Q&A: Mount Lebanon Shaker site to be museum’s new home

The Shaker community at Mount Lebanon has long been abandoned. But now, the lost society will retrie
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The Shaker community at Mount Lebanon has long been abandoned.

The last seven survivors left the sect’s communal headquarters in 1947. Since then, their stand of buildings, including a five-story stone barn, have fallen into private hands or disrepair. Others were leased by Darrow School.

But now, the lost society will retrieve some of its former glory. The Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham has taken over 30 acres of the former Shaker village. The 10 buildings, considered the North Family domain, will become the new home for the museum and library. That’s fitting, as John S. Williams, the founder of the museum and library, culled 80 percent of his collection for the museum from Mount Lebanon.

Tools, furniture and kitchen utensils, numbering 28,000 items in all, as well as 19,000 archival documents, are housed and tended to at the Old Chatham site.

David Stocks, who headed up the conversion of the Katy Trail in Dallas from unused railroad bed to a biking and hiking trail, has moved to the area to lead the nonprofit’s relocation. Now president of the museum, Stocks said the plans are in their earliest stages. So he couldn’t quote financial estimates nor a timeline that he defined as “years not months.”

Yet the Kansas native was definitive on one point: “Our goal is to move to Mount Lebanon.”

Q: How was it that the collection became housed at Old Chatham?

A: In the 1950s, when John Williams turned over his collection to the museum foundation, it was put in his dairy barn complex across the street from his house. He was alive into the 1980s, and he enjoyed having his collection right across the street. Over the years, the facility was updated so that we could give the collection the proper care and storage. About a decade ago, the museum fell on hard financial times and started looking around to leave this [Old Chatham] site.

Q: You were thinking of moving into the stone barn at Mount Lebanon?

A: The barn burned in 1972. The only thing left are the outside walls. It was a great stone barn, the largest stone barn in America when it was built in 1859. It’s 200 feet long, 50 feet wide and five stories high. It’s absolutely immense, extremely impressive. Originally, we were going to convert the barn. But it was too big, too ambitious and not feasible. We are rethinking our strategy. The thinking so far is we will move there and restore another building.

Q: What is the state of the other buildings?

A: None is in perfect condition. The three used by Darrow are modernized inside. But they are all in varying conditions. One has a foundation issue. We have a brick building that is structurally sound. For the barn, our intention is to stabilize the walls. How far we go with the barn, we don’t know. But if we don’t stabilize the walls, they will collapse. In general, nothing is perfect.

Q: What are plans for the Old Chatham complex?

A: We plan on selling it.

Q: Why is this Shaker collection important?

A: In an earlier time, Shaker objects would have been more astonishing. As things have happened, we have absorbed what Shakers have created in everyday life. They were a very unusual community. They believed in communal property, celibacy and complete equality of the sexes, equality of the races. They were a utopian society. Their theology was to re-create heaven on Earth. They also thought of work as worship. So they have a religious quality to what they made, which was simple.

They did not believe in being pretentious and ostentatious. When they made furniture, there were rules on what varnish, what paint, what wood. It couldn’t be too fancy. They had a stripped-down aesthetic, which today seems totally normal, but was astounding for its time.

Categories: Life and Arts

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