Who are the Shakers?

The Distinctiveness of Shaker Architecture

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Sabbathday Lake, Maine
Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Sabbathday Lake, Maine
Aerial photograph from Maine Preservation,
a nonprofit member-based statewide historic preservation organization.

The Distinctiveness of Shaker Architecture

by Robert P. Emlen

ONE SUMMER DAY YEARS AGO I was driving the back roads of Maine with the guidebook on the dashboard, looking for the Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake. As I passed by the clapboarded frame farmhouses and connected barns of Cumberland County, I wondered if these plain structures might be part of the Shaker village. “Nope,” said the woman at a little country store where I stopped to ask the way. “Just up the road. You’ll know it when you see it.”

I wasn’t so sure. What made the store keeper think I would recognize a place I had never been? Over the years, I had driven many a mile on several continents admiring all sorts of architecture. In graduate school, I had memorized the styles of American buildings for slide exams. Still, I had no mental image of a Shaker village. I wondered if I might drive right past this one without knowing it. And then, as I came over the hill, flanking the road before me was a compact and tidy village of substantial buildings. Although they generally resembled those I had passed on the farms and in the towns down the road, this place was clearly different. I knew that I had arrived in a Shaker village.

My memories of that first visit to Sabbathday Lake bring to mind the words of nineteenth-century travelers who recorded their initial impressions of Shaker villages. Invariably, their accounts remark on the distinctive appearance of the settlements: the number and quality of the buildings, the neat and clean look of the landscape, the air of prosperity about the community, the sense that Shaker villages are unmistakably different from the homes of their rural neighbors. The broad styles of Shaker architecture are not unique, nor are their building materials, nor their ways of working wood and cutting stone and forging metal. The real difference lies in how Shakers live their lives – and the homes they made for themselves reflect that distinctiveness.

To begin with , Shakers lived communally, and to this end, they created entire villages large enough to support hundreds of souls joined in a common purpose of work and worship. This unified sense of purpose guided them as they shaped their environment. The Shakers controlled enough land to level hillsides, redirect stream beds, and plow the soil into large contiguous, even fields. Moreover, they could marshal the labor to do it. Even the biggest and most prosperous farm families of early nineteenth-century America didn’t operate on this scale.

The unusual prospect of the Shaker landscape makes just as clear an impression on visitors today as it did over a century ago. Those early visitors marveled at the architecture of individual buildings, often noting design solutions the Shakers devised in response to the requirements of communal living. Dwellings for a hundred of the faithful could be so large – often the biggest buildings in the surrounding countryside – that Shaker craftsmen had to address the problems of the sheer size of their structures. They introduced interior windows, for instance , to carry daylight from exterior walls through rooms and into the darkest corners of the attics. Meeting house roofs had to be self-supporting their interiors uninterrupted by column or partitions, to allow the unencumbered movement of religious dance. Buildings used jointly by brethren and sisters were designed with parallel, exclusive facilities – duplicate doorways and duplicate stairways.

Early visitors reported their fascination with innovative storage systems, efficient barns, or cleverly designed laundry facilities. Clearly, the form of Shaker architecture followed the function of life in the spiritual community. Whether or not we have tried to analyze it, most visitors to these villages over the last two centuries have sensed the special quality of Shaker architecture.

The Shakers were seldom victims of fashion. Their buildings bespeak forthright, contemplative lives, freed from the influences of the outside world. Stylistic considerations were not high on the list of Shaker priorities; to the contrary buildings were designed to outlast the vagaries of changing tastes. They had to be efficient, easy to maintain, and give their builders a sense of serenity and grace from knowing that what they created was as close to perfection as humanly possible.

Nineteenth-century visitors wrote of the unity of design in Shaker villages. Developed according to the community’s standards and requirements, the buildings in a Shaker village are more consistent in appearance than those of the neighboring farms. Their clustering on the land, the way they relate to one another in function and scale, the consistency of aesthetic choices employed by Shaker craftsmen, all attest to that communal society of spiritual brethren and sisters devoted to creating an ideal life on earth.

This way of life distinguished Shaker architecture from the architecture of other communal villages. Nowhere is the difference more obvious than in the present appearance of former Shaker villages adapted in the twentieth century as resorts, prisons, nursing homes, and seminaries. Although they still support communal living, these villages have been modified to serve needs unknown to the Shakers. One finds there only the vestiges of Shaker architecture.

The appearance of the village at Sabbathday Lake must have been distinctive in the mind of the storekeeper. It was settled by the Shakers in 1794 and has been home to the community for more than two hundred years. Small wonder I could recognize those buildings at first sight.

Originally published as the foreword in: The Architecture of the Shakers by Julie Nicoletta (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 1995), p. 9-11.

Copyright ©1995 by Robert P. Emlen. Used by permission.