After a week of debt ceiling insanity, it is a pleasure to escape into a world of thrift, industriousness, productivity, and an extremely balanced, well-honed budget. Anyone who has spent ten minutes in a library of design--or at Ikea, for that matter--has heard of Shaker style. That familiar, straight-laced, clean-lined and simple furniture, with no adornment, simply honest and forthright.

This doesn't even begin to cover it. I have wanted to visit the famous Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for decades, but never gotten around to it until a recent field trip to the Berkshires. The moment I entered the grounds--in a playful "Taj Mahal moment", the iconic round barn, the center of a thriving dairy industry, perfectly poised, as if it were a sacred building, within the covered gateway--I knew I was in for a transcendent experience. I wasn't even half prepared for the stunning beauty of what I saw--because Shaker style isn't about benches and cupboards. It is about a way of life.

(I'm going to break my post up into several parts, only because I don't want to crash your computers, as I have so many photographs to share with you. If you have a handheld, please come back and visit full screen. I'll start with a batch that captures the astonishingly varied color and forthrightness of the architecture--for that is what immediately struck me as I stood, blinking the sunlight, dazzled.)

The way things end up looking only derives from some fundamental views of morality and what we would refer to as the good life. When you see the entire community, you see the way the pieces fit together, and everything falls into place. You see the need for simplicity because of a desire to live a life with nothing to hide, a communal, pacifist life of racial and gender equality.

But you also see the need to repress the most basic life-drive, sex, as that was forbidden in this community. The Hancock village called itself "the City of Peace."

This isn't the place for an in-depth history lesson. Quite sketchily, the Shakers, or The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, established their village, the third such founded by their sect, around 1790. The were Millennialists, who believed that Christ's second coming was realized in their leader, Ann Lee, who led them to the new world from England. They wanted to create a Heaven on earth, but live apart from "The World." They were known as Shakers because the trembled and whirled through ecstatic worship services.

Between 1783 and 1836, nineteen major Shaker communities were established in New York, New England, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana; today, only one active Shaker community survives, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The Hancock Shaker community peaked in the 1830s, with about 300 residents occupying 3,000 acres. They were quite radical, actually; they really lived "off the grid", apart, in a quasi welfare system that took care of its own, no matter what, from birth to death. They developed a sophisticated system of herbal healing; they supported themselves with their farming and animal husbandry. Most of us have a passing familiarity with some of their songs, the most famous being Simple Gifts--Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free...Sung here by the inimitable Judy Collins.

And they were brilliant architects, constantly playing with proportions and color--the color was a huge surprise to me, and this post highlights the variation of paints used inside and out on their buildings and furnishings. They also experimented successfully with harnessing wind and water to power their machinery; today the village, a living museum, has a huge solar array.

The variety of color was splendid. I was startled to see even a pink building, the color of a sow's belly, graced one edge of the property.

(Next post, we'll visit the round stone barn.)


Cindy L said...

I visited Hancock Village years ago, and loved it. Thanks so much for rekindling the memory with your beautiful photos.

On another note -- I truly enjoyed your book and mentioned it in one of my columns last year.

Ashling said...

Thank you for this post; this is now on my must-do list, especially since it's only about an hour or so away!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

For someone as besotted by colour as I, this post was a dream and gave me the same rapid heartbeat that I get every time I enter a well-stocked yarn shop.

Lines of Beauty said...

It's hard to beat simple.

Bruce Barone said...

It is a beautiful place.

You were so close to us; I would have made dinner for you :)

profA said...

I was on my way out the door to the paint store when your post arrived. Ha!
What a beautiful array of color blocks against that glorious blue! . Color and form through your artful eye.
A simple gift. A beautiful gift. Thank you.
Linda B.

Anonymous said...

Thinking about your comment that the Shakers took care of their own from birth to death, I doubt that many babies born in the village although there could have been babies born to women who joined the sect after becoming with child. I have always admired the Shakers for their willingness to take in others' children to raise.

I admire many of the tenants of the Shakers and think I would have made a good "Winter Shaker." They were those who joined with the sect after the fall chores were done and stayed until spring and warmer weather. I would have especially enjoyed the meals and having a lovely, warm place to stay during the winter!

Tru Dillon said...

do you take all the photos yourself? they are always good. thank you!

Anonymous said...

There could not be too many photos of this beautiful place! Keep on sending them...

Deborah A said...

My favorite so far is the pink buildings... I'm not sure why, I just love that beautiful softly muted pink! Really enjoyed this post, clicked on the Sabbath Day Lake Maine website and loved the yarn, spices, recipes and baskets. I may have to do a little online shopping!
Thank you for sharing your trip

Dominique said...

