As Lost has been counting down its last few episodes, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks underground (literally) in a place eerily — and wonderfully — reminiscent of the DHARMA Initiative’s subterranean island stations. In the Lost universe, the DHARMA Initiative was a group headquartered here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which sent teams of scientists and support crews to the show’s island in the late 1970s. The Initiative constructed a number of stations in a style that was ultra-modern for the 70s, but is quite dated now.
The 70s were a wonderful era for futuristic design because they represented the final gasp of modernism. Up until that time everyone always assumed that as we penetrated further and further into the future, everything would become more and more modern. Even dystopias like the city in Logan’s Run (filmed in 1976) were ultra-modern dystopias. As the 1980s dawned, this idea was abandoned, and people began to envision a future that was dark and dirty — compare the city in Logan’s Run to future Los Angeles in Blade Runner, filmed just six years later (1982).
The mystery of the DHARMA Initiative — why had they built the stations? why did their utopian experiments fail? — is what initially hooked me on Lost and ultimately has kept me watching, even through the abysmal fifth season. Thus it should come as no surprise that, having encountered something similar in real life, it would hold for me a similar intrigue. That similar something is a Zionic community in Jackson County, Missouri, built primarily in the 1970s and 80s by member of the RLDS Church.
A domed house in a Zionic community in Independence, Missouri.
Known as the “Oak Hill Cluster” of Harvest Hills, the community is home to several good friends of mine, including the Bolton family and the Romig family. I’ve been to Harvest Hills before, but my extended stay at the Romig home this month allowed me to get a much better feel for the neighborhood. Like “the Hatch” (Swan Station) on Lost, the Romig home is built underground. Its form is two large concrete domes set side by side. You enter through a port in the first dome and descend a staircase to the main level. The main dome includes the kitchen, dining room, master bedroom, and master bath, along with a “pit” jack-hammered from the bedrock below the stairwell to serves as a TV room. A large archway connects the first dome to the second, which contains the living room, second bedroom and bathroom, art studio, store room and utilities room. Although buried on top, the domes are actually set into a hill, allowing the south wall to be glass from floor to ceiling. The windows allow for passive solar heating in the winter while the buried nature of the domes provides serious overall insulation for both heating and cooling.
Stairs leading down into the subterranean dome.
The Living Room in the second dome, as seen from the first dome.
Like the DHARMA stations on Lost, the Romig home is perfect expression of ultra-modern futurism, down to many perfect 1970s fixtures. The only difference is that while artifacts in the stations on Lost related to mysterious electromagnetic experiments, the artifacts around the Romig home relate to Mormon history. If you had ever pondered the question, “What if the DHARMA Initiative had been a group of Mormon archivists?” I can now tell you the answer.
Mormon studies archival treasures fill the library.
Founded in 1970, Harvest Hills was an experiment in Zionic or intentional community living (following in a surprising rich tradition of RLDS Zionic experiments). In its first decade, the community was deliberately communitarian: construction work was shared, a community home-school was founded, food was purchased and redistributed at a co-op, original housing units were interconnected on the basement level, and residents even experimented with a joint banking system. The original plans for the community were ambitious. Oak Hill was intended as just the first of many residential “clusters,” one idea even called for these clusters to be linked by electric pod cars à la Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973).
Light fixtures around the community pool add to the 70s era feeling.
The late 1970s and early 1980s was the period of the most intense growth, when seven subterranean houses (including the Romig home) were constructed along with several above ground domed houses. In 1984 the population of the community reached 143, including 58 children. However, as the 1980s drew to a close, the community all but ceased to expand and the population today is about 124, as households have aged and children have moved away. The additional clusters never materialized and community institutions like the food co-op and the home school have disbanded. It’s tempting, therefore, to ask the same questions about Harvest Hills that are asked about the DHARMA Initiative: what happened to it and why did it fail?
One of the subterranean domed houses.
Skylights poking through the ground above buried domes.
One of the above-ground domed houses.
Another above-ground domed house.
Answer: Both were gassed and exterminated by angry “hostiles” or “Others.” (Just kidding.)
Actually, as tempting as it is to write off Harvest Hills as a “failure,” the truth is that among Zionic or utopian experiments, it has had a pretty successful run. Yes, they never built the pod-cars and yes, the residents are now primarily older couples, as opposed to young families with children playing together in the common green, but the community has lasted a full generation and some of the Zionic spirit remains. The community is still centered on a common green (with one of the only community swimming pools in Jackson County) and residents still have a work day once per month to maintain and repair infrastructure together. As an example of the lingering communitarian spirit, Ron Romig and Andrew Bolton commuted to work together for the past several years in a car they owned together as common property.
The future will no longer be dotted with ultra-modern concrete domes off in the countryside. The new generation of Community of Christ visionaries hopes to build Zion as a co-housing project near the Temple or as a new-urbanist development designed to revitalize downtown Independence. Time will tell if these new efforts ever get off the drawing board and, if so, how well they succeed.
My friend Andrew Bolton, a Community of Christ apostle who lives in Harvest Hills, insisted to me that an intentional community should be judged not only based on its growth and life-cycle, but also by the degree to which it accomplished its core goals. On that score, while the residents of Harvest Hills didn’t create a permanent (and continually growing) 1970s ultra-modern utopia, they did succeed in building for themselves and experiencing in their lifetimes a kind of Zion in their own neighborhood.
 The definitive study of Harvest Hills is the award-winning article by Bryan R. Monte, “Harvest Hills at Thirty-five: Graying Not Growing,” published in Vol. 28 (2008) of the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, pp. 188-210.
 Monte, pp. 192-94.
 Ibid., p. 194.
 Ibid., p. 199.