One of the greatest treasures to be found at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is its collection of historic buildings. Thirty-four original buildings remain today, a small fraction of the more than 200 structures that were constructed, while the remains of many more dot the landscape. These buildings were purposefully designed to facilitate a variety of activities in this communal religious society. Today, dwelling houses, workshops, wash houses, privies, offices and a meeting house are among those buildings that remain, and each played an important role in the Shakers’ activities at Pleasant Hill.
While the Shakers put little emphasis on monument building and memorialization of their activities at Pleasant Hill, there are two ways in which these historic buildings serve as a striking and steadfast memorial to the Shakers who once lived at Pleasant Hill.
First, they serve as a testament of the skill and aptitude of their builders. It is important to note that the Shakers’ primary purpose was not to create impressive and beautiful architecture (or any other type of material object); nor did they attach any spiritual significance to the objects they built. Instead, the built environment was the result of the purely practical need to have places to live, work, etc. But in their quest for spiritual growth and development, the Shakers were to “do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you knew you must die tomorrow,” as early Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee would admonish her brethren. As a result, buildings were built purposefully, strongly and to last.
The Meeting House, as an example, was built to facilitate Shaker worship, which at times was characterized by either ecstatic physical shaking or an orderly dance performed in unison. It astutely merged the need for a wide-open space with a strong structure able to handle the rigors of Shaker worship. In addition, the Trustees’ Office certainly wasn’t thrown together without great foresight and planning; the grace and beauty of the spiral staircase alone is something that only one with the highest training could plan and execute. The high quality of design and construction, as well as their aesthetic beauty and appeal, stand as a reminder of people who didn’t half-heartedly commit themselves to the Pleasant Hill Shakers.
The second way that the historic structures are a memorial to the Shakers is through the unique way that they provide a window into the beliefs and practices of the Pleasant Hill Shakers. Indeed, the buildings were built so purposefully that without some rudimentary knowledge of the Shakers many features of the buildings would seem very strange. The Centre Family Dwelling and the Water House are fine examples of this.
The Centre Family Dwelling was one of five dwelling houses in which the Pleasant Hill Shakers lived. Each dwelling housed a spiritual family of Shakers – approximately 60-70 men and women living unmarried and celibate as spiritual brothers and sisters. Double doors and double staircases in the dwelling are a tangible reminder of the Shakers’ celibate practices and spiritual relationships. Additionally, the aesthetically pleasing symmetry and equality paints a picture of gender and racial equality that was present in Shaker communities – at Pleasant Hill women and men were equals in leadership, while African Americans practiced their faith on equal terms with all other members.
While the Pleasant Hill Shakers were hard workers, as reflected in many of the buildings, they also were smart workers, often coming up with very innovative solutions to everyday challenges. Use of the mind to accomplish a task was closely connected to one’s spiritual development – a way to merge mind and body, spiritual and physical. The Shaker, according to two sisters from New York, “aims to employ his whole being and all his time in the service to which he has devoted himself, yet he sees no virtue nor economy in hard labor when a consecrated brain can work out an easier method” (Anna White and Leila Taylor). At Pleasant Hill, the plain and unassuming facade of the Water House encloses a water tank that is the hub of an intricate and complex water system that fed running water to many of the buildings across Pleasant Hill’s landscape in the 1830s. It might be called one of the earliest municipal water systems in the country.
It is said that houses are like the human beings who inhabit them. In regards to the Shakers, it is more than just the houses – it is all the buildings that are like the people who inhabited them. And in a variety of ways these buildings stand as reminders of those who built and used them more than a century ago.
Come early or stay late to the Annual Meeting in Louisville and spend some time learning about the buildings and the people of the Pleasant Hill Shaker community. Today, many of the surviving buildings contain a variety of activities, including exhibits and programs, overnight lodging, craft shops, and dining. Additionally, exploring nearly 40 miles of trails on the 3,000-acre nature preserve will provide opportunities to view the archeological remains of some buildings that were also essential to Shaker life at Pleasant Hill.