The Roofless Church: New Harmony's Architectural Gem


The Roofless Church is an architectural monument designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson. The non-denominational church is in New Harmony, Indiana, a small community about 20 miles northwest of Evansville. It was commissioned by Jane Blaffer Owen, a New Harmony resident passionate about preserving nature. Johnson and Owen envisioned a church where the only roof large enough to encompass a world of worshippers was the sky. The church was dedicated in 1960 and is maintained by the Episcopal Diocese of Indiana. Today, in addition to being a tourist attraction, the Roofless Church is a popular site for weddings and other sacred ceremonies.

The church is an open park surrounded by a brick wall. At one end of the park is a dome covered in cedar shingles, shaped in folds that look somewhat like draped cloth. Some interpret the shape as an inverted rosebud, and it is said that the structure casts the shadow of an open rose. The rose was the symbol of the utopian community that founded the town. Although a Biblical quotation on the structure mentions the rose, there is no evidence that the architect intended it to resemble, or cast the shadow of, an actual rose. At the top of the dome is an oculus, or round opening. Under the dome is a statue, also commissioned by Owen, by Joseph Lipschitz. At the end of the enclosed park is a balcony that looks out onto open farmland.

New Harmony was founded by the Harmony Society, a group of Germans who separated from the Lutheran Church and moved to America after being persecuted in Germany. They settled in Indiana in 1814, espousing pacifism, abolition and a literal interpretation of the New Testament. The Harmonists left Indiana in 1824 and sold the land to the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen. Owen also attempted to form a utopian society in the town. Jane Owen, distantly related to Robert Owen by marriage, first came to the town in the 1940s. Many of the structures in New Harmony were virtually untouched, and Owen determined that she would preserve and enhance the town.

The Roofless Church is significant not only for its historic location, however, but for the prominence of its architect. Philip Johnson was one of the most important figures in 20th-century American architecture. As the primary proponent of the International Style, he was responsible for the glass and steel structure of many of the country's most famous skyscrapers, including the Seagram Building in New York City, which he designed with Mies van der Rohe. He eventually tired of the International Style's rigid formalism and started working just in glass. Two of his most famous glass structures are the Glass House, his own residence in New Canaan, Connecticut, and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. The Roofless Church is a minor work in the architect's oeuvre, although the walled space does call to mind Johnson's fondness for the enclosed medieval garden. As for the domed structure itself, there is nothing else like it in his work.

Sharon Salus
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Jan 2, 2014 @ 5:17 pm
The sculptor's name is Jacques Lipchitz, not Joseph Lipchitz, a well-known 20th century artist.

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