Situated along the Wabash River in Indiana’s southwestern-most county of Posey, New Harmony is a must-see destination for all Hoosier history lovers. Since 1965, a portion of town has been a National Historic Landmark and in 2001, even more of the town was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Downtown New Harmony welcomes visitors to its historic storefronts.
New Harmony is best known for being home to two 19th-century utopian experiments in communal living. In 1804, George Rapp and his subset of Pietist followers, soon to be known as the Harmony Society, left Württemberg, Germany in search of religious freedom. They believed that Christ’s second coming would occur during their lifetime and rejected the teachings of the Lutheran Church. They first immigrated to Butler County in western Pennsylvania but moved to the Indiana Territory in 1814, founding the town of Harmonie along the Wabash River. Colonists were chosen to be a part of the community for their various talents as skilled artisans, craftsmen, and farmers. The Harmonists believed in hard work and excelled at commerce. Rapp’s communalism teachings emphasized prayer and fellowship but rejected ideas of personal wealth or property. As a result of their frugal lifestyle and strong work ethic, the Harmonists accumulated significant wealth and constructed over 180 brick, frame, and log buildings. Many of their well-crafted structures survive today.
The Rapp-Owen Granary dates to 1818 during the Harmonist period and has been meticulously restored.
In 1825, the Harmonists decided to return to Pennsylvania. They sold 20,000 acres including the town of Harmonie to Robert Owen. Owen was a Welsh socialist reformer and businessman who owned New Lanark Mills in Scotland. Unlike Harmonie, Owen’s utopian society was to be secular in nature, based upon science, philosophy, and education. New Harmony embraced women’s rights, child labor laws, and free public education. Well-known thinkers came to New Harmony including William Maclure and Thomas Say, founders of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science. Despite the prominent intellectuals in residence, Owen’s social experiment failed after only two years. Owen returned to England but four of his sons and one daughter remained in Indiana and made their own mark on our history: Robert Dale Owen served as both an Indiana and a United States Representative and helped found the Smithsonian Institution; David Dale Owen served as both the Indiana State and the United States Geologist and from 1839 to 1856, the headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey was located in New Harmony; Richard Owen was a geologist, doctor, military officer, and the first president of Purdue University.
During the latter half of the 19th century, New Harmony remained a center of cultural and commercial activity. In 1888, the Harmonist Community House Number 4, built in 1824, was given a facelift and turned into Thrall’s Opera House. Meanwhile, commercial buildings on Main Street were constructed in the popular Victorian-era architectural styles. A number of buildings feature ornamental sheet metal or cast-iron facades produced by the Meskers. The Romanesque Revival Working Men’s Institute was constructed in 1894. The institute, which was established in 1838 by William Maclure, has been in continuous operation for over 170 years. It was the first of 144 such institutes in Indiana and 16 in Illinois. Today, it is the only one remaining and has the distinction of being Indiana’s oldest continuously-operating, public lending-library. Visitors to the library, museum, and archive are welcome and may even see such oddities as an eight-legged calf.
The Working Men’s Institute, 407 West Tavern Street. The building houses a library, archive, museum, and fine art gallery and is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
During the 1960s and 1970s, New Harmony experienced a rebirth. Harmonist structures and downtown commercial buildings were restored while new buildings by internationally famous architects were being erected. These include the 1960 Roofless Church by Philip Johnson, the 1974 New Harmony Inn by Indianapolis architect Evans Woolen, and the 1979 Atheneum by Richard Meier. Today, Historic New Harmony is a unified program of the University of Southern Indiana and the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. Their mission, in part, is to convey to visitors an appreciation of the creative endeavors that resulted from the significant periods in New Harmony history.
The Roofless Church was designed by world renowned modern architect, Philip Johnson.
