denominational worship center, the Roofless Church, which was designed to reflect her belief that “all religions hold the heavens in common.”
Ms. Owen’s thoughtful and well-chronicled revitalization efforts in New Harmony caught the attention of Kent Schuette, an Indiana native and longtime landscape architecture professor at Purdue University. Schuette reached out to her in 1998 when Purdue University announced plans to tear down the second-oldest building on its campus. He wondered if instead of being razed, the building could be converted into a home for the university’s landscape architecture program. As he turned to her for advice on preserving a building, she sought his counsel on how to construct a labyrinth in New Harmony. It was the beginning of a partnership that ultimately inspired Kent to move to New Harmony, where he and his wife, Suzy, make their home today.
Drawing upon his architectural sense and preservationist sensibility, Schuette took part in the inaugural Place Making Institute in 2019 on behalf of New Harmony. As he explains, the town’s small size– just 719 residents—sets it apart from other communities in some senses. New Harmony doesn’t have town planning staff, but it does have appointed citizens who serve on the New Harmony Plan and Historic Preservation Commission and the New Harmony Zoning Commission. It also offers a comparable set of shops, galleries, and venues with an inherent harmony in design. Early 19th-century simple wooden buildings blend with late 19th-century architectural masterpieces on quiet treelined streets in the town’s central Historic District, which includes a library, gallery, and an opera house.
“Our values are the same, but the scale is different,” Schuette notes.
Although many of the town’s historic buildings are now under the stewardship of the University of Southern Indiana, New Harmony continues to carry out Jane Owen’s vision, serving as a mecca for visiting artists and spiritually minded groups and people. In recent years, the town has welcomed 26 artists to stay for three- to six-month residencies. Building upon this success, Schuette and his fellow community stakeholders spy opportunities to attract even more like-minded visiting artisans and travelers in the future. They envision enhancing the town’s architectural assets—such as the barn abbey, guest houses, and a pottery studio. They propose to reestablish the original integrity of each structure, then add new facilities and amenities for artists to teach their crafts and exhibit their work. They see New Harmony evolving as a sabbatical town, where small groups come for creative inspiration, reflection, and solace.
As with many other cultural enterprises, however, the challenges of the past year have dealt blows to this community. Venues that house up to 400 people for events now lay largely empty. The small businesses that rely on visitors and events for revenue are struggling to survive. All hope that the festivals and gatherings will rebound so that the town’s thoughtful evolution may continue and grow. Perhaps the type of introspection, peace, and outlets for creativity New Harmony offers may be exactly what pandemic-weary people seek, sparking even further growth.
Schuette recognizes that attracting more artisans and festival-goers—even in a measured and managed way—comes with some risk. As he asks, “How do you achieve excellence and remain small, and not have bigness, greed and speed overtake our little town?” It’s a question that many quaint and charming small towns have wrestled with in the past, and will continue to do so in the future, further underscoring the importance of frank and insightful analysis and discussion by the Place Making Institute now and in the future.