Popular for their distinctively simple and well crafted goods, architecture and apparel, the Shakers and the utopian villages they created continue to be a strong draw to visitors. With such a clear connection evident between their philosophy and the tangible mementos of that philosophy, they are an important case study for anyone interested in modern, functional, high-quality design.
Night in the Museum
The most frequented of the Shaker sites are those that were fortunate to have a long and uninterrupted occupancy. As the population declined the most in-tact villages were frozen in time and preserved for all to come and learn about this curious American religious phenomenon. Other communities that declined well before a popular interest was to develop faired less well and these places were broken up, some parts sold off and others modified for other uses or disappeared entirely.
One such place is the Shaker site and Enfield in New Hampshire. When this community finally died out in the 1920s the property was sold to the La Salettes Order, for use as a Catholic seminary. And this initiated one of the oddest religious architectural juxtapositions in America. Buildings from two religious communities, each with a strong tradition of expressing their philosophies in architecture built within a few feet of each other. Next to the Shakers Great Stone Dwelling which was the center of the Enfield community, the La Salettes Order build an awkwardly elaborate cathedral building to facilitate their new use of the site.
For the Shaker enthusiast, it is a jarring sight. But all the more interesting I think in highlighting the uniqueness of the Shakers and their work. The La Salettes Order did some remodeling to the Shaker’s Great Stone Dwelling as well using it as a dorm and cafeteria for its students. Bathrooms were added to the Shaker’s living quarters, as well as some other “chopping up” of the building’s symmetrical design.
The site has now been reclaimed and the foundation is slowly restoring the Great Stone Dwelling, as well as other buildings in the compound, to their former glory. But the changes made by the La Salettes Order have presented an opportunity for those of us Shaker devotes. At other Shaker sites you would be immediately scolded if you step off the tourist path or touch anything in one of the historic buildings. Uniquely at Enfield, you can spend the night, sleeping in the very rooms where Shaker families practiced their unique beliefs and toiled to create some of the America’s most distinctive and beautiful mass produced goods.
The building is chiefly a museum, so the experience of “sleeping in” is quite a privilege. The Shakers at Enfield lived quite a hard life and their accommodations were by no means intended to make life more comfortable. So staying in the Great Stone Dwelling today is more a continuation of the museum experience rather than checking into a hotel.
A museum tour is included in the price of your stay, so as you wander around, taking in the historic environment and learning about the Shakers, your imagination starts to immerse you with the details of the previous inhabitants daily lives. When the tour is over and you ordinarily get in your car and go back to the modern world, at Enfield you can head upstairs and get deeper and deeper into the Shaker experience. It is a truly rich and unique museum experience.
I equate an experience like this to something like camping out. You go out in nature and sleep under the stars because of what the environment has to offer. The Great Stone House at Enfield is like this. For devotees of Shaker sites, it is a great opportunity to more fully experience the Shaker environment.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.
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