Column: History of New Harmony’s “utopias”


New Harmony, Ind., is famous for two 19th-century idealists who established communities there and for Indiana’s first beer.

In 1803, George Rapp and some followers left Germany to escape religious persecution.  Expecting Jesus imminent return, these Harmonists established Harmony, Penn., holding property communally and advocating piety, industriousness, celibacy and pacifism. In 1814, after selling Harmony, they acquired 20,000 acres along the east bank of the Wabash River 29 miles from Evansville. In 10 years, about 800 Harmonists cleared 2,000 acres and erected 180 buildings in New Harmony, including log and frame family houses; community houses for unmarried adults; mills; factories; two churches, one in the shape of a cross; a granary; and a brewery. They established an orchard near the river and a hedge labyrinth south of town. In 1825, the Harmonists sold New Harmony for $200,000 (about $4.5 million today) to Robert Owen, a wealthy Welsh industrialist, and returned to Pennsylvania. Although Owen’s plan for a secular utopia failed, his ideas and the people he attracted had a lasting impact on New Harmony and the nation (more next week).

In 1965, the New Harmony Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark. The district includes about 25 buildings from the Harmonist era, including several frame houses and one community house in its original configuration. Another surviving Harmonist community house was converted to an opera house and is now an entertainment venue, as is the granary. The district includes the Harmonist Labryrinth, reconstructed near its original site in 1938. A reconstructed 1822 “Door of Promise, originally leading to Harmonist churches, now leads to Church Park, featuring a fountain by Don Gummer, a renowned sculptor reared in Indiana. Reflecting the continuing progressive ideals of New Harmony, its visitor’s center is in the award-winning four-story Atheneum, designed by famed architect Richard Meier early in his career.


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