Since its completion in 1979, New Harmony’s Atheneum has welcomed tens of thousands of visitors while serving as an icon of modern architecture along the Wabash River. Dan Mason, Historic New Harmony’s new assistant director, shares the significance of the Atheneum and how USI and the community can celebrate its 40th anniversary in October.
Why was the Atheneum built?
There was a need for a Visitors Center in New Harmony. The Visitors Center, initially, was in a shop space on Church Street and then actually moved to a garage in someone’s home. So, there was a great need for a proper Visitors Center.
Mrs. Jane Blaffer Owen, [a New Harmony preservationist], knew the architects of the time and that was key. If you were doing projects, you would go for certain architects to make them come to life. That was why she worked with Philip Johnson on the Roofless Church. When it came to this Visitors Center, Richard Meier was the up-and-coming international architect with a very forward-thinking vision. Funding was secured, and New Harmony brought him in from New York. The Atheneum was where his vision for architecture became solidified—how a building should flow and look and integrate with the landscape.
How would you describe the Atheneum?
It’s a bit like a ship. When you look at the catwalks across the top, or the spiral staircases or even the creaky wooden floors as you walk through, there is almost a boat-like feeling to it. The modern lines really are secondary to the fact that there is so much white in the design: the white on the outside, the porcelain enamel panels, the white on the inside, the white walls.
The building’s most prominent feature is the ramp. Light and air are supposed to spin throughout the building, but then are launched into New Harmony. From a visitor’s perspective, you walk in and you’re kind of in awe of the building. You’re looking around at the dioramas or exhibits, and then, ultimately, you’re launched into New Harmony through the ramp [exiting on the building’s roof]. New Harmony goes into the Atheneum, as well. We’re trying to make sure that there are examples of local art or some level of presentation about New Harmony within the space itself.
What is the significance of the Atheneum Visitors Center for the town of New Harmony today?
This is a living museum. It’s a living classroom in New Harmony. As the new assistant director of Historic New Harmony, I am going to be pushing to bring USI students and faculty to the Atheneum more often. When I sit in the building’s auditorium, I get goosebumps just thinking about the talent and everything that came together to make this place come to life.
In 2018, Architectural Digest called the Atheneum the most iconic building in Indiana. We’re celebrating it as a “role model” because it continues to inspire to this day, 40 years later.
What can visitors expect to see or do at the Atheneum?
It is first and foremost a Visitors Center. It is the Visitors Center for Posey County, as well. You can take a tour every day at 1 p.m. that starts with a short film in the theater. Then you jump on a trolley, and it takes you around to the sights. The tour lasts about an hour to an hour and a half.
We have galleries in the museum. There’s a diorama of the town itself, how you would have seen it back in the early 1800s. The Harmonist Church is one of the landmarks that you’ll see. We’re getting ready to hang a 200-year-old window that came from that church that’s just been beautifully restored.
What events are planned to celebrate the Atheneum’s 40th anniversary?
We tried to make sure that the anniversary events were, first and foremost, accessible to everyone. We want people to come and experience this building for the first time, or for the millionth time.
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, October 10, we will have a free panel discussion titled “The Future of New Harmony as a Cultural Town,” with about 10 role models from around the town and the region. These individuals are going to walk us through their passion for New Harmony and where they see things going.
From 2 to 7 p.m. Friday, October 11, we have architecture representatives coming in from around the world for the free speaker series, “200 Years of New Harmony: A Role Model for the Future.” We have a gentleman coming in from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, which is a center of Bauhaus design and architecture. We have a gentleman coming in from Taliesin, the home, studio, school and estate of Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin. We have Dr. Karla Britton, a former Yale lecturer, as our keynote speaker. She is one of the foremost authors on art history and architecture and has lectured and taught around the world. Dr. Silvia Rode, professor of German and chair of World Languages and Cultures at USI, is going to be participating. If you’re in design and architecture, or even art, these are the people you’re learning about, and they’re coming to the Atheneum as part of a USI program.
Saturday, October 12 is the Atheneum Gala Event, starting at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $200. We’ve worked with the Red Geranium and with the Evansville Country Club to put together a beautiful dinner. We have a live and silent auction. The live auction will feature about 10 pieces that I think are going to blow people away. We have a print of the Atheneum, and we have original plans of the Roofless Church that have been donated.
Finally, from 9 p.m. to midnight we have the Afterparty. Those tickets are $50, and that includes a ton of food. We have a Bollywood DJ coming in. So, if you’ve never been to New Harmony, you will be blown away.
All of these events will be held at the Atheneum.
How will funding raised from the anniversary celebration be used?
The goal is to raise a minimum of $250,000 to fund the celebration and much needed upgrades and continued facility preservation to ensure the Atheneum remains a vibrant part of New Harmony's landscape for many more years to come. Some of these types of renovations and upgrades include roof and tile repairs, renovating restrooms, upgrading the theater, repairing and updating exhibit cases, refinishing the building’s wood floors, upgrading the roof deck and repairing and cleaning the Harmonist town model.
If you cannot attend the Atheneum Gala Event or Afterparty but want to support fundraising efforts, visit USI.edu/giving.
Atheneum Visitors Center in New Harmony, Indiana