Building With Care…and Building Correctly
Story & Photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
There is a correct way and a not-so-correct way to care for an old house or other structure, but if you want to learn how the experts do it, there is no better place to go than Canterbury Shaker Village.
The former home of over 300 Shakers, a religious sect that thrived in the 1800s and eventually lost membership for various reasons, Canterbury Shaker Village (CSV) exemplifies the Shaker belief that work was a form of worship and that everything should be built to last. According to CSV’s Marketing and Development Director, Maggie Stier, the Shakers believed in making their home a heaven on earth, and that meant making things to the highest standard, even if it took longer. There was no scrimping on materials or workmanship when it came to building the many structures where they worshipped, lived and worked.
That attention to quality, and the notion that God is in the details and designs of the buildings is everywhere at Canterbury Shaker Village; it offers inspiration for those who are considering purchasing or already reside in an old home. Maggie suggests that there are certain things to observe and learn before beginning to renovate or repair a historic structure.
Some background on the Shakers is helpful to understanding their building practices. “This property was the farm of Benjamin Whitcher, who invited the Shakers to the property. It became their village in 1792, the same year that the meetinghouse was built,” says Maggie. “The oldest buildings that were on the property prior to the arrival of the Shakers are now gone, and most of what is here now dates to the first 50 years or so of the community.
“By 1840, most of the village had been built,” explains Maggie. “The number of surviving buildings today is less than half of what was here at the Shakers’ peak, however. Of the original land holdings of nearly 3,000 acres, the Village now is about 700 acres, including fields, orchards, woods, and even surviving dams and mill ponds.
Maggie explains that the Shakers built for the long-term, and had many skilled craftsmen within their Society, but also turned to outside help if they needed it. They were constantly improving their village by adding or reconfiguring buildings and they were in the forefront of adopting new technology as it became available. These days, although all the Canterbury Shakers have passed on, the property operates as a non-profit historic site with tours, exhibits, events and a variety of classes and workshops. Maintaining the buildings is a central part of the non-profit’s mission, and that’s a big task because there are 25 historic buildings in their original locations, more than any of the other 18 major Shaker villages that existed in the Eastern U.S.
Overseeing the maintenance effort is CSV Manager of Buildings and Grounds, David Ford, who is a timber framer and craftsman.
David and Maggie are of one mind when it comes to the best approach to caring for the buildings of CSV. “We follow the guidelines for the treatment of historic buildings issued by the National Park Service,” says David, and that means that those who come to tour the site can observe best practices in restoration and preservation. Because the history of each building is respected, the beauty of CSV remains.
Attesting to the importance of learning the history of your building before you start work on it, each building at Canterbury has a sign on it indicating the year it was erected and the date of any subsequent major remodeling. “Knowing what period your building is helps you make decisions about what to keep and what you might change or eliminate,” adds Maggie. “Learn as much as you can about the building before beginning any repairs. And use a light touch.”
Before you undertake a major renovation or repair, you may want to get a professional to come in and do a walk-around the building with you. This is a step beyond a home inspection; use a restoration contractor for this job. He or she will be able to give you a list of priorities if you are thinking about doing upkeep on your old home.
Each building at Shaker Village has signage with the date of construction
Maggie mentions the NH Preservation Alliance’s website as a great source for information, as well as a directory of specialists who can help. “The Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines aren’t required, but they offer the best overall approach on how to rehabilitate a historic house or building,” Maggie adds.
You should keep in mind, if repairing, to honor what was there originally, such as the windows. When it comes to the subject of windows, Maggie and Dave have a lot to say; and very strong opinions as well.
“It is important to save historic wood windows,” Dave stresses. “If installed and properly cared for, there is no need to replace old windows with new ones.”
Dave is big into saving and when necessary, restoring old windows and frames to their original glory. There is nothing he seems to like better than old, wavy window panes, something you just cannot find in today’s windows. He admits to having a “window hospital” at CSV, which is a place where he stores and repairs old windows.
Dave mentions that the old movie, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” is a great example of taking on an old home’s repairs. “People think old homes won’t be energy efficient, but that just is not true. The first places to look for heat loss, rather than checking out your windows, is the roof and basement. That is where heat loss is most prevalent.”
“The majority of my work is in the basement and on the roof,” he explains. “In these spots, you will find that water incursion is an issue. So, if you are living in an old house and want to keep things in good condition, look around for a sagging roofline and to see if the corners of your home are straight up and down. Fix any leaks. Add insulation. Then address the basement water issues and consider insulation there too.”
Modern insulation has improved, and homes are more air tight, which is another issue for Maggie and Dave. “Wooden structures need to breathe,” says Dave. “Buildings are just too tight nowadays.”
When it comes to the upkeep of CSV, Dave is ever vigilant. He inspects the buildings periodically and winter is a time when he checks for leaks and any necessary repairs. In the winter, less than 1/3 of the buildings at CSV are heated, which isn’t a bad thing when a building isn’t inhabited. Because there are no public tours during the winter, there is no need to heat the buildings (most of the buildings do not have plumbing). Nevertheless, Dave inspects inside and outside for any winter damage and is careful with snow removal.
