Restoring a 19th-century Shaker grain barn in Kentucky
By Gwendolyn Purdom | From Preservation | November/December 2011
When Tommy Hines and a team of preservationists set out to restore an 1875 grain barn at Kentucky's South Union Shaker Village, they had a remarkable legacy to protect: The Shakers, a communitarian religious sect that established villages throughout the eastern United States from the 18th through the early 20th centuries, were known for their striking architecture and design, embrace of cutting-edge technology, and unorthodox beliefs in celibacy and equality of the sexes.
"They were groundbreaking," says Hines, director at the 500-acre village and museum, "far ahead of what the outlying community was doing in the 19th century."
Several dwellings in the village (which disbanded in 1922) had been rehabilitated. But when the timber-frame grain barn was acquired in 1999, inappropriate additions and decades of use as a stable for livestock had taken a toll on the three-story structure.
"The floors were gone on the first level, and there were just feet of mud and manure in the bottom part of the barn," Hines says. "The old barn was more or less being pulled apart by all of its additions and the way they had moved over the years."
With a 2006 federal grant, and the help of restoration professional Eugene S. Hall, Hines and his team embarked on a five-year, $520,000 effort to restore the barn.
Restoration Initiated: March 2006
Completed: April 2010
Total Cost: $520,000
Funders: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, James Graham Brown Foundation, Helm Foundation, Carpenter Foundation, and private contributors
Project Architect: Alvin Cox
Workers stabilized posts, replaced the floor on the first story, and removed sheds added in the 1930s. With only Shakers' journal entries and one historical image to guide them, Hall and his group searched for restoration clues inside the building. Varying wood patterns distinguished original material from later additions, for example. Notches in posts showed how the structure had been set on logs. The crew carefully raised the building to pour a foundation and new concrete sills. Original siding, floors, and timbers were preserved wherever possible.
Once the building was plumb again, Hines says, "it took a sigh of relief. You could see things go into place and the floorboards come back down where they had been buckled, and it's just almost perfect now."
The completed building opened to visitors last year. This winter, Hall, Hines, and museum staff plan to install an exhibit on Shaker agriculture and use the barn for concerts, antiques shows, and other events. It's a dramatic change for a structure that Hall says was often overlooked.
South Union Shaker Village suffers from anonymity as well. "Everybody knows the [settlements] in New England," says Karen Nickless of the National Trust's Southern Office. (Four open to the public are located in Pittsfield, Mass.; Canterbury and Enfield, N.H.; and New Gloucester, Maine.) "But very few people know there are any Shaker communities in Kentucky—the West, as the Shakers called it." Nickless helped museum officials meet code requirements for the barn.
According to Eugene Hall, knowing that visitors will gain greater appreciation for the Shakers by visiting the barn makes the years of meticulous work worthwhile.
"The thing that stood out to me as a craftsman was when you copy Shaker work, you're copying the best. It's simple, it's strong, the pride involved in it—that's what really drew me to the project," Hall says. "Nowhere else is it so simple and yet so everlasting."
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