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Restoring Utopia: Jane Blaffer Owen

The third recipient of Indiana’s highest honor is neither a legendary coach nor a university president. Jane Blaffer Owen was presented with the 2007 Sachem Award in recognition of her philanthropic efforts in historic preservation and the arts.

The Houston native is best known for her work to restore the southwestern Indiana town of New Harmony to the spirit in which it was founded.

When Welsh-born Robert Owen purchased the town in 1825, it had already served as an intentional community for a decade.

Whereas George Rapp’s Harmony Society had had a religious basis, Robert Owen’s utopian experiment banished religion, and embraced radical social reform.

In New Harmony and, simultaneously, the Scottish town of Orbiston, Owen attempted to dissolve class structure and personal property, while implementing a communitarian lifestyle. Both experiments failed within two years.

More than a century later, Texas oil baron’s daughter Jane Blaffer married Kenneth Owen, the utopianist’s great-great grandson. Devoted to New Harmony’s philosophical legacy, the onetime debutante pledged to restore the derelict town on the Wabash River she discovered when she and her new husband first visited in 1941.

Over seven decades, Jane restored the town’s natural setting and its nineteenth-century buildings, including the Rapp granary and a laboratory set up by Robert’s son David Dale Owen, considered to be the father of American geology.

Additionally, Jane Owen has nurtured the town’s artistic spirit with such commissions as Phillip Johnson’s Roofless Church, the Cathedral Labyrinth, and Jacques Lipchitz’s sculpture “The Descent of the Holy Spirit,” as well as grants and retreats supporting Indiana artists and writers.

Educated at Bryn Mawr, the Washington School of Diplomacy and the Union Theological Seminary, Jane Owen holds honorary doctorates from Purdue, Ball State and Butler Universities, among others. As she did before her husband’s death in 2002, the great-grandmother divides her time between New Harmony and Houston.

This essay draws upon the following source: Maurer, Michael S., 19 Stars of Indiana: Exceptional Hoosier Women. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009.

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