Last year I had the chance to visit one of the few remaining Shaker villages in Massachusetts, the Hancock Shaker Village. The village boasted one rare building form in its round stone barn. The siting of this barn construction was just ingenious. The walk through really gave me a glimpse of the spirit of the community. The variety of building materials and the variations of the same simple forms in buildings and details were proofs of how creativity in its streamlined discipline could be divine!
This was the third community out of the 19 major villages that was established in the United States. The thousand acres property existed as a working community from 1791 to 1960 when it became a museum. The inhabitants were dairy farmers who made quite a good profit with the garden seed selling business. At its most prosperous time, the village owned 3000 acres and had 300 occupants.
Its most outstanding structure was the 96 ft diameter round stone barn that one could see imposing its presence over today’s 5 acres site open to visitors. The design was a most effective solution to having 70 cows being fed and milked, having hay stored and distributed while wagons would be driven in one way and ridden out another way without ever having to back up. It consisted of four concentric rings for ventilation, hay storing (up to 400 tons of hay), hay distributing and cow feeding. A clever entrance was introduced to the second story of the barn via an exterior ramp. The structure was completely exposed on the inside with the rafters radiating from the cupola, the balconies support, and the floor gridded to allow the sweeping of cow manure down to make compost.
There was a sample garden on the site showing the variety of crops, flowers and vegetables that were planted by the industrious villagers. The Shakers were major medicinal herbs suppliers in the 1800’s. Their community had a catalog offering some 300 herbs with almost 200 fluid extracts in the forms of essential oils, vegetable extracts, fragrant and distilled waters and ointments.
The brick dwelling, the community’s dormitory, was another marvel with indoor piped water, dumbwaiters, slanted windows for more light, all the while maintaining separation between the sexes in their daily activities and sleeping accommodation.
The accessory structures to support the villagers’ livelihood were the ones I was most drawn to. There was the ice house with its triple pane windows. The simplicity of its design involved a basement to keep cool and a ground level access to retrieve ice. Careful thermal management went into an upper food storage area with vents from the ice storage below and a cupola to let the warm air out completed with double hung doors.
The use of exterior cladding materials were quite inventive and varied from building to building. The recurring building form of a rectangular shaped house with the gable roof presented itself in a myriad of variations of the theme. There were brick over a stone base, siding over brick, small bevel siding over large coursed siding, and yellow, white, red painted walls etc…
Here was a community that gave us the circular saw, the clothespin, the Shaker peg, a wheel driven washing machine, packaged seeds and numerous inventions. All in all, the lesson was quite implicit in its message: there will always be individuality in a entity which aims for conformity and is even singular in its goal.