In 2004 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon became the steward of the Mount Lebanon Shakers’ 1824 Second Meetinghouse. The Second Meetinghouse was erected at a time when Shakers had experienced an amazing period of growth and felt confident in their future. As a result, they began building some of their most substantial and innovative buildings. The Meetinghouse is one of those, designated as one of New York State’s most important examples of vernacular architecture. Although owned by the Museum, the Second Meetinghouse sits on land owned by Darrow School, a private high school that occupies nearly two dozen Shaker buildings. The Museum leases the Second Meetinghouse to the school and the school uses the building as its library.
The history of the construction, modification, and use of the Meetinghouse is told in a pamphlet published by and available from Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon titled, Noble but Plain: The Second Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon. At the time of its publication in 1994 there were several unanswered questions about the building. Since that time, one of those questions, relating to the Second Meetinghouse floor, has been answered and the answer can now be added to that history.
In 1795 the Marquise de La Tour Pin de Gouvernet visited the Shakers at Watervliet, NY, and kept a journal in which she described the Shaker public meeting she attended. She wrote:
I was seated at the corner of the chimney, and my guide had enjoined silence, which was all the easier for me as I was alone. While keeping absolutely silent, I had the opportunity to admire the floor which was constructed of pine wood, without any knots, and of a rare perfection and whiteness. Upon this fine floor were drawn in different directions lines represented by copper nails, brilliantly polished, the heads of which were level with the floor. I endeavored to divine what could be the use of these lines, which did not seem to have any connection with each other, when at the last stroke of the bell the two side doors opened, and I saw enter on my side fifty or sixty young girls or women,…I then observed that the women stood upon these lines of nails, taking care not to cross them with their toes.
The meetinghouse in which she observed the Shakers is long gone and the shiny nails with it. A new meetinghouse built at Watervliet in 1848 does not appear to have any such markings or they have been sanded away over the years. The Shaker meetinghouse at Canterbury, NH, built in 1792, does, however, have lines marked in a manner similar to those described by the Marquise. These lines used both shiny nails and different colored wooden pins set flush with the floor. At Canterbury there are eight diagonal rows of nails and pegs — four on the brothers’ side of the room and four on the sisters’ side — radiating from a central point along the back wall of the sanctuary toward the front wall. There is also one distinct line, parallel to the back wall of the sanctuary, that crosses all of the other lines. Their purpose was apparently the same as those at Watervliet: to mark the proper position for brothers and sisters to stand as they prepared for dances used in worship.
In 1787 Father Joseph Meacham succeeded Father James Whittaker as the leader of the Shaker Church. He held this position until his death in 1796 and in that role worked tirelessly to bring the Shakers into “gospel order” – regulating all aspects of Shaker life, including the manner and type of dances used in worship. In 1787 he introduced the Square Order Shuffle. This dance required strict organization – rank and file – and it is likely that the introduction of markings on meetinghouse floors came around this time. As Father Joseph lived primarily at Mount Lebanon it seems logical that floor markings used at Watervliet and at Canterbury had their origin in the house in which Father Joseph lived and frequently worshiped at Mount Lebanon. That building, the first meetinghouse, built in 1785, still stands but shows no indication of pegs or nails to define lines of the floor today. Now a private home, the floors have been repeatedly refinished and modified. If there were brass or copper tacks used as markers they very well may have been refinished away. For years, one of the unanswered questions about the 1824 Meetinghouse was whether its floor had pins or nails that identified dance positions.
In the 1950s the Meetinghouse was used by Darrow School as a gym and in 1962 it was converted into their library. While a library, the floor was covered with carpet and inaccessible for study. Several years ago, the old carpet was removed and new modular carpeting installed. It was a monumental job – removing books and book shelves and the rest of the library furnishings. For a brief moment in this process the floor was exposed and Shaker Museum staff were able to inspect the floor. On the day of the visit, staff walked into the sanctuary and directly to the middle of the room. Looking down at the painted jump circle for what had been, until the end of the 1950s, the center of a basketball court, a rather large dowel, three-quarters of an inch in diameter, was easily seen by the distinct color of the dark end-grain wood showing through the yellow pine. One could imagine that this was the spot where the Shakers’ public preacher stood as he addressed the Sunday morning crowd of visitors from the outside world.
Encouraged by finding that peg, Museum staff scoured the rest of the floor and found it still retained wooden pegs aligned in four distinct lines. Two of the lines are defined by twenty three-eighths-inch pegs set about two and one-half feet apart. These lines run east and west across the width of the room. They are equidistant from and about six feet from the peg in the jump circle. Two other lines defined by five-sixteenths-inch pegs begin near the center of the back wall of the sanctuary and diverge from each other toward their respective ends of the room. Both of these lines cross the first lines at about a fifteen-degree angle. They create a wide-bottomed “V” that opens toward the benches provided for visitors. There are several miscellaneous pegs that do not seem to be part of any of the other lines. The staff marked the position of all the pegs with bolts stood on their heads to facilitate a photograph of the lines. It seems logical that the first two lines would have marked the place where Shaker brothers and sisters would have stood facing each other in preparation for a dance such as the Square Order Shuffle. The purpose of the second set of lines does not reveal itself so easily. They could have been marks to position singers who would have faced the public benches and divided the brothers and sisters as they labored in dance as separate ends of the building.
The 1824 Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon is a remarkable building. Its architectural innovations are well known and applauded but still there are new discoveries to be made that reflect on how the Shakers used their best known worship space.