Finally, Dave advises that siding issues should be addressed once the building’s roof and basement are sound. Retaining original siding material is almost always the best course of action, and if the original material can’t be saved, it should be replaced with a similar material, notes Maggie.
“It is a testament to the way the Shakers built things, that often all that is needed is paint; historic clapboard siding is often of a superior quality and is almost always worth saving,” says Dave. He got a lesson in how well built the original structures at CSV are when he was scraping old paint in preparation for repainting the 1792 Meetinghouse. “I assumed, once I started scraping paint on the original clapboards, that there would be a lot of wood rot. I discovered that only a small percentage needed replacing. It is amazing how well the building has stood the test of time.”
The original Meetinghouse was built with a tighter grained wood, which was older timber. “You need to harvest older wood to get lumber with a tighter grain, which is what the Shakers did. It has stood up really well,” he adds.
Dave says every repair at the village is a process; you can’t just fix it as you would a modern building. The best product for maintaining wood? “Linseed oil,” Dave comments.
As they talk about repainting an old building, Dave stresses that if you power wash your old home or building before painting, there is one big rule of thumb: “Power wash from above, not below.” This will save the outside of your building from getting water under the boards, which could ultimately create wood rot.
Perhaps it was because the Shakers had lots of labor that they built things well. It was also likely because they weren’t in any great hurry to finish a job; they were doing it right the first time, as well as following the Shaker Millennial Laws, which specified such things as the color of all the buildings. “The meetinghouse was to be white; the work buildings yellow and the barns red,” says Maggie.
But as the years went on, some Shaker buildings varied from that rule. For example, directly facing Shaker Road at CSV, there is a large brick building. It is four stories high and has dual porches at the separate entrances for men and for women. It was here that the Shakers interacted with the public; the buildings across the street where they lived and worked were strictly for Shakers. In the brick building were offices, a Shaker gift shop where handmade items were sold to “the World’s people,” and a kitchen and dining room where guests and workers from the outside world were fed.
Although attractive, the brick building was more utilitarian and seemed to be less about maintaining the almost spiritual design and beauty of the buildings across Shaker Road. The first trustee building on the site was erected in 1831 and was meant as a place for dealing with the public. The current structure is the third such trustee building at that particular spot.
“It is standard New England construction and well built. Today, it serves as office space,” says Dave.
But the brick building has its own lessons to teach about maintaining a historic building. In the second half of the 20th century, the large structure was the living quarters for Eldress Bertha, Eldress Gertrude and other Shaker sisters. One can look at the restored linoleum covering the floors in some rooms to get an idea about the fascination the Shakers had for modern, labor saving products. As part of the building’s restoration, the many different styles of linoleum were carefully cleaned and preserved as a way to tell the story of the Shakers’ changing tastes and habits over time.
The use of a Shaker building often evolved over time, and as such, changes were made to buildings to meet new needs. That’s true today as well. “When our staff or visitor needs change, we adapt the buildings,” says Maggie. For example, the former museum gift shop and admission area is now being used for educational programs and meetings, and the former Girls’ residence was used this past summer to house four artists in residence. These buildings are surprisingly adaptable, and we know that, in the past, buildings were often moved, repurposed, or dismantled and reconstructed.” It’s important not to give a false sense of history, however, says Maggie, “so all changes should be carefully thought through, and as historically accurate as possible.”
The Shakers, explains Maggie and Dave, were famous for moving buildings or repurposing a structure. “They had a very fluid attitude,” Maggie adds. They rotated their jobs and when a building no longer was needed, they either found a new use for it, moved it or replaced it.”
But always, paying attention to history is important. “Preservation is part of our mission,” says Maggie. “And preservation is a part of your life if you own an old home. If you are going to repair your house, you should know how to check the clapboard and roofline and original windows. And you should try to repair to honor what was there.”
Dave chimes in when windows are mentioned, “It is very important to save historic wooden windows!”
“It wouldn’t hurt to make friends with someone who has restored an old house,” Maggie adds. “And the National Park Service website has a best practices for restoration and the NH Division of Historical Resources provides information on caring for historic structures as well.
“Additionally, if you live in a historic district that regulates changes you should get local approval before any work that would alter the appearance of your home,” she says.
If you live in or are considering buying an old home, CSV and the Shaker philosophies have much to teach. They would likely be pleased to hear Dave say, “If you have questions, stop by the Village. I’m usually here, and I like to talk about old buildings.”
Maggie jokes that you may find Dave in his window hospital at the village, salvaging and repurposing historic windows. Or dealing with any one of the many issues and projects that come with the territory of caring for historic structures.
There is indeed a right way and a wrong way to care for an old home or building, and if you are confused where to start, come to Shaker Village. There, among the lovely and serene old buildings and the peace and quiet, you can really look at old buildings that were created long ago in a search for perfection, and carefully observe the way hey are cared for to keep them standing long into the future. Stewards of historic structures don’t really own their buildings; after all, they just take care of them until the next owner comes along.