A Gift to be Simple

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be…” 

The effortless spiral of The Trustees’ Office staircase, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Simplicity has become synonymous with the Shaker experience – as has the song Simple Gifts, emphasis on simple.  The most obvious visible manifestation of the Shaker legacy of simplicity can be seen today in the form and function of their architecture and furniture, but in reality this value infused all aspects of the Shaker’s life. What we see, however, was far from simple to achieve.

Today, the word simple has come to mean plain or easily done, basic or uncomplicated, but for the Shakers, it meant something so much more.    

The Shakers considered simplicity to be a sacred gift, one that members worked their entire lives to achieve.  Simplicity to the shakers meant modesty and humility, and was a constant reminder to focus on faith and their spiritual path.

In music written for Shaker worship, simplicity is often portrayed as a willow tree, humbly bowing, and bending, and being open to accept God’s gifts.  

“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, yea, bow like the willow tree.”

Shaker side chairs hang on pegs to reduce clutter, and to keep the space clean, Centre Family Dwelling, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Themes of simplicity can also be found in the Millennial Laws, the rules that the Shakers lived by. Upon entering the Pleasant Hill community, members deeded their personal possessions to the society, and were given modest goods and attire to meet their basic needs. 

All members lived communally and supported one another.  To live simply meant to shed all excess and focus on the inward path of the soul, rather than on pride and vanity and material goods.

Hand labor was thought to be good for the soul, and craftsmanship in this way became a symbol for moving closer to God.  “Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”

Detail view of the built-in dresser on the third floor of Centre Family Dwelling,
Pleasant Hill, KY.

To create a perfect piece of furniture was not an aesthetic pursuit, but a spiritual one.  Craftsmanship was not perfected for personal gain or glory, and the difficult process helped to teach members humility.  The Millennial Laws reiterated this by prohibiting signatures and unnecessary markings on items of manufacture so that the end product would not distract from the process and utility of the piece. 

The spiral staircase winds up three floors, and ends with a dome of light brought in by the dormer windows.

The Shakers wasted no design detail, and even their structures were built based upon functionality.  As a result they appear quite simple.  The peg lined walls, the large built-in cupboards, and the spacious floors of the dwelling houses – it took thoughtful design to create such orderly and simple spaces.

At Pleasant Hill, the dual spiral staircase in the Trustees’ Office is the perfect juxtaposition between the simple and the complex, as what appears to flow upward with such ease hides the intricacy that lies just beneath the surface.

Accessible through a stairwell door, the heavy structure that supports the staircase is an impressive work of engineering. The technical elements (like the massive timbers and the cantilevered steps), however, are concealed in favor of the simple and graceful free flowing aesthetic.  What we are left with in the upward movement of the staircase is the embodiment of simplicity, of elevating the spirit toward the light. 

Hidden beneath the simple exterior are the structural components of the spiral staircase, Trustees’ Office, Pleasant Hill, KY.

The next time you see the Trustees’ Office staircase, or a piece of Shaker furniture, or you hum the tune to Simple Gifts, or you hear the lines ”When true simplicity is gained,” remember that true simplicity was hard to achieve – but that’s what made it so worth striving toward.

Simplicity is a gift.

Built on Belief

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“A village of Shakers lies a few miles beyond Kentucky river, and it is curious to see the effect of celibacy on barns and fences….I never saw such excessive neatness….The rich apple trees looked sorry they were such sinners as to be beautiful.” – N.P. Willis, “The Shakers,” published in The Flag of our Union in 1852

Although not always expressed with such singular focus, since the 1800s individuals from far and wide have been struck by the distinctive architectural features of the buildings at Pleasant Hill. In fact, from daily conversations with visitors to Shaker Village it is apparent that the beauty and grace of the 34 surviving historic structures remains a principle draw for guests from around the world.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill maintains the largest, privately-held collection of 19th century buildings in the United States – 34 original Shaker structures across 3,000 acres.

Indeed, a short walk through the Historic Centre can be awe-inspiring. From the sheer size of the Centre Family Dwelling to the unadorned majesty of the first-floor meeting room in the Meeting House, to the spiral staircases in the Trustees’ Office, the variety of architectural and engineering feats is incredible. Beyond these three iconic structures, guests will also often express an affinity for their favorite buildings—likely one in which they have spent the night or had the opportunity to explore in-depth, on a guided tour.

