An Insider's Perspective on Restoring an 1833 Water House at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Prior to 2018, I’d handled a handheld power drill maybe twice. I’m a historic preservationist, but a lot of what I was trained to do was to study a building visually, and maybe by feeling a brick, rapping on a wall, or running tests in a lab. But in the middle of the year I came across the 2018 calendar of projects for HistoriCorps, a nonprofit where volunteers pick up drills, chisels, hammers, and all sorts of construction materials and head to historic sites, where they help with necessary repairs. I was intrigued at the chance to practice what I’d studied. In July, I signed up to head to the rustic and beautiful Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, to repair an 1833 water house.
Multiple times during the nine-hour drive from Washington, D.C., to Harrodsburg, a small, historic town in the middle of Kentucky, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I was unprepared. After all, how often do I build scaffolding? (Answer: never.) But I had used a chisel and a mallet before at historic sites, and I’d practiced repointing and mixing lime mortar a handful of times. And the great thing about a group like HistoriCorps (and the National Trust’s HOPE Crew, which has a similar mission but is geared towards the next generation of preservationists) is that they teach you every step of the way.
I joined a small group of four other volunteers and two crew leaders. We came from all over—Massachusetts, Colorado, Virginia—and from different professional backgrounds. Some of us were drawn to the volunteer component, and others wanted to get back into architecture professionally. But I was most looking forward to honing my hands-on preservation skills.
We got to learn a lot about the Shakers, who have a fascinating history. The Shakers lived by a controlled set of rules established to create a heaven on earth by living simple and healthy lives. Men and women resided in separate quarters, coming together for certain events like weekly services. Because celibacy was one of the Shaker tenets, the religious group grew their following by converting those outside of the faith—including single men and widowed women, as well as entire families. The first Shakers in America fled persecution in England and settled in New York prior to the Revolutionary War. They eventually established 21 villages all the way from Maine to Kentucky. There are only two living Shakers today, but back then the movement contained over 16,000 members. Pleasant Hill had 500 at its peak—the third largest Shaker community in the United States.
The water house is an important structure at Pleasant Hill because it visually conveys a story of the Shakers' beliefs and how they were manifested in Shaker communities. It was constructed as a strictly utilitarian building. The brick nogging was left exposed on the interior, not covered up with lath and plaster, reflecting the Shaker’s interest in simplicity and perfection. (Nogging is a precautionary measure that provides insulation and fire retardation, and prevents pests like rats from burrowing into the walls.) Despite the building’s practical function, the Shakers took care to make sure that every piece—from the pegs joining the beams and studs to the wide platform where the water tank rests on an upper platform—was made meticulously and fastened perfectly.
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In addition to architecture, the Shakers' drive for perfection perhaps translates best through the community’s infrastructure, and this is also where the water house comes in. "They kept things tidy and orderly, and that cleanliness extended to access to water," explains Maggie McAdams, assistant program manager at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, who led us on a tour of the water system on our first day. "The water house and water system were born out of that urge for perfection."
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is the site of one of the earliest public water systems west of the Allegheny Mountains. "[The village] was ahead of its time," notes McAdams. The community built cisterns and wells all throughout their village with hydraulic cement to keep them watertight. They were fed by a natural spring about a half mile north. There, the Shakers erected a pumphouse. A horse hitched up to a wheel would walk, propelling the water up into the tank at the water house. From there, gravity fed the clean, natural spring water to the kitchens of the family dwellings. (Family dwellings were large housing structures that held up to 90 individuals of "one large spiritual family.") The water was also used for drinking. The Shakers had such a successful public water system that they avoided the severe cholera outbreaks of the 1800s.
It was amazing to see the inner workings of the water house because it made clear to us what made Shaker communities revolutionary. "The water house is the last component of the water system still visible to the public today. It's a great beacon for this early water system in the center of community. It's a cool story to tell," says McAdams.
Knowing how important the water house is to the interpretation of the Shakers and their public water system, I grew to understand the significance of our work. The majority of the week was spent removing brick nogging that had become loose and was in danger of falling out. Using a chisel and a mallet, we started chipping away at the mortar, loosening it enough that the bricks fell into our hands. We also removed some rotted siding to have better access to the nogging from the exterior. It was pretty satisfying work, once you got into the rhythm of it.
Each brick then had any attached mortar chipped off and was placed into large plastic bins to soak. When re-laying old bricks, you want to introduce them to as much moisture as possible so that they don’t suck out the moisture in the mortar too quickly, preventing a solid bond from forming between mortar and brick. After all, these bricks hadn’t seen much moisture in 185 years! They gulped up water so fast that we had to constantly monitor water levels in the buckets. Finally, once the bricks decided they’d had enough (no more visible bubbles in the water), we laid them on a tarp to dry out a bit, readying the bricks for the next two groups of volunteers to re-lay them.
On our last day we removed a rotted beam on the south elevation that was no longer offering support to the structure—the wall was bowing outward as a result. We saw true mortise-and-tenon joinery, with several intact wooden dowels that had been inserted into either end of the horizontal beam to attach it to the corner post. They were made by hand back in the 1830s and, as far as we could tell, hadn’t been touched since. As much as I wished we could leave the beam and joinery in place to preserve that piece of history (even though people couldn’t see it), the beam was too rotted to stay where it was. But it didn’t escape my notice that the problem with the beam wasn’t the craftsmanship.
By the time I left, we had made great progress. The later groups would pick up where we left off and would complete the repairs to the water house by the end of the month (the project has since finished). It was an invaluable experience for me, because I got to practice hands-on preservation and learn about a fascinating group of people I had been unfamiliar with. I left feeling good, knowing I helped keep a little (but valuable) piece of Shaker Village preserved so others can continue to learn about what makes the Shaker community so exceptional.