New Harmony


Every guide, book, resident and chronicler will tell you about the “presence” in New Harmony. On the one side this becomes fodder for ghost stories, moving objects, rooms that drive otherwise rational people away, and the like. On the other side, it is the multivalent reality of the place, layered over time.

At a preternatural, precarious bend in the Wabash River at the far southwestern tip of Indiana lies New Harmony. There were settlers on this western frontier in the 1770s, but it was the arrival in 1814 of the Harmonists, a Pietist German communalist sect, that gave the town its name, following their original Pennsylvania settlement of Harmony. Led by Father George Rapp, the Harmonists, like dozens of other groups at the time, felt the Second Coming to be imminent. Unlike other groups, they were remarkably efficient and productive, and within a decade created a town of 800 that shipped goods all over the world. Then they left en masse, after 10 years, and sold the town and all of its brick-faced Fachwerkbau buildings to Welsh-Scottish industrialist and communalist Robert Owen, whose scientific messianism brought a “boatload of knowledge” to the site and made it an important center for science and culture. His communalist experiment flopped after only two years, but his family and many scientists stayed and today the town has a couple handfuls of surviving Harmonist buildings and a lot from the Owenite period, plus modern marvels like Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church and Richard Meier’s Atheneum. Over time, the “presence” has drawn many others and the barn abbey where the students stayed, was peppered with Thomas Merton posters.

I told our host, the visionary architect Ben Nicholson, who transplanted himself and his carload of knowledge to New Harmony two years ago, that perhaps New Harmony was like Weibaoshan, a place with the right feng shui, the right combination of natural elements to sustain and nurture human endeavors that reach beyond; spiritual endeavors and scientific endeavors, and in Ben’s case, artistic endeavors such as his exquisite drawings of labyrinths he showed us in his downtown studio, soon to be exhibited in the Venice Biennale.

The largest of the surviving Harmonist buildings are the Granary, heavily, heavily rebuilt, and Community House Number Two, a solid brick dormitory that does not look anything like its 185 years. Here we heard some distressing news. In the yard was a deep pit that looked like an archaeological site. I could make out some sunken posts and brick shards.

It wasn’t that. It was a pit for an air conditioning unit. They are going to air condition Community House Number Two. AAUGH! This is wrong on so many levels, but let’s start with the obvious. This is an early 19th century building designed for its climate, which is hot for 2 months a year. It has double-hung windows and a mansard roof and “dutch biscuits”, an early form of bat insulation made of planks and straw that still manages a respectable R-11. It was 84 that day and it wasn’t hot on the third floor. This building doesn’t need air conditioning.

Along with replacement windows, air conditioning is one of the great issues in preservation, and like the windows, it is a marketing problem that bears little relation to actualities like energy usage and finances. Some people “need” air conditioning the way they “need” cell phones. Ironically, many of the people who “need” air conditioning were born a decade or three before it was available in most homes and businesses.

The other levels: Sustainable? Not air-conditioning. How about a roof ridge vent? How about making those double hungs work the way they were designed, open on top and bottom to vent out the hot air? How about trees? How about a whole house fan? (there were two small ones in the attic, probably not operational and not sufficiently large). This is a tourist site, a museum meant to show you what life was like in 1820. There wasn’t artificial air conditioning in 1820. The tour guides would love to have AC because they have to work there, but for the tourists what’s ten minutes in a modestly warm attic? It has to hit at least 90 to get hot up there, because 84 wasn’t.

And then there is the “presence.” A big honking humming bear of an air conditioning unit squatting in the back garden will be the biggest buzzkill of all. Not only will it disrupt the historic ambiance, but who knows? It might drive “the presence” away.

Kudos to Ben, who also brought us to Cahokia Mounds, the Pulitzer Museum in St. Louis by Tadao Ando (gorgeous, gorgeous perfectionist concrete in a composition that marries Wright’s Unity Temple to Kahn’s Salk Institute) and the City Museum, an absolute hallucination of stuff filling an old shoe factory – every old building and object stacked up and welded together into climbing cages and slides and airplanes and cranes that kids are encouraged to climb all over. Someone must have locked the lawyers in the basement because this place is tort reform utopia. My kids LOVED it.

Plus, there were at least two bars in there, interspersed with kiddie rides, so I could have a beer before I crawled through iron tubes four floors in the air and then slid down an old steamship chimney. Maybe the Chicago Children’s Museum is right after all – start with the liquor license and build the dream from there.

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