Great Stone Barn Project

Great Stone Barn Project

Mount Lebanon, North Family Farm, circa 1870s. Digitally modified historic image. Original image: Hamilton College Library Digital Collection. Image treatments: Peter Watson.

The Great Stone Barn at Mount Lebanon was a monumental project first set in motion by North Family Elder Frederick Evans (1808 1892) in October of 1858. One of the most dynamic Shaker leaders of the second half of the nineteenth century, Evans envisioned the new barn as the centerpiece of a completely redesigned farming operation incorporating the latest advances in scientific agriculture. The new barn complex replaced twenty older, detached agricultural buildings on the site. The Great Stone Barn was intended to serve as both a highly productive agricultural machine and an impressive statement to the outside world of the Shakers» success and technological advancement. This supported the evangelical work of the North Family, known as the «gathering order,» which was responsible for attracting and educating new Shakers.

A century and a half later, The Great Stone Barn Project Exhibit celebrates this important heritage and the beginning of another monumental project: the stabilization of this landmark structure after the disastrous fire of 1972 and forty years of unchecked exposure to the elements. There is much to learn from this seminal building which is a masterwork of sustainable design.

This exhibit was underwritten by the Historic Site Committee of the Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon.

Elder Frederick Evans sitting by fence, circa 1880s. Evans is seated in front of the tool house immediately west of the Great Stone Barn. Source: Winterthur Digital Archive.

The Stone Barn, Shaker Village, Mt. Lebanon, NY. Postcard, circa 1910 20. Source: Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon.

The first phase of the Great Stone Barn stabilization has been nearly five years in the making. None of this would have been possible without the generous support of the following:

Federal Department of Transportation (TEA 21)

Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

New York State Environmental Protection Fund (EPF)

Save America’s Treasures grant from the Federal Department of the Interior/National Park Service

World Monuments Fund

Individual and Foundation Supporters

Planning the New Barn

Elder Evans contracted with the Mount Lebanon Church Family to have Brother George Wickersham, an experienced builder and inventor, to help design the new barn and draw up a set of plans. These were completed over the winter of 1858 59. In return, the Church Family received a «case cupboard» as reimbursement for Wickersham’s services. The majority of Wickersham’s original drawings for the new barn survive (an extreme rarity for barns of this period). The drawings provide a wonderful document of the careful planning and engineering that went into building this massive structure. This was to be no ordinary cow barn.

Wagon bridge of the Great Stone Barn looking West, 1871. This rare historic view shows the well lit expanse of the top (driving) floor of the barn. Note the two hay wagons parked at the end of the wagon bridge. This was truly a «cathedral of agriculture.» Source: Hamilton College Library Digital Collection.

The Great Stone Barn at Mount Lebanon was not conceived in a vacuum. It represents the culmination of a sophisticated Shaker barn building tradition that had steadily evolved since the 1790s. The Shakers learned early to build with the land incorporating ramps and entrances on multiple levels to save labor, utilizing cupolas and skylights to provide ventilation and daylight, and carefully orienting buildings to create protected areas for people and animals during the long winter months. flat, conical).

The Mount Lebanon North Family barn forms part of a small group of colossal Shaker dairy barns constructed during the antebellum period including the two story, one hundred forty one foot long Enfield, New Hampshire Cow Barn (1854) and the four story, two hundred foot long Canterbury Shaker Great Barn (1858), both of which incorporated «high drive» ramps with axial wagon bridges to pitch hay down to lower floors. They were among the largest barns constructed in North America during the period. The images below illustrate these and several other earlier Shaker barns that would have been personally known by Elder Evans, George Wickersham, and members of the Mount Lebanon community:

Hancock, Massachusetts, Round Stone Barn, 1826, Daniel Goodrich and William Deming designers. The famous round barn at Hancock (just over the mountain from New Lebanon) utilized an earthen ramp to access a circular drive floor surrounding a central hay mow. The design allowed wagons to drive completely around and exit from the same portal. The barn originally had a conical roof which was replaced with a flat roof in 1864 when the structure was rebuilt after a fire. The twelve sided clerestory, perhaps influenced by Wickersham’s design for the Great Stone Barn, was also added in 1864 as was the twelve sided wooden lantern. Source: Historic American Building Survey, 1962.

Harvard, Massachusetts, South Family Stone Barn, 1835, designer unknown. View from the southwest. Note the central arched wagon entrance on the first floor. This barn collapsed in 1975. Source: Historic American Building Survey, 1963.

Enfield, New Hampshire Church Family Cow Barn, 1853 1854, Brother James Elkin designer. View from the southwest showing the earthen ramp. The silos (originally one one each corner of the barn) were added in the 1930s. Source: Historic American Building Survey, 1978.

Enfield, New Hampshire Church Family Barn, 1853 54, Brother James Elkin designer. View of the drive floor looking east showing the central wagon bridge opening to the hay lofts below. Source: Historic American Building Survey, 1978.

Canterbury, New Hampshire Church Family Barn, built 1857 1858, designer unknown. This circa 1875 image shows the Canterbury barn in its original configuration. The austere, box like forms of the barn and sheds with their nearly flat roofs anticipate factory designs of the next century. The south ramp with covered barn entrance is just visible to the left. Barn burned in 1972. This elaborate Gothic Revival style example was built across a dammed up ravine which provided power through a basement level waterwheel to a variety of machinery including a hay lifter and thresher, a corn sheller, and a meal grinder. An ornamental waterfall on the other side (shown in the engraving below) completed the picture.

The Final Design

All of these examples were distilled, simplified, and improved upon in the design of the Great Stone Barn. Evans and Wickersham avoided the architectural (and monetary) excess of the Cascade barn, but adopted its distinctive quadrant shaped cast iron feeder system. Flat roofed sheds similar to the Canterbury barn were constructed to house the milk room, corn crib and other support functions but the main barn was constructed of fire resistant masonry. Wickersham and Evans» design was capped by a monitor level with clerestory windows that ran the full length of the main barn providing much greater light and ventilation than the cupolas used in earlier Shaker barns. The result was a design that was both radically modern but deeply informed by the Shaker barn building tradition.

Great Stone Barn, 1859 60, Frederick Evans and George Wickersham designers. Stereograph image of the completed barn, circa 1871 by James Irving, Troy, NY. Window sash in the clerestory appear to have been removed to assist ventilation. Note also the gutter system and the fenced Norway Spruce in front of the barn which is still extant. Source: Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon.