EDITORIAL: Welcome Shaker legacy

THE SHAKERS ARE CLOSER to finding a new home here. Not the actual Shakers who lived in northern Columbia County. They’re long gone. It’s the people who preserve and share the Shaker legacy of skill, community and devotion who are closing in on a place of their own in the Village of Chatham.

The Shaker Museum used to be housed in a barn in Old Chatham, an inadequate home for what the museum’s website describes as “the world’s most comprehensive collection of Shaker objects, archives, and books.” The museum also “stewards” the Mount Lebanon site, the founding community of the Shakers.

The late Judy Grunberg first suggested to the executive director of the museum, Lacy Schutz, that there was a building in the Village of Chatham that would be an ideal home for the Shaker artifacts and records.

Well, not exactly ideal.

Ms. Schutz referred to the building at this week’s village Planning Board meeting as a “derelict eyesore.” The museum now owns this place and that’s the best she could say about it? But wait, there’s more.

The three-story brick building that faces the village roundabout at the north end of Main Street has been a hotel, a cancer sanitarium and a car dealership among other incarnations. It was never a Shaker hang-out. And of course true Shakers were too industrious to hang out anywhere, which might explain why the fruits of their labor require a bigger, better museum.

The building, which sits between Austerlitz and River streets, is empty and gutted. Its abandoned state made it easy for the officials who determine which old structures belong on the Register of Historic Places to get a good look at the “bones” of the building. They came. They looked. They shook their heads. The register officials told the museum there wasn’t enough left of the original structure to qualify the place as historic.

Not only that, but the brick walls were weakened by multiple changes and repairs. That leaves only one way to preserve the integrity of the building: “We have to build a building inside the existing one,” Ms. Schutz told the Planning Board. The cost of the necessary masonry alone is expected to be $9 million.

Some people retreat in the face of adversity. Others double down. Don’t play poker with the Shaker Museum people. They turn bad hands into jackpots. (Apologies for the un-Shaker-like metaphor.)

The museum rounded up the funds for an economic impact study. The study showed that moving the museum to the village would pump $12 million into the local economy. Ms. Schutz said Art Omi in Ghent draws an average of 104 people a day and the museum could expect a roughly similar audience.

The thought of “extra people” in the village (some would call them customers) usually triggers hand-wringing over the admittedly sparse parking options in the village. With each version of the museum plan there have been more places to park.

There’s a good chance the Shaker Museum can come up with the $15 million to realize the restoration and adaptation of the brick building as a museum with an adjacent structure for offices and other functions connected to the main museum by a short, glass-walled bridge.

The museum won’t change anything except for the ability to re-imagine itself .

The scale and style of the museum project, designed by architect Annabelle Selldorf, speak of the surrounding community. The care taken with the planning and engineering details is astonishing. The proposed project addresses multiple needs meant to last. It’s an example of what can be accomplished with what’s at hand. You’d think the Shakers might approve of that.

On February 22 the village Planning Board will hold a public hearing ahead of a vote to approve the museum proposal. Board members have spoken favorably of the plans but any delay in the approval will make it more difficult for Ms. Schutz to raise the funds needed to make the project a reality. Let the Planning Board know the village supports this visionary project.

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