Things to Do
A great place to begin your visit is at New Harmony’s Visitor Center (401 N. Arthur Street; 800.231.2168), located in the impressive Atheneum building designed by internationally-known modern architect, Richard Meier. Historic New Harmony offers daily tours originating at the Atheneum between March 15 and December 30. Tours cost between $5-10, last 2-3 hours, and include an orientation film, Atheneum exhibits, and access to historic structures in town.
Designed by Richard Meier, the Atheneum is home to New Harmony’s Visitor Center.
A favorite pastime in New Harmony is relaxation! The quiet, peaceful streets of New Harmony provide the perfect backdrop for a morning stroll, while its two labyrinths inspire prayer and thoughtful reflection. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, bicycles (and even golf carts) are available for rent and many local inns provide the complimentary use of bikes to guests.
New Harmony’s peaceful streets are perfect for quite strolls.
Art aficionados will find that a single day is hardly enough time to take in all New Harmony has to offer. Public sculptures can be found throughout the small town and a number of galleries are located downtown along Church and Main Streets.
The Fountain of Commitment is located in Church Park at the site of the former Harmonist Church. Sculpted by Don Gummer, it was dedicated to the memory of Kenneth Dale Owen in 2003.
Shoppers will enjoy New Harmony’s antique, gift, and specialty shops, many of which are housed in beautiful and historic commercial buildings and houses. Catch a movie year-round, or during the summer, theater-goers can take in a production at New Harmony Theater, located in the historic Murphy Auditorium.
New Harmony’s restored commercial buildings house restaurants, antique shops, and specialty stores.
From Indianapolis, New Harmony is about a 3.5 hour drive. Head west on I-70. In Terre Haute, take US 41 south. Continue south, passing through Vincennes, Princeton, and Fort Branch. Take I-64 west to exit #4, SR 69. Head south for 7 miles to SR 66 west, which leads directly to New Harmony. Click here for directions.
Dining options include American, Italian, and nostalgia-infused fare, light meals at a local coffeehouse, and pub favorites.
Cook’s on Brewery Bed and Breakfast; 815 South Brewery Street, New Harmony, Indiana 47631; 812.682.3646; call for rates.
Cook’s on Brewery Bed and Breakfast is located in a 1908 Free Classic cottage that has two guest rooms furnished with queen-sized beds and private baths. A locally-sourced breakfast is served to guests and complimentary use of bikes is available to guests for exploring town.
Harmonie State Park; 3451 Harmonie State Park Road, New Harmony, IN 47631; 812.682.4821; rates from $17+ (campsites) and $70+ (cabins) per night.
Harmonie State Park, located 5 miles south of New Harmony on SR 69 offers 11 cabins and 200 campsites, as well as an outdoor pool, and biking and hiking trails.
New Harmony Inn and Conference Center; 506 North Street, New Harmony, Indiana 47631; 812.682.4491/800-782.8605; $135-190 (rooms) per night.
The New Harmony Inn offers 90 rooms, some of which feature fireplaces, sleeping lofts, balconies, walk-out patios, and lake views. In addition, three guest houses boast private gardens and up to four bedrooms. Guests receive a continental breakfast and complimentary use of a fitness center and outdoor tennis courts.
The Old Rooming House; 916 Church Street, New Harmony, Indiana 47631; 812.781.9218/888.255.8256; rates $60 or less per night.
The Old Rooming House has offered affordable accommodations to New Harmony visitors since 1949. Built in 1896, the I-house was originally a family home. Complimentary use of bikes is available to all guests.
Please be sure to confirm all rates, hours of operation, and other details directly with the companies/organizations in question before planning your trip. The mention of and/or links to companies/organizations in this post do not constitute an endorsement.
Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, Posey County Interim Report: Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory, 2004.
Historic New Harmony, http://www.usi.edu/hnh/harmonist.asp, accessed 14 March 2011.
New Harmony Inn, http://www.newharmonyinn.com/leisure/sculpture.php, accessed 14 March 2011.
The Working Men’s Institute, http://www.workingmensinstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=46:working-mens-institute&catid=35:general, accessed 14 March 2011.
Photographs by author.