With historic buildings that make up a broad collection of the simplistic architecture of a nearly forgotten religious group, an herb garden and orchard filled with crops grown since the 18th century, and hiking trails across acres and acres of original pastural land, the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District presents a unique opportunity for visitors to gain a deeper appreciation for an often-ignored aspect of American history.
“You really can equate Shakers with the concept of Americana,” says Starlyn D’Angelo, Executive Director of the Albany Shaker Heritage Society. D’Angelo is currently partnering with the Preservation League of New York State to draw statewide attention to the Shaker Heritage Society and the surrounding historic district. The Shaker’s tremendous influence on American culture, D’Angelo says, is why it’s imperative that the historic district is protected.
Formed in England in the early 18th century, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (known most commonly as The Shakers, a mashup of their original nickname, “The Shaking Quakers”) made their way to the United States in 1774 under the guidance of Mother Ann Lee, the first official leader of the Shaker community. Lee and the small group she led across the Atlantic settled in modern-day Colonie, establishing the first Shaker community in the United States.
Lee, who joined the Shakers with her parents in 1758, was one among many women revered by the Shakers, whose beliefs did not restrict women from taking leadership roles. In fact, Lee was seen as being the “second coming of Christ” by the community, due to her claims of revelations that would come to inform the core practices of the Shakers.
Along with their progressive views on gender roles, the Shakers were also known for a wealth of other impressive achievements and for their contributions to American culture. Idyllic American traditions like apple pie and “simple living” were, according to D’Angelo, “really rooted in Shaker culture.”
The architectural style of the Shakers has had a particularly significant influence on American architecture. Their barns and homes are known for their simplistic and austere design, and though they later took inspiration from Federal style, their simple yet technically perfect furnishings left a lasting impression on American styles.
Acknowledging and honoring the Shakers’ influence on some of the most deeply ingrained aspects of American society in culture is why D’Angelo is fighting hard to preserve the grand collection of Shaker history the Historic District offers to the Capital Region.
That’s where the Preservation League comes in. “We’re like MANY for historic preservation,” jokes Erin Tobin, Vice President for Policy and Preservation at the Preservation League.
Since 1997, the Preservation League, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation in New York State, has been facilitating the preservation of historic sites across the state through their Seven to Save program. In the past, Seven to Save has designated sites like the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, Bent’s Opera House in Medina, NY, and the Kingston Historic Stockade.
For the 2018-2019 designations, the League is focusing on the preservation of historic districts around New York. According to their website, each of the seven districts listed are in danger of disappearing because of “vacancy, disinvestment, and lack of public awareness.” Its past designees have found success through their partnership with the League, averting demolition, developing plans for reuse, and even securing landmark status.
So, why the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District? Tobin says the League chose the site because of its significance at the local, state, and national level. “It’s a nationally important place,” she says, which is why they’re listing the entire district, and not just listing the Shaker Heritage Society, located on the Church Family land. The other former Shaker properties included in the designation once belonged to the West and South Families in Colonie and Mount Lebanon, respectively.
“Part of the designation was meant to enhance its visibility,” Tobin says. The League works closely with its designees to draw attention to the historical importance of each site, strategizing ways to engage the media and local communities. Since the announcement of their partnership in April, Tobin says they’ve had “great press coverage,” with D’Angelo and the Shaker Heritage Society being featured in several different news outlets in the area.
“We felt that getting statewide attention through the Seven to Save program would really help us clearly articulate the importance of the historic site to the county,” D’Angelo says.
And on May 15, D’Angelo and the League cohosted a reception to do just that for members of the Albany County legislature and of the Shaker Heritage Society board. Many of the 39 legislators had never been to the site, D’Angelo says. “This is a really great opportunity for us to think about the positives that we’ve accomplished,” she says.
D’Angelo recalled that one legislator at the reception had been talking about all the repairs that are currently needed for “more important” facilities in Albany County. “I said I understood but that none of those projects could drive economic development like the Shaker site can,” she says. “He was definitely swayed!”
However, there are complications that have come up in D’Angelo and the League’s efforts to preserve the district. For instance, the land is leased by the Shaker Heritage Society but has been owned by Albany County since 1925. The terms of land ownership can complicate things when it comes to applying for grants and other funding to maintain the grounds and buildings, says Tobin.
“Without a long-term lease, they have a hard time getting grants and raising funds,” Tobin says. “Most funders will only give awards if the grant recipient is either the owner of the building and the land, or if they have a long-term lease.” For example, D’Angelo explained that a recent grant the Shaker Heritage Society received from the REDC had to be submitted by Albany County, though the Society wrote the grant proposal.
“We’re lobbying them for a 50- to 60-year lease of the Church family property,” she says. This long-term lease request may work in the Society and League’s favors, thanks to one of the six new developments coming to the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District.
Soldier On, a nonprofit organization committed to ending veteran homelessness in the United States, is currently developing a permanent housing village for veterans at the site of the former Ann Lee Nursing Home. Albany County has granted Soldier On a 60-year lease on the land. Tobin says the League is supporting the Shaker Heritage Society in their lobbying of the county to have the same length lease as Soldier On. “It just makes sense,” she says.
Aside from Soldier On, five other developments are coming to the historic district, including a soccer complex, multiple apartment buildings, a hotel, and an office building. D’Angelo says she helps provide guidance for the property owners. “We don’t try to stop these projects,” she says. “We prefer to be a partner.”
This spirit of comradery and partnership is what has kept the Historic District afloat for so long, even when incoming developers operate without the same sensitivity as their peers. Currently, the town of Colonie is undergoing a large amount of renovations; while this does present a potential roadblock for D’Angelo and the Preservation League in their quest to protect the Shaker buildings and artifacts, D’Angelo recognizes that change will continue to come. “Preservation is the most important thing,” she says.
Why It Matters
While there may only be nine original Shaker buildings left on the Church Family site, where the Shaker Heritage Society resides, D’Angelo says that doesn’t put a damper on the importance of preserving the sites. “There’s enough left here to give a sense of what it was like,” she says.
The rich history of the Shaker community is still seen today through the immaculately cared-for Meeting House at the Albany Shaker Heritage Society, which serves as a museum of Shaker history, a gift shop, and a performance venue – it also happens to be the last large-scale Shaker Meeting House with an intact interior.
The Historic District not only preserves the unique history of the Shaker community in New York State, but has inspired a number of world-renowned artists. “They influenced everyone from Pablo Picasso to Donald Judd,” D’Angelo says. Composer Aaron Copland was inspired by his discovery of the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" in an archive; he later modified the music and included it in his famous composition, “Appalachian Spring.”
D’Angelo says that artists have come to the district and been inspired, even writing music pieces or choreographing dances specifically for the Meeting House. “I really believe there’s something for everybody here,” she says. “There’s so much to offer.”
What’s most important, however, is simple: the preservation of a deeply significant chapter of American and religious history. D’Angelo says she wishes more people knew about the Shakers’ influence on American culture. “I recognize it’s one aspect of the dominant culture,” she says, “but it’s a really important one.”
More information on the Albany Shaker Heritage Society can be found here; to learn more about the Preservation League, click here.
Photos and words by Sarah Heikkinen.