America has a long history of creating utopian communities. Sustaining them has been another matter.
Challenged by capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, and the tension between the individual and the community, many people during the first half of the 19th century sought ought to experiment with social and civil rights in a communal setting. Others sought a community with a more profound spiritual lifestyle, where they could await the return of Christ.
During the 1840s alone, more than 80 utopian communities came to life across the country. One of the most enduring, however, pre-dated this mid-century boom. It was the New Harmony community in western Indiana, created in 1814 on 20,000 acres, first as Harmony by George Rapp, then later re-imagined as New Harmony by Robert Owen, a Welsh industrialist and social philosopher.
Under Rapp’s leadership, the Harmonists—a religious society that practiced communal living—created a succession of three successful model communities in the United States. The second of these, Harmony in the Indiana Territory, thrived from 1814 until 1824. During that short period, the Harmonists built a fully operational town that included, among many other things, over 150 log houses, a church, a community storehouse, barns, stables, a tavern, a brewery, and 2,000 acres of cultivated fields.
The simple, strong and community-based lifestyle that was at the core of the Harmonist Society was reflected in the homes they built. And there’s no finer example than the David Lenz House in Harmony.
Most of the Harmonist houses had the same simple six-room plan the David Lenz House features, since they were designed to accommodate family groups. The design was even more impressive when you consider that 70% of their frontier neighbors lived in one-room log cabins.
In most cases, the entrance to the house was on the side off a garden and the front elevation was right on the property line. This relationship was maintained when the Lenz house was moved to this site from the corner of Church and Brewery Streets (currently the site of the town post office). Harmonist houses were also among the first houses to be at least partly prefabricated, with the walls made of a Germanic post and beam framing system, which was cut and numbered in advance.
The David Lenz house was built circa 1822, largely with square timber logs of poplar or oak. The spaces between the logs were chinked with wood shims and a clay grouting mixed with straw and river shells.
Even a short visit offers a glimpse into what was seen as the ideal way to live.