Abode plans to grow… carefully

Historic Shaker structures will remain intact under new, long-term plan

NEW LEBANON–At the very northeastern-most corner of Columbia County change is afoot at the Abode of the Message. A new master plan recently released by the organization envisions improvements costing from $10 to $15 million over the next 10 years. A capital campaign will soon be launched.

The Abode, as it is frequently called, is just east of New Lebanon. It is an “intentional community” founded in 1975. About 40 people live there full time and are dedicated to living according to prescriptions for personal spiritual growth and universal harmony. Many more come to visit, meditate and learn.

They are of many different faiths. The Abode is non-sectarian but rooted in Sufi tradition, which is mystical, inner-directed and philosophical. Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi “pir,” or spiritual master who founded the Sufi movement in the West, wrote that the movement’s “main ideal is to remove differences and distinctions… by the realization of the one source of all human beings.”

Over the entrance to the Abode Meditation Hall is a panel with the symbols of all the major religions and the words, “Toward the One… United with All.”

For those old enough, the Abode may remind them of the more successful communes of the 1960s. But it is also the headquarters of the Sufi Order International–North America. The order is a worldwide organization with centers throughout North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South America. And the Abode is a retreat and conference center that Forbes magazine has rated among the top meditation retreats in the country. In addition the Abode operates a large mountainside camping facility available for rental by groups during warm months.

It’s also home to the Suluk Academy, a center for Sufi studies, and to the Seven Pillars House of Wisdom. Founded by Pir Zia Inayat Khan, current spiritual leader of the Sufi Order International (SOI) and the grandson of SOI’s founder, Seven Pillars supports “the advancement of wisdom in the global culture.”

In 2008, the Abode decided to look to the future in a planned way. To help, the organization chose Dennis Wedlick Architect, a small firm with offices in New York and Hudson. The firm’s portfolio includes residential, commercial, institutional and landscape architecture as well as master planning. “We put strong emphasis on working with clients to first help them clarify their preferences, hopes and dreams,” says Mr. Wedlick.

He and his team met frequently with Abode members during the pre-planning phase to learn how the community and organization saw their historic home, their mission and their possible future choices.

The planners examined every aspect of the Abode’s activities and infrastructure. The resulting plan is far-reaching–virtually every aspect and activity of the Abode is affected–but it is also conservative. The Abode will change by becoming more itself.

The plan is also flexible. “We like to create a roadmap to show the way, not dictate it,” says Mr. Wedlick.

The Abode plan contains 20 “articles” that set out a framework for change and “the gentle transformation of the landscape they inherited,” he says.

SOI Executive Director Alima Lucinski says that it may take 10 years or more to complete all the changes in the master plan. But she also says that some projects need to happen soon, such as improving the site’s groundwater management and its circulation, parking and signage.

The Abode is not the first “intentional community” at this site. The organization’s 300-acres lie at the highest point of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, established in 1785. The village site is now a National Historic Landmark District bordering Darrow Road. The Abode occupies the Shakers’ South Family land and buildings. The North Family part of the village is now the Darrow School. The last Mount Lebanon Shaker died in 1947, nearly 30 years before the SOI came here in 1975.

Several Abode buildings were built by the Shakers. A former apple barn is now the Meditation Hall. The Shaker infirmary houses offices. The Shaker chair workshop holds apartments for some of the Abode’s 40 residents. The finest and most historic building, the 1867 Shaker women’s workhouse,  now houses the Mountain Road School, an unaffiliated private school, and meeting facilities. The Shaker horse barn’s exterior is under restoration, with the help of a grant from the New York State Barn Preservation Program and volunteers.

The Abode’s sloping site has three main areas. At the lowest level are agricultural activities. At midlevel is the Main Campus, with its academic, assembly, office and residential buildings. Further up, is the Abode Mountain Camp, with a capacity for as many as 200 campers. Also on higher ground is the Sacred Site, where a Sanctuary stood until it burned in 2003. The area is being re-consecrated now, with the creation of a Temple of the Elements: water, fire, earth and air, according to Sufi thought.

One thing clear from the first meetings with the Abode, Mr. Wedlick says, was that “they love everything the way it is…. In effect, they told us don’t change the place too much, just make it more of what it already is.”

Ms. Lucinski says some worried that “with progress would come the proverbial loss of our ‘soul’ or the essence of what we are.”

But the Wedlick team put these concerns to rest, she says. “We saw, in fact, our future decisions must retain our essential qualities. The Master Plan “has given us the tools to make sure this happens,” even as infrastructure improvements are made, says Ms. Lucinski.

Supporting that view Mr. Wedlick says, “This is a place that has a wonderful bucolic handmade feeling that absolutely must be preserved.”

Thus the plan goal became to make the site more user- and visitor-friendly, more sustainable and more productive, without greatly changing its appearance or altering its layout.

A proposed east-west walkway, for example, is a simple and low-impact idea. But it will serve to unify the site and make movement through it easier. The path will start at the pond at the lowest level, move through the farmed fields, cross the Main Campus and finish among the individual meditation huts that dot the Sacred Site above.

Wedlick project designer Namita Modi sees the path as symbolic as well as functional. It moves from water to earth to fire (the campus “heart”) and finally to air at its highest point. It is a very Sufi addition.

The plan also provides for modernization with minimal change to the appearance of the site. Any new construction, it says, should occur amid the Main Campus cluster. Wedlick says such density preserves open, agricultural and woodland spaces, as well as maximizing return on infrastructure investment.

It also serves to keep the heart of the Abode beating strongly. The campus area already closely groups different activities, making for lots of interaction among schoolchildren, residents, staff and visitors.

But these diverse functions, the plan says, can be made more clearly differentiated by creating landscaped spaces that would form a “quad” and make for even more interaction. The plan also envisions a new Hospitality Center.

But sometime less interaction is better. So the plan suggests moving retreat facilities from the campus to quieter “secondary districts.” A Sacred Path will connect the retreat area with both the campus and the sacred sites on the mountainside.

What goes where among the campus buildings is a plan concern, too.

Buildings with high historic value will remain as they are, by housing activities that don’t require code compliance. Buildings of less historical value can be retrofitted to house functions that do require it. Other functions, like multi-media learning centers or places of assembly, should go in modern and new facilities, says the plan, as funds become available.

The plan also envisions installing alternative energy sources and systems in all major renovation projects or new construction. Also, a sustainable water management surface plan calls for constructing a raised terrace and minimizing hard surfaces in the campus district.

Ms. Lucinski, the Abode’s executive director, says the planning process “has given us a deeper appreciation for both what we have and what is possible.”

“This was a huge learning experience for us, “she says. “But finishing this first phase is just the beginning… now we have a framework that will guide us for many years to come.”

The Abode will change. But if all goes according to plan, the spirit of this old place will endure.

The Abode of the Message website is www.abode-of-the-message.org.

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