Watervliet Shaker Historic District
The Watervliet Shaker Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Watervliet Shaker Historic District is seven miles northwest of Albany within the township of Colonie. The three clusters of buildings — the Church Family, the West Family and the South Family — are included in the district. The terrain of the district is flat and much of it was formerly swamp lands.
The east boundary of the historic district runs through the existing Ann Lee County Home and includes the Church Family buildings listed below.
Church Family (occupied by Ann Lee Home, Albany County institution for aged, and portion of site by Albany County Airport).
West Family (privately owned):
South Family (privately owned)
#650, #654 Sand Creek Road, two novitiate houses, mid-nineteenth century, frame with clapboarding.
The area of archeological significance is a larger one encompassing sites of structures that appear on nineteenth century maps and have since been demolished or have disintegrated. Within these boundaries is the site of the North Family buildings on a hillside behind the West Family. Today the North Family land is owned by the Shaker Ridge Country Club, and only one building, a wash house now incorporated into a golf pro's shop, survives, but in the nineteenth century the North Family was equal in size to the other three families. Buildings identified on an 1854 map include a Carriage House, Carpenter's Shop, Women's Store, Dwelling House, Drying Ship, Deying (sic) Shop, Machine Shop, Farm Shop, Barn and Shed, and "New Barns."
While most domestic structures in the other three families have survived, the remaining evidence of industrial buildings is largely archeological. The 1854 map shows a Cider Mill, Machine Shop, Carriage House, Dining House and Blacksmith Shop at the West Family, and two mill sites near the South Family, one just south of the remaining cluster of buildings and one in the field to the east. Another mill site is just north of the Mill Pond and, in addition, the site of an herb house, bee house, sorting factory, extract factory and silk worm factory are in the immediate Church Family area.
Donald Emerich: "Architectural Survey of Shaker Buildings" unpublished, 1968 with minor revisions. Jay Gould, Map of Albany County, 1854.
Living apart from the main stream of American life, the Shakers, a Utopian religious sect, were highly regarded throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for their architecture, inventions and domestic arts. The first Shaker settlement in the U. S. was at Watervliet, and from here their influence spread to other parts of the country. Of the 1,000-1,500 Shaker buildings that stood in the U. S. at one time, approximately 350 survive to this date, and many of these have been altered beyond recognition. The Watervliet Shaker Historic District includes twenty-two buildings in three "families" and is considered a cultural resource of national significance.
Fleeing from religious persecution in England, Mother Ann Lee, the determined Shaker foundress, and seven disciples arrived in New York City in 1774, and they came up to Albany where they bought land seven miles northwest of the city "in a dense forest beside a small stream, along which was a dismal swamp or huge bogs and grass and weeds."
Fighting famine which was widespread in the area in 1778, the destitute Shakers gradually drained the future site of the Church Family buildings and created the Mill Pond. The sites of their earliest log cabins must be clustered in the general Church Family area.
With the first formal organization of the Shakers in 1787-88, the actual center of authority shifted from Watervliet to New Lebanon and yet the Watervliet community retained its special prominence as it was from here that Mother Ann Lee traveled making converts in Massachusetts and New York, and she was buried in the cemetery at Watervliet.
The first decades of the nineteenth century were the most prosperous and active for the community. As early as the 1790's, the Shakers at Watervliet began to concentrate on two commercial enterprises: garden seeds and corn brooms. The seed business boomed in the period from 1811 to 1840 by which time it was bringing the community thousands of dollars annually.
The twentieth century decline of the Shakers at Watervliet and other communities forced the Shakers to make certain concessions to the "world." In the 1920's a non-Shaker superintendant had to be employed to manage the South Family farm. The Church Family property was sold to the State in 1926 complete with its enormous barns built in 1916 which had been a valiant miscalculation of the future of the Shaker community. Architecturally a relaxation of their rigid standards is evident in porches added to the Dwelling House and to the Offices and Visitors Building at the South Family. A one-story wing lacking the nineteenth century grace and proportions was tacked on the South Family Dwelling House.
