I first encountered the Shakers on Fifth Avenue, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Gallery 734 to be precise. Wandering among the exhibits on a wet Sunday afternoon, I chanced upon the Shaker Retiring Room, a serene space antithetical to the vast and cacophonous city that lay a few dozen yards from its bare white walls and scrubbed pine floor. On display were a cast-iron stove, a washstand, a small bed, a writing desk, built-in wooden cupboards and a rocking chair. It was a room that reflected order, purity, simplicity and calm.
Of course, the primary reason for its inclusion at the Met was the elegant wooden furniture. The Shakers believed that craftsmanship of unadorned utilitarian objects could be a form of worship, and today the refined minimalism of their style appeals to many of those influenced by modernist aesthetics. A description of the room informed me that it dated from the 1830s and came from the Shaker community of Mount Lebanon, New York. Impressed, I decided that I would visit surviving Shaker sites when the opportunity arose. But years passed and I never did. Until now.
During the golden decades of the Shakers, from 1820 until 1860, there were around 6,000 members of the community, spread among settlements that stretched from Maine to Kentucky. A dissident Christian group, the original Shakers had been led from England to New York State by Ann Lee in 1774. The group’s name derived from members’ habit of trembling violently during religious services when they felt themselves to be in the presence of the divine. The Shakers’ aim was to create Utopian religious communities, governed by the so-called Millennial Laws, which prescribed celibacy, equality between the sexes and the communal ownership of property.
Shaker settlements were sustained by conversion, and for more than a century the number of new adherents was sufficient. But eventually the austere lifestyle proved a deterrent and rival charismatic Christian groups grew in number and prominence. Mount Lebanon ceased to be an active community in 1947. Today, the Shaker Museum there comprises the historic site (accessible by self-guided tour) and the Administrative Campus and Research Library, housing a collection of furniture, tools and costumes. (It can be viewed on members-only guided tours; membership costs $60 a year.)
Nine miles to the southwest (and a 15-minute drive from Lenox, Massachusetts), the Hancock Shaker Village is a living museum, with a farm and several workshops, as well as a collection of artifacts that includes around 1,000 pieces of Shaker furniture and 1,200 examples of Shaker costumes and textiles. The last Shakers left Hancock in 1960, making this year the museum’s 60th anniversary.
I arrived on a cloudless late-summer day to find that I was virtually the only visitor. Having spent a while looking at the display cases, I headed outside to explore. The trail passed neat rows of vegetables and sunflowers before coming to an open grassy area, the heart of the 19th-century village, dotted with numerous structures. The Shaker aesthetic, emphasizing purity of design and a lack of decoration, applied equally to architecture and furniture. The Millennial Laws even prescribed the colors that could be used: The exteriors of large buildings were painted with red ochre, while smaller ones such as workshops were brightened with chrome yellow.
On the day of my visit, about half of the barns, stables and lodgings were open to the public. The workshops were silent, with half-completed chairs, chests of drawers and wooden boxes awaiting the return of normality. But I found a friendly man firing up the furnace in the smithy, and in the animal barns farmworkers were raking new straw into the pens of the pigs, cows and goats.
The highlight of the village is the celebrated Round Stone Barn, built in 1826. Despite their religious vocation, the Shakers were practical and innovative people — Tabitha Babbitt, a member of the Harvard community, invented the circular saw — and the Hancock barn makes imaginative use of a small hill in order to create an upper level from which hay could be fed to the 52 cows stabled below. Manure was swept through trapdoors onto a lower floor from where it was carted away to the fields for use as fertilizer. Although the barn is a brilliantly efficient and convenient design, it is the aesthetic beauty of its interior that has prompted some people to describe it as one of the finest and most original buildings in the United States. Its roof is supported by a spider’s web of wooden beams that seem to have some of the geometric grace of a medieval fan vault.
Thanks to the pandemic and the resulting absence of visitors, the atmosphere of the village that day was one that the Shakers themselves might have recognized. Maybe it was something to do with the rich sunlight and the jewel-like colors, but for a while the 21st century had slipped away and 19th-century rural tranquility had returned. There were no planes in the sky and few passing cars on the nearby road. Somehow, in the exceptional circumstances of the times, it seemed that the Shakers’ innocence and idealism had lingered and could once again be discerned.