Hi all! I could not stop snapping away, when I visited. I don't know what it was, exactly, that moved me so, but I took so many pictures that we're going to have a Shaker festival--a week's worth of posts. Stay tuned! Maybe it is the Washington shenanigans, but I'm feeling the need to rest my eyes on something strong and straightforward! I loved the muted pink too, Deborah...and I'll have to scroll through the Sabbath Day website myself. Those racks would be lovely for towels in bathroom, no?

As sex was forbidden among the Shakers, I assume families came already formed....but all members, young and old alike, were welcomed into the fold, if they were willing to renounce their worldly attachments. I cannot imagine they kept too many teenagers on the reservation....but....

And yes, all who are near, do go over; the village is well worth a field trip. d

Warren said...

I became a great Shaker fan early-on. What inventive people -- the clothes pin, the flat broom, that ladder-back chair! Meanwhile one man could feed the entire round barn as the hay was stored above and the cows all ate from the center spoke.

But no, no, no frolics in the hay. No sex, no spilled seed, no marriage, no children to carry on.

All those creative juices just lying around. Unsullied. Those that were tempted left. And that was nearly everybody.

People had to choose between community and partnership, chastity or tumbles. I'd like to think that the ideas of coupling and marriage where what ultimately killed the Shaker experiment, but I have a feeling it had more to do with the baser instincts.

But man oh man their design simplicity became art.

Maureen Sullivan Stemberg, Interiors said...

What a beautiful photo/essay. @ Warren, I so agree with your last line..."But man oh man their design
is simplicity became art." Right at this moment how lovely to have such simplicity in ones life!

Sarah said...

I wish this comment string had "like" buttons, a la Facebook, because I like *all* of these comments so much. Waiting patiently for the next installment! And thank you for a fine balance to the ridiculous angst from Washington. And Wall Street I might add. xoxo

Ged said...

I was so pleased to see this article (came upon your blog by accident) as it brought back our too-long-ago visit to this marvellous place. We are hoping to visit New England again next year (we are from "Old" England but live in Spain!) and Hancock is certainly a "must-revisit" for us.

I bring back the memories often by playing a cd of Shaker tunes I bought there - Simple Gifts. It accompanies me when I'm soapmaking and seems very fitting for a craft which is very Shaker in essence: useful and beautiful!

profA said...

Yes, Warren. Nothing wasted. Measure twice. Cut once. A laced up and buttoned down style that found a beautiful outlet. Has anyone written about Shaker architecture and furniture making as a metaphor for their repressed/contained sexuality. I wonder what one might make of the colors. Gorgeous. Most likely found in nature. (?)
During our early marital years I envisioned us living in a Shaker style house with appropriate furnishings. We sent away for plans. He got a little writing desk made. It is still with us in the music room. Then we got busy making a family!

Dominique said...

Wonderful point about all the colors found in nature--I'm sure they were vegetable and mineral based. And you can definitely see them all around in the landscape...those burgundy colored leaves of the sugar maples in deep fall, the marigold yellows, even the pink house reminded me of the sow's skin!

Will have to look up the Shaker tunes--how did I miss that at the gift shop?! Soapmaking, eh? Tell us more, Gen....

I hope an entirely new generation of people go to the Shaker Village for a visit--what a great way to learn history, and design....d

profA said...

So, I decided to find out about Shaker colors and paints. Here is a pdf from Historic New England dated 1995. Cut and paste, I guess. It's very interesting. Seems they mostly made their own paints and had rules about which colors should be used for what kind of buildings/furniture. Bedsteads were to be painted green, for example. This will bear reading and rereading for me. http://www.historicnewengland.org/preservation/your-older-or-historic-home/articles/pdf65.pdf

Your posting also inspired me to go through the bookshelves and pull out Shaker Design by June Sprigg, a catalogue of Shaker goods from a 1985 exhibition presented by the Whitney and Corcoran Gallery (DC). This is still a top ten fave. of mine. Thank you for taking me down this memory lane, Dominique. I am looking forward to the rest of the week's posts.
And now it's off to the paint store again. BenjaminMoore's BeaconHillDamask is too lively for the hallway off the bedrooms. I am all about restful these days. Maybe a dove brown??? Onward.

Andrew Payne said...

So wonderfully inspiring. The beauty of the simple and perfectly crafted is truly something to behold. Next time I'm in the Berkshires, I'll be sure to pay a visit.
Thanks for the inspiration, Ms. Browning.

Interior Decors said...

I always love the countryside. These photos reminds me of home. I can almost taste the air. Thanks for posting.

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Jessie said...

Dominique, These postings two years ago stuck with me and last week I had the opportunity to visit Hancock Shaker Village. It was a beautiful though overcast fall day -- the colors , the peace, the design, the function -- all inspiring. I took so many photos my camera battery died! I sent one of them to the NYTimes for their "Why We Travel" section.

So thank you for sharing your experience and writing so thoughtfully about it.

PS I also visited Edith Wharton's home The Mount while there -- wonderful -- especially the gardens and surrounding property. Have you been?