#ShakerHeritageSociety #NewDirector #JimFranco #SpotlightNews
COLONIE — History happened yesterday. Actually, it happened earlier today.
Is that any more or less important than what happened 100 years ago?
That question is open to debate. Change is the only constant.
For example, one of the favorite buildings of the new executive director at the Shaker Heritage Society, Johanna Batman, is the 1822 Brethren’s Workshop, the oldest structure on the historic Church Family site.
The building was constructed with classic Shaker brickwork and in iconic Shaker style, but the large front porch was added by Albany County when the building was used as a preventorium, where children and adults infected with tuberculosis were isolated. Patients used the front porch to “take in the cure” or breath the “fresh country air.”
“Those layers of history are wrapped up in the site, and I don’t want to just focus on the Shakers and bulldoze all the layers of history that came after it,” Batman said during a recent interview. “It’s all about how you interpret and share information. If you can communicate the history effectively, so the people understand what they are seeing represents many different occupants who had their own stories that are also valuable. That is a great opportunity.”
Right now the Brethern’s Workshop, located a half a stone’s throw from the storied Meeting House and is circled with caution tape in an effort to keep the curious and/or mischievous out, looks in pretty rough shape from the street. But, the roof has been replaced, thanks to a preservation grant through Albany County, so as the society works on more funding to do more work on the buildings, the decades of decay is stymied, at least for the time being.
Preservation of the buildings, of course, is paramount, said Batman, who was appointed to the position just a month ago, after her predecessor, Starlyn D’Angelo, said she was stepping down for personal reasons.
“But you need people to bring it to life,” she said. “Without that it’s just a bunch of buildings unless you can draw out the stories of people who lived here and bring people to the site to experience it. I think what I bring to the table is a very people focused type of philosophy. Preservation of the buildings, of course, is essential, but they need to be useful to people too.”
While her first month was spent learning the nuts and bolts of running the day-to-day operations of one of Albany County’s most famous acreage, her long term plans include getting more people to the site through new programs and activities and in collaboration with other historic sites in and around the region.
A new director
“We got a lot of qualified applicants, and when we met with Johanna she just blew the others out of the water with her presentation and her experience,” said board President Jessica Ansert Klami. “The board is very excited to have her, and we are excited to see what she can do. She has a lot of experience and potential, and we are excited to see what she can do over the next couple of years.”
Klami also tipped her head to two relatively new staffers: Lorraine Weiss, the education and program director, and Jackie Davis, the gift shop and craft fair director.
Batman grew up in the Finger Lakes county of Cayuga. She graduated from Vassar College with an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a focus on human evolution, and then from Johns Hopkins with a master’s in museum studies and non-profit management. She lives in Albany County, and was most recently working in the Education Department at the Berkshire Museum where she was running school and programs and developing new curriculum with the objective of attracting more visitors.
That is what she hopes to do at Shaker Heritage.
“I think we have a strong core of supporters and we need to figure out a way to make them more visible, and find a way to bring that narrative to the forefront because there are so many people with childhood connections here,” she said. “There are all aspects of the community that have ties to the site. People with childhood memories of coming here. That’s what I want to build up, that we are still a gathering place for Colonie and Albany County.”
There is development happening on different parts of the 740-acre site, and all around the most recognizable Church Family village, from the Albany International Airport where the Shaker’s used to grow their food, to the Albany County jail and the hockey rink and a number of large office buildings and even a private school.
Making historic sites fit into today’s society is a philosophy of preservation catching on in Albany County and elsewhere. If for no other reason than to increase the odds of saving what is largely a part of our history that happens to sit on a piece of real estate with an ever-increasing value.
“I believe, personally, in preserving history for its own sake, but I understand not everyone will feel that way so it’s a matter of making the site relevant to people who are not naturally interested in the history of the Shakers and promoting the economic development opportunities of historic preservation,” Batman said. “Heritage tourism is a huge industry that is growing in this region and I think there are opportunities to plan and develop that don’t involve constructing new buildings.”
There are two ongoing projects that exemplify cooperation of saving yesterday while providing a benefit today.
At the former West Family Village, near the intersection of Watervliet Shaker and Sand Creek roads, the Colonie Planning Board recently gave a nod of approval to a project that will construct 126 units on the site that is adjacent to an athletic complex already under construction. The plan calls for six new buildings, and renovating four existing Shaker buildings for 10 new apartments.
But, the Shaker Heritage Society worked with the developer, Richard Rosetti Sr., and the Shaker-era red barn visible from Watervliet Shaker Road will be saved and moved from its current location to the rear of the site. Also, the new buildings will be constructed to reflect a Shaker design, and Batman said they are working on an agreement to allow Shaker Heritage to lead tours of some of the existing interiors.
“The less development in the district the better for us in many respects because preservation is often at odds, but there is also the fact there will be a new community in the district, and it is bringing in a whole group of people we can potentially convince into being supporters and advocates as well,” she said. “It does sometimes feel like there is a lot of external pressure closing in on the site, but for me, being new in this role, what I need to do is start building relationships. It is my job to go into the community and promote our mission so I will be a strong advocate, but at the end of the day there is going to be a little give and take, I’m anticipating.”
The other ongoing project is converting the old Ann Lee Nursing Home on the Church Family site into a place for homeless veterans. The county, which owns most of the buildings on the Church Family site, did grant a 50-year lease of the building but the organizers are still working on financing.
“They are sensitive to the preservation needs of the site and the idea of providing housing for homeless veteran ties very well into the history of the Shakers as far as providing a refuge for families and the homeless and orphans,” Batman said. “It provides and interesting element of historic continuity to the site.”
Another idea that epitomizes historic continuity is to install restrooms in the manure shed located outside the iconic large white barn along Albany Shaker Road. It would make the barn easier to rent for social gatherings like weddings and parties which in turn would generate much needed revenue for the society.
Shaker Heritage is still working on a 50-year lease with the county which would open up other avenues of funding by offering financial institutions proof of a long term stability it cannot currently give.
When the Shaker’s flourished in the 19th century the entire district had four “villages” the Church Family — the most recognizable and home to the barn mentioned above, the iconic Meeting House, the graveyard where Ann Lee is buried and the Ann Lee Pond — and those known as the West, South and North families.
The Shakers were known for their ingenuity, entrepreneurship and craftsmanship. They believed a spiritual connection was as important as human interaction and while recluse in many regards they did accept anyone into their fold regardless of race, creed or social status and viewed women as equal to men in every regard.
“There are a lot of fascinating opportunities to explore contemporary issues when looking at the Shakers because they were so socially progressive and their passivism and equality for men and women and people of all races and I think there is a lot of interesting things to explore and bring to a contemporary audience,” Batman said. “And that excited me.”
This message is only visible to site admins
Problem displaying Facebook posts. Backup cache in use.