More than just aesthetics, the architecture at Pleasant Hill also reveals the influence of the Shaker’s theology and faith on the built environment. This sense of purpose and intentionality through building is something that speaks to many visitors, and it often leaves them with even more appreciation for the Shakers’ efforts to construct their version of utopia in rural Mercer County.

The 1st floor meeting room of the 1820 Meeting House at Pleasant Hill.

The Meeting House, with its aforementioned first-floor meeting room, is probably the best example of how the community’s faith inspired their construction efforts. With the need for an open room to practice their distinctive style of worship, Shaker brother Micajah Burnett, inspired by the Shaker Meeting House at Union Village, Ohio, built an ingenious system of trusses in the attic that support the weight of the building without the need for columns or standing beams in the worship space.

The symmetry within Shaker dwelling houses was functional, but also served as a physical representation of the Shaker belief in the duality of God.

Beyond the Meeting House, the communal dwellings with their large bedrooms and ample kitchens and cellars were purpose-built to provide for the community’s social and economic structures, rooted in the teachings of their faith. In regard to celibacy and the physical separation of men and women, the brethren’s and the sisters’ work spaces were positioned accordingly to prevent unnecessary interaction during the workday.

The buildings that surround the East Family Dwelling are positioned intentionally, with workshops for men and women located on each side of the dwelling to correspond with the side each gender inhabited.

All of this barely scratches the surface, of course, for we haven’t even started to mention the small touches and unique trappings that slowly reveal themselves as one explores the buildings and grounds at Shaker Village. Even all of these years later, I guess some things still do pique one’s curiosity!

Come out for a visit, and learn more about how faith and architecture intersect at Pleasant Hill on our Buildings and Beliefs program that runs daily throughout the year! Check our website for seasonal tour times!

“…one might suppose it would stand for a thousand years…”

Jacob Glover, PhD, Program Manager

“The House is built of so dureable materials, that one might suppose it would stand for a thousand years, unless it was shaken down by an Earth quake, or something of the kind…” – Pleasant Hill Ministry to New Lebanon Ministry, August 16, 1830. IV: A054, Western Reserve Historical Society.

A view of the 1824-1834 Centre Family Dwelling’s east facade.

The 1824-1834 Centre Family Dwelling (CFD) is the most imposing, impressive structure the Shakers constructed at Pleasant Hill. At over 21,000 square feet, the CFD was one of the largest limestone buildings in the Commonwealth when it was completed in 1834, as well as one of the most architecturally significant. From its elegant balustrade and dormer to its breathtaking second floor meeting room, the CFD undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of the Shaker’s architectural achievements at Pleasant Hill.

And yet, despite the grandiose design and awe-inspiring nature of the structure, there are many elements and characteristics of the building that go unnoticed to most visitors to Shaker Village.

On a quick walk through the CFD, for instance, you might miss the subtle embellishments on the dining room columns that represent a departure from traditional Shaker design that avoided these decorative features because they were not necessary to structural integrity.


With nearly 80 residents in some years, there was a need for efficient storage space in the CFD. This large, built-in unit on the third floor provided an efficient way to store out-of-season clothing.

Or what about the built-in cabinets and drawers in the brothers’ and the sisters’ bedrooms that provided needed additional space for communal living? Did you notice which types of storage units the brothers and sisters preferred? The peg rails are seemingly everywhere, but did you see the lower peg rails in the sisters’ closets? What were those used for? Speaking of closets, why are there windows built into interior walls?

Other distinctive features abound. A dumb-waiter system that carried food from the cellar kitchen to the dining room made the job of preparing communal meals much easier. What about clean-up? The construction of the 1833 Water House directly beside the CFD played an integral role in helping the sisters clean-up after meals by providing clean spring water directly to the kitchen area. The list, as they say, could go on and on.

Beyond these original features of the CFD, there are even more caveats and hidden features due to the historic restoration and preservation of the structure that have taken place at Shaker Village since the 1960s. Beginning in 2017, work began on the building to install climate control and electrical lighting systems that have been integrated into the historic edifice in ways that are reversible and organic to the buildings 1850s appearance. The results? Ah, come on, we can’t reveal everything here…

Intrigued? Come to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and explore this beautiful structure on your own, or take a guided tour to discover our favorite nooks and crannies! The Centre Family Dwelling is open from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm daily (and until 8:00 pm on Friday and Saturday), and the daily tour, Top to Bottom: The Centre Family Dwelling, runs throughout the fall and winter.

Check our website for a tour schedule and times. We’ll see you soon!