The Reorganized DHARMA Initiative

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).[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.

________________

[1] 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.

[2] Monte, pp. 192-94.

[3] Ibid., p. 194.

[4] Ibid., p. 199.

Bookmark The Reorganized DHARMA Initiative

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Holy crap!! I had no idea this existed. Amazing.

  2. I blame it on “the incident”

  3. OK, this is one of the coolest things I’ve read (and seen) in a long while. Thanks John for the interesting post!

  4. Karen H. says:

    John, this is fascinating, and the pictures are stunning. I have a few questions:

    1. Based on your narrative re: energy efficiency of the home you stayed in, I’m wondering if environmentalism was a secondary goal of the community. What do you think?

    2. Based on your description, it’s clear that early Mormonism was a guiding principle for this type of collective living. However, since it was established in the 1970s, I’m wondering if other non-Mormon communal living experiments (i.e. “hippie” communities) had an influence on the founders. ( I don’t mean that at all in a pejorative sense, it just seems that one religious tenet may be stressed more than another if that tenet is part of a larger societal movement).

    Thanks for your write up, and please thank your hosts for letting us get a glimpse into their lives.

  5. Yeah, I always enjoy your posts, John, and especially since they include such interesting visuals. Thanks.

  6. I kind of want to live in one of those houses.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    Wow, cool photos. Thanks for this, John!

  8. Thanks all!

    Karen (#4): Concerning your first question, I do think they were interested in environmentalism at least in regards to house and community design. These are 1970s concept houses and people of the era were asking “why do we build houses the traditional way we do when we have new construction techniques that might yield forms that are more efficient?” Ron told me his goal had been to have active solar conditioning as well, but that there just never been enough resources to justify the cost of solar panels. The overall design also followed community planning styles of the era with green spaces, paths, etc., rather than a bunch of individual yards. Less environmentally savvy is the fact that the whole community was constructed off in the exurbs — much energy has been wasted by residents who have commuted long distances in the past 40 years.

    On the second question, the grounding for the idea is really building Zion in Jackson County just like the 1830s precedent — albeit through the lens of many additional RLDS Zionic communities founded in the intervening century. That said, the concept was not an attempt to live historically; it was making the Zionic concept relevant to the 1970s, using all the contemporary thinking on cooperative communities. So there was definitely a dash of “hippie” or new age thrown in, but from the start the community apparently attracted both liberal and conservative RLDS members. The conservatives may have felt the urge to gather for traditional reasons while the liberals may have had more new agey notions, but both seem to have come together to build the community.

  9. Answer:They failed because even though they began with the best of intentions, their architecture soon became exessively erotic and God abandoned them.

  10. Awesome. Thanks for the fantastic post, John.

  11. The California hippie child in me kind of likes the idea of communal living. What an interesting part of our collective history- thanks once again for showing these facets of life, John.

  12. reed russell says:

    I think the “Community Covenant” is fascinating and wonderful.

    Sample line:

    “Our acceptance of membership in this community association is our declaration of our willingness to relinquish unrighteous forms of pride, impatience, anger, hatred, and the predisposition to misjudge another.”

  13. Steve G. says:

    I love this style of architecture. Thanks for posting this John. solar panels have changed a lot since the 70′s. They may find that it is affordable to retrofit now, especially when coupled with LED lighting which uses far less power.

    Something about the desire to get off the grid must be a mormon trait.

  14. Ahem. I loved the 5th season. Compared to the clunkers in season 3, I thought it was great. Then again, I’m totally biased. I even liked Nikki and Paulo.

  15. Very Interesting. Thanks, John.

    At the same time as these projects, the LDS Church was very nervous that books like Building the City of God by Arrington, Fox, and May would lead Mormon to experiment with communalism. (At least, this is the explanation that Arrington gives in the Preface to the University of Illinois edition for why Deseret Book only did one edition of the amazing book)

  16. Oh, adamf. The only person justified in liking Nikki and Paulo is Miles.

    John, this is super cool. Someday.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Count me as one who had no idea this existed. Quite fascinating.

    I would have thought Ron would have moved to Kirtland. Is he still in Independence?

  18. Kevin (#17): Ron and Anne moved to Kirtland, yes. I believe they ultimately plan to retire back in Independence. They continue to own the house in Harvest Hills and they graciously let me stay there for two and a half weeks. Their daughter Rene was staying at the house much of the time too (she’s there now) and Ron & Anne were also in Independence for a few days of World Conference.

  19. @ Ben – lol, I can’t really argue that… but it did have Billy D… and it was better than the “Jack’s tattoo mystery tour” episode. Yuck. :)

  20. This is just awesome. I had no idea. The Hugo in me, though, is wondering if any of the houses were also built around large holes in the ground, ala Tatooine. Fascinating pictures and stories. Your stuff is always well worth reading, John.

  21. Fascinating! I had no idea. Do the CoC still does those big community summer camps?

    I don’t want to be a part of any communal society that does not include John Hammer.

  22. Great post, John. The 1st time I heard of Harvest Hills — and the surprisingly rich history of RLDS Zionic living — was at the Kirtland JWHA Conference. It’s a fascinating topic, and very cool to learn these new details and see these photos. Plus, it kind of makes me regret that the LDS church gave up on Zionic living when they completed the railroad.

    And I agree with ESO about boycotting communal societies that you don’t participate in.

  23. Amazing pictures. I’d like to live in a place like this – just to see what it’s like over time.

    First time I have ever seen/contemplated the word “zionic.”

