Start: Carmi, IL
Finish: Princeton, IN
Weather: 90 degrees, sunny
Bike Time: 5 hours
Distance to date: 1,660
A visit to New Harmony, IN is inspiring, informative, thought provoking, but ultimately dispiriting. The bucolic tree lined streets, the sedate architecture, the bountiful gardens, the charming downtown
with cafes and drug stores, the cheerful people tootling around nirvana in their golf carts all speak to a level of cultural refinement absent from the material world I have been riding through. The community represents so much that is worthy, but so little of it translates beyond the twelve block area of the utopian experiment that the town is more of a tourist curiosity than a viable model for how we might lead more meaningful lives.
New Harmony was founded by Rappists who built the town out of nothing between 1814 and 1824. The Rappists believed in a strict interpretation of the Biblical Rapture that required they build three communities, ten years, ten years, and five years apart. After arriving from Germany they built Harmony, PA, then Harmony, IN, and then returned east to create Economy,
PA. They shared many of particular traits of American bred religion of the nineteenth century. They were celibate, like the Shakers and extremely industrious, like the Mormons. In their ten years in New Harmony they built a very profitable community and exported goods all over the world.
In 1824 they sold the town to the utopian philanthropist Robert Owen, who invited a series of prominent educators and scientists to live there. Within two years his personal role was
curtailed (he was a poor manager and forgot to do things like get the crops in on time) but the seeds of an agriculturally highbrow community were set, and have played out for close to 200 years. In the 1970’s the preservation bug hit New Harmony and it crafted itself into a period destination, though not so thematic as Plimouth Plantation or Williamsburg, VA. They added exemplary contemporary architecture and landscape design, and have developed a focus on spiritual retreat that reinforces many of the founding utopian concepts.
It is all very nice, if a bit precious. My primary interest was to see the Athenaeum, a 1979 Richard Meier building that is considered one of his masterpieces (along with the Getty in LA). It won the AIA 25 award, so my exceptions were high. It is a captivating piece of sculpture, all white planes and stairs galore, and the tour guides stress a ‘steamship’ metaphor for the building, though in truth steamships did not churn up the
Wabash; the building is a cool abstract concept upon which the steamship partie is applied. My problem with the building
is that there is nothing in it. It is literally 20,000 square feet of reception desk, museum store, projection theater and scale
model of the original town. Where is the Athenaeum part? When compared to the pristine structures of the early settlers or the equally simple yet evocative Chapel without a roof by Philip Johnson (1960) Richard Meier’s building just seems
gimmickry. Cool? Yes. Appropriate? No way. The building is showy, but it lacks any meaning beyond wow. In that respect I suppose it represents our age as well as the sturdy and serviceable buildings of the past represent theirs. Perhaps the building is really ironic, in which case the praise is probably
I had enough capital A architecture for one day, and there is no place appropriate for a cyclist to stay in New Harmony, so I rolled out of town, had an incredible lunch of catfish fillets, baked beans, cole slaw and Kentucky Silk pie, and pedaled thirty miles to Princeton. On the way I passed
several tiny towns and hit my brakes hard in Poseyville where there is a dead-on late period Louis Sullivan bank. I thought he only did them further west, and research tonight showed
that I am right – the bank is a 1924 knock-off by Shopbell, but it is still a stunner. Capital A architecture where I least expected it!
The day was glorious, the landscape lush, the corn taller than me and tight to the narrow shoulder. I was so mesmerized by how the stalks stand on such narrow bases, that I actually dismounted and inspected the tiny web of ‘feet’ that support the main stalk about 3-4” from the ground. The balance of a corn stalk is balletic. It is plant of total grace.
Athenaeum, New Harmony, IN, Richard Meier, 1979
Boseman Waters National Bank Poseyville, IN, Shopbell, 1924
Feet of Corn