Today the West Family buildings, last lived in by Shakers in 1915, remain the purest architecturally. The county has demolished a large number of the Church Family buildings and refaced the major remaining ones with brick. The South Family, which continued in Shaker ownership longest — until 1938 — is illustrative of the changing styles and tastes of the Shakers in their last years. Some additional modernizations have been made by the subsequent owners.
With the exception of the Airport at the northeast corner and a few scattered modern structures, the Shaker buildings, cemetery and Mill Pond are still within their historic environment. The open spaces between "families" have a crucial visual impact on the remaining structures and valuable archeological sites are scattered throughout.
The monumental 3 1/2 story broom shop at the West Family indicates the scale of broom-making activity at the community. The efficient Shaker mind never failed to find new methods to increase production. An improved turning lathe for turning broom-handles is said to have been invented at Watervliet as well as a machine for filling seed bags, pipe machine, pea-sheller, butter worker and "sopuswhips."
By the mid-1800's the Shakers owned 3,000 acres and had constructed 150 buildings which were grouped in four "families" named in relationship to the location of the meetinghouse at the Church family. (Nothing remains of the North family on a ridge behind the cemetery now owned by a country club, except the Wash House which has been incorporated into the golf pro's shop.)
As the Shakers got beyond the stage of bare subsistence, their buildings began to be of more lasting quality and to show a more consistent "Shaker style." As John Poppeliers notes:
Though one hesitates to use the word "style" in reference to these buildings, since they are not so markedly different from other late eighteenth and nineteenth century simple farm buildings in the area, the term might be justified because of a number of characteristics they share in their unridgid uniformity. By 1805 all the one-and-a-half story structures were raised to two and three stories; often the steep gabled and gambrel roofs were replaced by either lower gabled or flat roofs; faced stone (if in an area where quarried stone was easily obtainable) replaced rough stone; plans became more studied and functional and often exterior doorways were covered with shed or segmental hoods that today in our minds are one of the distinguishing marks of Shaker architecture (A shed or triangular hood can be seen on the side entry of the South Family Brothers' Workshop...)
The Church, South and West Families despite the loss of some structures still show the spatial organization of a Shaker "family," grouped at right angles somewhat along the lines of a college quadrangle.
An integral part of the Shakers' system of water supply, Stump Pond was part of the South Family property but appears to have provided ice for the entire Shaker community at Watervliet. Like the other two ponds in the historic district, Stump Pond was probably made by the Shakers in their original effort to drain the swampy flat land they acquired in the late eighteenth century. Less prone to fluctuate than the little pond near the cluster of South Family buildings which diminishes almost to oblivion in dry weather, Stump Pond is about 7 acres and was a dependable source for ice.
In addition to the discovery of the sequestered Stump Pond, information has been brought to light on a complete network of water pipes which ran from a nearby spring (opposite the Memory Gardens entrance) through to serve the South Family buildings. This water system which was even used by present owners provided running water on the first floors of all the buildings but did not have adequate pressure for facilities on the second floors.
The addition of the Stump Pond area to the designated historic district rounds out another aspect of Shaker life previously unrecognized and unrecorded. The Pond area is little changed since the departure of the Shakers and therefore merits the same distinction and protection accorded to the rest of the Watervliet Shaker Historic District.
Adams, Charles C. "The New York State Museum's Historical Survey and Collection of the New York Shakers" New York State Museum Bulletin. No. 323. (March 1941), 77-141.
Buckingham, D. A. "Epitomic History of the Watervliet Shakers" The Shaker: An Official Monthly Published by The United Societies May-Nov. 1877.
Poppeliers, John C. "Shaker Architecture and the Watervliet Shaker South Family" New York History, Vol. XLVII, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York. 1966.
† Brooke, Cornelia E., Watervliet Shaker Historic District, nomination document, 1973, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.