  24. I’m reminded of the home on tatooine in the first Star Wars movie.

    It also seems a little bit like a hobbit home – with the underground/round elements.

    Regardless, very unique.

  25. This post is amazing. I had no idea about this. I wonder if part of the reason the community has dwindled is simply the fact that we’re much more mobile nowadays. Fewer people want to live in the same town they grew up in, and moving to a new town is much easier and cheaper than it used to be.

  26. The abysmal fifth season? I know some had trouble with the first half of season three. But season five? Wow.

  27. I can’t believe I lived in Jackson County, MO for 19 years and never knew these existed. I love the tie-in to Lost

  28. Here in the UK there are very few RLDS. I met some as a missionary in Sutton-on-Ashfield. Sadly they lived in a very normal terraced house.

    Great article though, fascinating stuff.

  29. Excellent, John. I’m going to have to find a way to explore the neighborhood while I’m out there for MHA.

    Those not planning to attend MHA in Independence this year, here is an added incentive to go! :)

  30. Aaron R. says:

    re #28: It is actually very difficult to get in contact with CofC in the UK. I have made two attempts and although I got a response from them the second time I still as yet have been able to find out meeting times and places. Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong places.

    As to the OP, I thought this was fascinating. Thanks John.

  31. Love it! Thanks for this interesting article, John!

  32. I heard that “Logan’s Run” was based on Mormon singles’ wards.

  33. (#28), T-Shirt guy, don’t use your handle to spam. Change it or it will be modded.

  34. I think this post just made my day!!

  35. The website is very “1990s” and hasn’t been updated for a while but it contains some good information:
    http://harvesthills.info/

    (#30) Aaron, here is a list of Community of Christ churches in the UK:
    http://www.cofchrist.org.uk/churches.htm

  36. matt bolton says:

    Excellent post John! As a quasi-harvest hillian it was interesting to hear the reflections of a sympathetic ‘Other’ :-)

  37. Hey Rene & Matt — it was wonderful visiting with you guys and your families the last couple of weeks. I remember as a kid in the 1970s, once I saw the idea on TV of people building bubble houses by spraying concrete on inflatable balloons, it really stuck with me: I wanted to live in a concrete bubble! My science fair project in 3rd grade was a house with walls made of bottles for both recycling and insulation, so this was definitely on my childhood radar — and you guys lived that dream.

    Building Zionic* communities is the part of the Latter Day Saint movement that is most attractive to me. It’s what draws me to Nauvoo and it’s why I like going back there. So it was very interesting to experience this much updated (but still dated) version of Zion.

    (*As Danithew points out “Zionic” is not a normal word, but it apparently has been used by RLDS people for almost a century.)

  38. John,

    Holy Cow this is wonderful. I didn’t read it at first because I thought it was about Lost (sidenote: I gave up on Lost midway though the 3rd season when I realized the only persons lost were the writers).

    Looking at these pictures reminded me of a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager to live at Bag End in a Hobbit Hole. This seems to capture so much of that spirit (as danithew noted: the roundness, underground). Thanks for sharing this. I suppose I’ve always had utopian leanings, I’m always fascinated when people pull it off if even just a little bit.

  39. John: Fascinating piece and great pictures! Thanks for sharing your reflections on Harvest Hills. You need to meet Bryan Monte. He is from the Netherlands and has studies HH for years. He will be staying with Doug and me in Independence while attending the Mormon History Association meetings late in May. Must get you together if you have not crossed paths before!

  40. I have posted a link to this and other posts of yours on Facebook’s “Community of Christ in the News.” http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=259645301375&ref=ts Your fresh and challenging insights deserve the widest audience possible!

  41. John, this is one of the more interesting posts I’ve seen in a long time.

    One of the things that has struck me about “Lost” is that we don’t hear very much about the structure of the Dharma Initiative society. Their entire existence seems to be about fighting off the hostiles, and they seem somewhat egalitarian (those uniforms, for example), but what kind of government do they have? What happens to slackers, and who decides? What about people who break the “laws,” and by the way, what are the laws? Who owns the homes and the old VW vans?

    Anyway, these are the kinds of things I ponder when I think of zionic societies.

  42. As a fellow Harvest Hill Resident, I would just like to point out that it is like any other neighborhood, just with more church goers then most communities. Growing up in this neighborhood i went to church here with family every Sunday. But i know for a fact, that more than half of this neighborhood has either a different religion or none at all, me in particular have no religion currently, and the community is probably not anything like they had planned for its future. I would like to Thank you for posting the pictures of the insides of the dome homes because for the years I’ve lived here i had not seen the insides of them. I personally think they were indeed modeled for the time period of the “hippie” if that makes sense, but thanks again for sharing and Great article.

  43. Mariah Schenberger says:

    I lived there as a kid, lol, we didn’t even go to church camp, one was set up for us in the big green. I lived in an underground house next to the apple orcherd and the basket ball court, it never seemed weird to me to plant flowers on top of my house… It was fun for me as a kid but now that i look back and at this it”s kinda creepy.http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/group.php?gid=50029046345

  44. SteveP, you should give Lost an other chance. It’s wrapping up and while there are some mysteries left unanswered, it’s feeling pretty satisfying to me.

  45. Jesse Wilson says:

    I’ve used to live in Harvest Hills with my family. My parents still do. Aside from the few underground dome houses that are mentioned here…its just a regular close-knit subdivision now. No biggy. TOO close for some people.

    So for those commenting that they’re “amazed” that this place exists…calm down. Its mostly townhouses now.

    The LOST/70′s connection was pretty interesting though.

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