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A Bit of Shaker Design: December 11

Those of us who are familiar with the world of antiques often see the periods divided by categories such as Neoclassical, Empire, Federal, Victorian, Aesthetic, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, etc, etc. If we watch Roadshow often enough we do learn how to tell a Chippendale chair from an Eames or the difference between Limoges and Teco. But, where in that do we learn to place a real value on the movements that were separatists…movements like the Shakers who thought they were creating a heaven on earth…so everything they made had to fit with the values of their faith?

Today, of course, we know to value Shaker design, both in architecture and in furniture. Authentic Shaker furniture brings high prices at auction. Many Shaker villages have been restored and are open to the public. There are even reproductions of Shaker furniture available.

We’re lucky at Dusty Old Thing to have some roots near both of Kentucky’s restored Shaker settlements. One of our favorite buildings is the Trustee’s Office, above, at Pleasant Hill outside of Harrodsburg. The building was designed by Micajah Burnett, who joined the community in 1809 at the age of 17 and soon began laying out the village and designing its main buildings. He was influenced by classic Federal style while also adhering to the guidelines for building laid down by the parent community of Mount Lebanon in New York, including twin staircases for women and men and simple, functional lines.

The Trustees of the community were both men and women. The genders were held to be equal although, as we all know, there was not to be any sexual relationships. Although legend says that the third floor dormers were used so the trustees could make sure “nothing was going on”, they are in fact standard features on many federal buildings at this time. They provided good views of fields, approaching visitors, aided with cooling, and provided access to the roof.

Despite the mandated “Exit” sign inside, the entrance hall in the Trustee’s Office shows the simple lines, the use of pegs for mounting all kinds of things including these novel candle holders. Simple ladderback chairs were also mounted upside down on the pegs when not in use. Nothing was on the floor that didn’t have to be. At the left of the door, too, you can see the long board hanging vertically that was used to secure the door at night.

The double doors are original and date to at least 1810.

The most striking feature of the building are the twin spiral staircases that go the third floor, not exactly a feature of strict Shaker guidelines. The cherry railings wind seemlessly to the top with shafts of light coming from the dormer. Overnight guests at the Village today can stay at the Trustee’s Office and walk up the same steps.

This simplicity and earnest design to create a “heaven on earth” is radically different from the designs that were contemporary and most that have come since. It marked a different way of looking at “things”…and we all can be sure that none of the Shaker things were dusty…

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