Reform and the Roots of Modernism: Shaker Architecture

Julie Nicoletta, University of Washington, Tacoma

Tuesday, March 12, 2013Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Round barn, built 1926, Hancock Shaker Village, Hancock, MA

Round barn, built 1926, Hancock Shaker Village, Hancock, MA. Photograph by Julie Nicoletta, 2010.

North Family dwelling house interior, Mount Lebanon, NY

North Family dwelling house interior, Mount Lebanon, NY, Photograph by N.E. Baldwin, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1939.

North Family dwelling houses, Mount Lebanon, NY

North Family dwelling houses, Mount Lebanon, NY, Photograph by N.E. Baldwin, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1939.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more popularly known as the Shakers, left behind a rich legacy of buildings in villages throughout the eastern United States. Some of these buildings have been destroyed or demolished, but many others survive as privately owned houses or institutional buildings for state prisons, and in museum villages that interpret Shaker life for 21st-century visitors.

The Shaker building types that remain, including meeting houses, dwelling houses, barns and workshops, express the group’s religious and social beliefs in worship through physical labor, the possibility of moral perfection and near equality between the sexes. Dr. Nicoletta’s study of these structures, combined with an examination of the documents (religious treatises, account books, journals and letters) the group left behind, demonstrate that the Shakers incorporated ideas from the outside world and applied them to their own buildings as a means to shape and control behavior.

Dr. Nicoletta’s examination of Shaker architecture shows us that, rather than seeking isolation, the Shakers frequently sought interaction with the outside world in order to proselytize their faith and enhance their economic activities. Those economic activities gradually included the sale of Shaker furniture and decorative objects, textiles, seeds and medicinal herbs.

Comparing specific buildings and their interiors with contemporary writings on reform architecture reveals similarities between Shaker buildings and those of mainstream society. Early Shaker buildings in New York and New England reflected influences of colonial Anglo-Dutch architecture, while early 19th century buildings drew on the Federal style. When social reform movements, such as prison and asylum reform, took hold later in the 19th century, Shaker architecture of the time shared similarities with buildings in mainstream society that reflected the efforts of reformers to bring advanced ideas of cleanliness, order and control into their built environment.

At all its villages, the sect reproduced architectural forms largely developed by Shaker leaders at Mount Lebanon, New York, albeit with regional variations. Dwelling houses in particular, provide a good idea of what the Shakers hoped to accomplish through their architecture. As the focus of Shaker daily life and worship, the dwellings tell us much about how the Shakers used their buildings and the spaces within to try to construct a utopian environment in which all members strove for perfection and individuals subordinated themselves to the good of the whole.

Finally, Dr. Nicoletta will reconsider the legacy of Shaker architecture in regard to 20th century modernism, particularly in the decorative arts. The Shakers’ interest in economy and efficiency, apparent in the absence of ornament, use of built-in furniture and the love of natural materials, particularly wood, influenced later generations of designers. Most importantly, the goal of some 20th century modernists to reform society through good design, reflects the Shakers’ earlier belief that architecture could forge a path toward perfection.

Julie Nicoletta received her bachelor’s degree from Pomona College and her master’s degree and doctorate from Yale University. She is a Professor in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Washington Tacoma where she teaches courses on American art and architecture, material culture studies and public history.

Dr. Nicoletta has written numerous books and articles on topics from architecture to gender studies, including The Architecture of the Shakers (1995) and Buildings of Nevada (2000), part of the Society of architectural Historians’ Building of the United States series. She is currently working on Unisphere: The Architecture of Globalization at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-1965. Her journal articles on the Shakers include “The Architecture of Control: Shaker Dwelling Houses in Early Nineteenth-Century America” in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians *(2003) and “The Gendering of Order and Disorder: Mother Ann Lee and Shaker Architecture” in *The New England Quarterly (2001).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Bring your baskets and boxes, Shaker or worldly, all shapes, sizes and functions.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.