In the 18th century, America was a place of opportunity, attracting tens of thousands from around the world for its promise of work, land and independence. One small group — members of a religion known as the Shakers — is nearly defunct today, but its austere way of life (and their design aesthetic) left an impact.
And nowhere is their lifestyle more beautifully preserved than in the rolling hills of Kentucky at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
The Shakers came to America from England beginning in the 1770s, seeking to escape religious persecution. They were a spiritual group derived from the Quakers, who embraced pacifism and equality.
But unlike the Quakers, whose worship evolved into quiet contemplation, the Shakers worshipped ecstatically, dancing violently, trembling and praising God loudly. The group became known as the “Shaking Quakers,” and eventually, just the Shakers.
Among the new Americans seeking opportunities was Micajah Burnett, who, in 1809 at age 17, settled near Harrods- burg, Ky., with his parents. The Shaker community in Harrodsburg had only been established a few years earlier, but members quickly went about converting local citizens, including the Burnetts.
The group eventually grew into one of the largest Shaker communities in the country, with 600 members. And largely under the influence of Burnett (architect, designer, builder and all-around city planner), the Shaker community called Pleasant Hill evolved, too, into one of the most impressive settlements, with 250 buildings, including a meetinghouse, dwellings, shops and barns.
Today, the collection — the largest restored Shaker community in the United States — provides visitors a unique glimpse of life in this private society, now down to just two members living in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill is a step back in time, a sanctuary on 3,000 acres of beautiful farmland, with horses, gardens, an incredible collection of original and reproduced furnishings and other original artifacts.
The 34 original structures on the site comprise the largest private collection of original 19th-century buildings in the U.S., and the largest National Historic Landmark in Kentucky. Burnett’s buildings are still standing, having been painstakingly restored and opened so that 21st-century visitors can experience the Shakers’ unique lifestyle and even sleep in cottages that members did 200 years ago.
A central structure today, as it was for the Shakers, is the meetinghouse, built in 1820. Micajah Burnett had to employ plenty of ingenuity in its design; the budding needed to be large enough to accommodate the entire community, yet also be free of any columns, walls or other obstructions to the physically expressive worship. And it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the vibrations.
Although the meetinghouse design looks simple, one visit with a guide in period dress shows otherwise. As she demonstrates the stomping and shaking dances used by the group, the vibrations can be felt everywhere. The building’s acoustics are naturally surround sound; as the guide walks to each corner singing an old Shaker song, her voice bounces and reverberates off walls, comers and ceilings to create a natural, easy-to-hear sound.
The village is a place of discovery, with demonstrations of weaving, building and gardening as well as tours of the barnyard. Talks on the schooling and life of the Shakers happen daily, and artists- in-residence exhibit an array of original works.
If you’d prefer a more immersive experience, Pleasant Hill makes it easy, offering rooms in 13 restored buildings. These well-appointed lodgings feature Shaker reproduction furniture, hardwood floors and spectacular country views.
For dining, the Trustees’ Table restaurant serves regional Kentucky dishes — fried chicken, corn muffins, tomato celery soup — with local seasonal ingredients. And for those who want to take home Shaker style, there are offerings in the Shops at Shaker Village, including furniture and signature wooden boxes.
The religion dwindled by the turn of the 20th century: the celibate Shakers could only add members through recruitment or adoption, and with Shaker children being allowed to leave the order at age 21, many did. But this group’s love of simplicity and its penchant for utility continue to influence today’s designers, ensuring that the religion — or at least the Shaker name — will not be lost to history.