I am easily seduced by sense of place. I’m a Kentuckian (sixth generation of a family with chronically long generations ), so part of that may be genetic. Plus, I’m a nerd for history, and the tantalizing mixture of building, feature, landscape and memory with which so many of our historic places seethe. My first visit to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was perhaps in utero; over the years, I returned again and again, watching the landscape shift as I learned to read its stories, and understand the shaping hand of countless communities. Natives invariably call it “Shakertown” and my own mother, a native of Mercer County, well remembers the days prior to the preservation of the village. The effort to preserve the buildings and land in the 1960s is a compelling story in its own right, without any back story of a religious sect. Pleasant Hill was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971.
This Christmas, I visited with my mother, middle sister, and niece, joined by a dear family friend for lunch at the Trustee’s house. As I watched my niece crane her neck to peer up the circular stair, I thought of how fascinating I found the buildings and the quiet, simple lines of the interiors when I was young. In an effort to persuade me to widen my skill set, my mother treated me to an overnight stay at Shakertown when I was around eight years old. I believe she thought that if I was away from the temptations of trees, creeks, and finding perfect hiding spots to read my latest book I would more eagerly embrace learning how to sew. It didn’t quite happen as she planned, and I also broke the shower rod in the bathroom by enthusiastically swinging on it (I fancied myself an acrobat), but the spell of the site was cast nonetheless.
The architecture of the Shakers fascinated Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who first visited Pleasant Hill in 1959. Merton described his impressions of the Trustee’s House and the site in his journal this way:
- “[T]he marvelous double winding stair going up to the mysterious clarity of a dome on the roof … quiet sunlight filtering in—a big Lebanon cedar outside one of the windows … All the other houses are locked up. There is Shaker furniture only in the center family house. I tried to get in it and a gloomy old man living in the back told me curtly ‘it was locked up.’ The empty fields, the big trees—how I would love to explore those houses and listen to that silence. In spite of the general decay and despair there is joy there still and simplicity… Shakers fascinate me.”
The NHL nomination veers delightfully into purple prose when describing these remarkable stairways, declaring that builder Micajah Burnett “gave way to an almost intoxicated spasm of romance” in the staircase design.
Pleasant Hill is a magical place. Wide lanes, ordered by stone walls or plank fences, give way to solid buildings, displaying the basic materials of 19th-century construction in Kentucky: frame (timber and balloon), brick, and stone. (No log construction of which I know.) While it may not be an architectural petting zoo of the variety of architectural styles in Kentucky (and I cannot support such a venture unless constructed within the world of the interwebs), it is testament to the enduring popularity of the Federal style in the Commonwealth, and the design and engineering skills of the Shaker builders.
In more recent years, as tourism numbers fluctuate, I witnessed delayed maintenance of many of the historic buildings – rotting weatherboards, windows with failing glazing, and the enemy of all structures – water infiltration. As a non-profit, the site joins many other house museums in struggling to attract visitors, follow its mission, and remain relevant in a touch-screen, short-attention span digital world. I don’t claim to know the minds of the board of directors or the administrative staff, but I do know that partnerships and creativity are key to achieving preservation success in Kentucky…and ensuring that this special place continues to enchant future children is important not only to Mercer County, but to our Commonwealth.