Echoing its roots as a utopian community, New Harmony, Indiana, continues to thrive as an ideal destination for reflection and inspiration as spring unfolds.

By Ashley Petry; Photographer: Bob Stefko
February 18, 2013
Symbolizing life’s journey, only a single path leads to the center of the free-admission Harmonist Labyrinth.

Spend even one weekend in New Harmony, Indiana, and you'll feel what some might say is a slightly irrational tug. Laura Foster Nicholson, a textile designer from Chicago, did. So did Jim and Stephanie Spann, when they visited during Stephanie's recovery from breast cancer. So did Amy Wimmer Schwarb, who'd thought for years about writing a play but never wrote a word until she visited this hamlet 25 miles northwest of Evansville.

All four had perfectly fine lives in big cities. But one visit here was all it took to make them pull up stakes and feed their creative spirits full time. Today, Jim and Stephanie own New Harmony Soap; Laura sells her work in local galleries. "I felt that many like-minded people lived here-people who were very artistic and intellectual," Laura says.

Nearly 900 people call New Harmony home, and they are eager to share their town, including the two labyrinths, little shops, Harmonie Society beer, regionally famous restaurant, plein air art festival and impressive concert series in a granary, for starters.

Symbolizing life's journey, only a single path leads to the center of the free-admission Harmonist Labyrinth.

The Rev. George Rapp founded New Harmony in 1814 with dreams of building a utopian community. In just 10 years, his Harmonie Society erected 180 buildings on 20,000 acres along the Wabash River. The town boasted a thriving cloth trade, a bank and the first commercial brewery in Indiana.

Those first residents thought they were coming into the wilderness to fulfill a prophecy from Revelation, but the influx of other settlers from Germany never materialized. So in 1824, they returned to Pennsylvania, selling the town to Welsh industrialist Robert Owen. His own utopian vision for the town, which emphasized education and equality, collapsed in just two years.

Visitors learn about that hopeful spirit on two-hour Historic New Harmony walking tours, which wind through a Harmonist home, a cemetery and a brick-and-stone granary. The tours start at the modern Atheneum visitors center and end downtown, which holds a number of high-quality galleries and boutiques, including the New Harmony Gallery for Contemporary Art and Harmony Pottery. (Bee Tree Pottery, a gem located about 20 minutes southeast of town, showcases styles from the 18th and 19th centuries, including Sgraffito platters, with clay scratched away in patterns to reveal the surface beneath.)

That creativity spreads from the shops through town. Under the broad, leafy branches of Bradford pear trees in Murphy Park-and around the community-artists set up easels to paint spring flowers at an annual plein air art festival called the First Brush of Spring.

Artist Linda Volz captures flowers on canvas during the annual plein air (open air) art festival in New Harmony, Indiana.

Even if you're not an artist, pockets of spring's lime-green beauty near the two-block downtown beg for attention. New Harmony has not one but two walking labyrinths, one with a stone grotto at its center and one modeled after a 12th-century original outside Paris. The Roofless Church, an open-air domed sculpture with no seating, and nearby Harmonie State Park also encourage quiet communion with nature.

Impressive gates lead to the Roofless Church, designed to cocoon visitors.

With balconies and patios overlooking a lake and lush parkland, the New Harmony Inn conveys that same feeling of escape, even though it has 90 rooms in several buildings and a popular restaurant. Another eatery, cozy Sara's Harmony Way brims with mismatched furniture, antiques and local artwork. The menu isn't long-cheese and sausage platters, dips and spreads, and sweet treats such as the aromatic lavender cookies. The biggest draw is Harmonie Bier, brewed regionally according to the original Harmonist recipe.

Any springtime visit here really ought to include a performance that's part of the annual Under the Beams concert series at the restored Rapp-Owen Granary, now a stunning venue with thick wood beams and iron chandeliers. Everyone in town seems to pack the shows. Haven't heard of the performers? That's OK. New Harmony is just the place to relax and look at all kinds of art with a fresh perspective.

Trip Guide

For more information or to plan your trip:

What to do

Antique Showrooms in the Mews The epicenter of New Harmony shopping, the Mews combines four Victorian storefronts into a distinct boutique selling designer clothes, contemporary home decor, gourmet foods and high-end antiques. (812) 682-3490

Harmonie State Park Seven trails are perfect for a quiet stroll through the woods.

Historic New Harmony Walking Tours Learn about history and architecture through film, dioramas and building stops.

New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art Showcasing vibrant, modern art, this boutique also highlights jewelry, functional pottery and wall hangings.

Regionally made works fill the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art.

New Harmony Soap All-natural skin-care products with scents like lemongrass and mojito line the shelves of this new shop on Main Street.

Sara's Harmony Way A small menu of appetizers and desserts complements the restaurant's brews, including Harmonie Bier.

Under the Beams at the Rapp-Owen Granary Built by Harmonist settlers in 1818, the beautiful, rustic space hosts high-profile performing artists.

Where to eat

Red Geranium Restaurant The namesake flower covers the walls at this upscale establishment drawing diners from across the region. Specialties include the tilapia fillet sauteed in brown butter.

Where to stay

Cook's on Brewery Bed and Breakfast Top-of-the-line amenities, including luxurious linens, fast Wi-Fi and gourmet breakfasts, ensure a pleasant stay in each of the three guest rooms.

New Harmony Inn The inn encompasses several blocks, but simple furnishings in the guest rooms and a peaceful atmosphere blend well with the town's tranquility. Rates include free Wi-Fi and Continental breakfast.

The sculpture "St. Francis and the Birds" at the New Harmony Inn.