The Shakers Are Movers, Too

CHATHAM, N.Y. — In an earlier life, the moribund red brick Victorian at the foot of Main Street in this thriving Columbia County village had been a sanitarium, a hotel and tavern, a furniture store and an auto dealership. These were the warm-up acts for its latest incarnation: a permanent new home for the Shaker Museum, widely considered the country’s most significant collection of Shaker furniture, objects and archival material. The museum, set to open in 2023 and to include a new addition, is being designed by the architect Annabelle Selldorf, whose current projects include the expansion of The Frick Collection in New York and an addition for The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego La Jolla.

“Modern architects tend to like the clarity and simplicity of Shaker furniture and architecture,” Ms. Selldorf said. “But of course, it’s so much more profound than that. It’s about equality, sustainability and community, to mention a few of the values. The pairing of the two really appealed to me.”

The collection, which is online, has been physically housed in somewhat dilapidated farm buildings and has not been on public view for a decade. The new $18 million complex will house a conservation and storage facility, permanent and rotating exhibitions, a public reading room and a community space. Ms. Selldorf, who is something of a court architect to the art world, has designed a series of glass links to connect the old and new structures. These will open up to a Shaker-inspired landscape by the firm Nelson Byrd Woltz made up of medicinal and native plants and a small garden of concentric circles loosely based on Shaker dances. Ms. Selldorf’s renderings, along with a few stellar pieces, are currently on view in “The Future is a Gift,” a pop-up exhibition in Chatham, a village located close to the Shaker heartlands of New Lebanon, N.Y. and Hancock, Mass.

The new museum is the latest example of what William D. Moore, the director of the American and New England Studies program at Boston University, has dubbed “Shaker fever.” Perhaps no one was more stricken than John Stanton Williams (1902-1982), the wealthy New York stockbroker-turned-gentleman farmer whose passion for antique farm implements eventually led him to Shaker barns and then communities, where he amassed the encyclopedic collection of more than 18,000 objects that form the backbone of the new facility.

In contrast to competitors, who bought with an eye for resale, Williams was a bit of a nerd whose primary interest in the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as the Shakers were officially known, was their entrepreneurial and technological prowess. He befriended Eldresses and Sisters, amassing key pieces from a religious sect best known at the time for communal practices that included celibacy, shared economic resources, male and female leadership, an abhorrence of excess and the ecstatic liturgical dancing that gave birth to the popular name…

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