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Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:01 am

Visit New Harmony, historic and serene

One of two labyrinths in New Harmony, Ind., offers visitors the opportunity to meander through the shrubbery maze to a small temple in the center. The former utopian community also has a stone labyrinth modeled on the one at the Chartres Cathedral in France.


New Harmony, Ind., is a special place to stop and smell the roses – or at least the red geraniums. And 2014 is a perfect year to visit this former utopian community as it celebrates its bicentennial.

Founded in 1814 by a German communal society and sold 10 years later to a Welsh visionary, the town of 800 in far southwestern Indiana along the Wabash River has deep roots in contemplation, nature and the arts.

Vacationers looking for giant water slides, miniature golf courses, outlet malls or boisterous bars will be disappointed in New Harmony, but that is fine with those who treasure its quiet streets, open green spaces and emphasis on serenity.

 “We’re very quaint, charming and quirky,” says MeLissa Williams, visitor services coordinator for Historic New Harmony. “We’re slightly off the beaten path and we’re a relaxed, laid-back community so visitors kind of fall into that too.”

That’s not to say there is nothing to do there. Modern visitors can delve into its history, wander a labyrinth or walking trail, hunt for antiques or artwork, let the children romp in the parks, rent a golf cart to explore and even hike, bike, fish or swim in an Olympic-size pool at nearby Harmonie State Park.

Many flock to the New Harmony Inn for a weekend stay and its Red Geranium Restaurant with the namesake flowers for fine dining. You also can camp at the state park, stay in a bed and breakfast, eat at casual cafes and sample Harmonie Bier, brewed from an original Harmonist recipe.

The ecumenical Roofless Church, built in the 1960s to embrace all worshipping humanity, is one of many contemplative spaces in New Harmony.
The town hosts festivals and cultural programs, including art strolls, writers’ workshops and music performances. The University of Southern Indiana’s summer equity theater season in New Harmony includes Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Fantasticks for 2014.

The bicentennial year brings even more events, including a parade, a 5K run, an antique machinery show, house tours, concerts and special speakers, Williams says, with Aug. 1-10 as the capstone period.

To better understand what brought two early 19th century communal groups to the area, begin at the Atheneum/Visitor Center, open year round except for major winter holidays. The stark white design of architect Richard Meier stands in sharp contrast to the log homes of early settlers, but one tour guide called it “our generation’s contribution” to the community. You can view an orientation film and join a two-hour walking tour to see a home, cemetery, granary and other sites associated with the New Harmony experience.

That experience began when religious dissenters from Germany, led by George Rapp, decided to settle on the banks of the Wabash to await the second coming of Christ. They practiced celibacy as part of their sacrifices of self desire and personal ambition, were industrious and prospered.

Ten years later, however, Rapp opted for an unknown reason to sell the community to Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer and industrialist. Owen and partner William Maclure gathered scholars and scientists from Europe and America to establish a “community of equality” with some calling it the Athens of the West. Owen envisioned the group would achieve universal happiness through education and communal living but paid scant attention to setting up rules and regulations.

That lack of leadership and little knowledge of business and farming among his followers doomed the community in less than two years. Still, the legacy of these idealists continues in New Harmony and beyond. The town had one of the first free coed public school systems in the United States and one of the earliest free public libraries.

The Atheneum serves as a center where visitors can view a film about the former utopian community, see displays and join a walking tour. World-renowned architect Richard Meier designed the building.

Even the town’s early cemetery reflects the emphasis on equality in life and death by having no headstones. A shrubbery-lined labyrinth near the edge of town recreates a Harmonist garden with paths leading to a temple and symbolizing life’s sometimes difficult choices. Across from the visitor center, a stone labyrinth modeled on the one in France’s Chartres Cathedral also is popular with visitors seeking contemplation.

A 1960s structure is the ecumenical Roofless Church, a 50-foot shingled dome open to the sky to symbolize all worshipping humanity. It sits in the middle of a courtyard with gardens and sculptures and houses a bronze “Descent of the Holy Spirit” statue by Jacques Lipchitz.

Such contemplative spaces and the myriad activities in New Harmony draw visitors from all over the world, according to Williams. She adds that many leave wishing they had had more time – perhaps to stop and smell those geraniums.

New Harmony is at the intersection of Indiana Routes 66 and 68, seven miles south of Interstate 64 and a little more than 200 miles from Springfield. Get more information on the town at www.visitnewharmony.com, on bicentennial activities at www.newharmony-in.gov and on summer theater at www.newharmonytheatre.com. Harmonie State Park’s phone is 812-682-4821.

Mary Bohlen is a freelance writer and editor in Springfield and emeritus faculty member at the University of Illinois Springfield, where she taught journalism and chaired the Communication Department. She alternates writing the monthly IT column on Midwestern travel with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago.

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