Financial woes mar future of Enfield Shaker site

The former Shaker community at Enfield in western New Hampshire is only a shadow of its former self, but at its heart is a remarkable building: the six-story Great Stone Dwelling, the biggest residential structure ever built by the Shakers. And now its massive shoulders will have to carry the Enfield Shaker Museum out of a period of financial trouble, and into an uncertain future.

Until last year, the museum was housed in a smaller building, while the dwelling was leased to private innkeepers. This type of partnership has been successful at many similar facilities, but it has never really taken hold in Enfield.

In 2005, the museum’s board abandoned the lodging plan and moved its collection into the dwelling. It faces the challenge of reinventing itself at a time when attendance is on the decline at Shaker communities and similar living-history museums.

The Enfield Shaker Museum has been at a disadvantage from the start, because of the property’s checkered history.

At New Hampshire’s other Shaker settlement in Canterbury, there was a direct transition from living community to Shaker museum. As a result, the village was preserved virtually intact. But at Enfield, there was a 63-year gap between the Shakers’ departure in 1923 and the museum’s founding. In the intervening years, the community was first owned by the La Salettes, a Catholic religious order, and then by a real estate partnership called Lower Shaker Village. Many buildings were removed; the most desirable land along Mascoma Lake was redeveloped as housing. Today, the museum owns less than 20 of the Shakers’ original 2,000 acres. It owns eight buildings; one of those, the chapel, was actually built by the La Salettes.

So while the dwelling is one of the most impressive buildings anywhere in New Hampshire, the museum rests on a narrow foundation — and has to be creative in order to draw a sufficient stream of visitors.

Bad publicity

The museum was founded in 1986, in a single room of the Great Stone Dwelling. “We had no buildings, no collection, and no money. My ‘office’ was a card table under a stairway,” recalls Carolyn Smith, the museum’s founding director, and now a member of the board. At the time, the entire community was owned by Lower Shaker Village, which planned to use the site for a housing and resort development. But the partnership soon ran into financial trouble.

In the early 1990s, the museum bought two Shaker buildings and a parcel of land. In 1997, the museum bought the Great Stone Dwelling and several other buildings. A mortgage was granted by Mascoma Savings Bank, contingent on the lease of the dwelling to a professional innkeeper. The lease payments, about $5,000 a month, would cover the mortgage and the Enfield property taxes.

There are many theories to explain why the lodging operation never worked out — the building’s awkward size for one, says the museum board’s president, Karen Hambleton. “It had 23 rooms, large for a bed-and-breakfast, but small for a hotel,” she says.

She also says the innkeepers weren’t committed to Shaker style: “One wanted to put up frilly curtains and all that. But that’s not quite Shaker.”

Carolyn Smith, an expert on Shaker museums, is employed at Shaker Workshops, a Massachusetts firm that makes Shaker-style furnishings sold in museum gift shops. She says close cooperation is essential for a successful lodging/museum partnership. “The Enfield Shaker Museum was not in a position to do that,” due to a small staff. Also, “the museum couldn’t afford a thorough renovation” to deal with plumbing and heating problems and the other aches and pains of a 150-year-old building.

The inn’s eventually troubles generated bad publicity, which occupied a lot of the museum’s time and energy. From 2003 on, it built up an $80,000 delinquent tax bill.

Last year, the museum board decided to abandon the lodging plan, a move that allowed the museum to make better use of the dwelling. But it also was stuck with a mortgage balance of $440,000, plus the back taxes. (Current taxes are much lower, because the dwelling is now a non-profit enterprise. Regardless, those are big numbers for an institution with an annual budget of about $250,000.)

Uphill battle

The first problem was solved when an anonymous benefactor generously paid off the mortgage. The taxes proved more troublesome. The museum board sought an abatement, but town officials balked. Town Manager Steve Schneider says Enfield wants to treat the museum like any other taxpayer: “How can we create an arrangement that doesn’t compromise the museum’s ability to survive, and allows the town to collect what it’s owed?”

Selectmen are seeking payment of a little over half the bill by this fall, with the balance due by the end of 2007.

The museum board will meet the first deadline through the recent sale of a small parcel of land that’s inconsequential to the function of the museum. It is paying the rest in $2,000-per-month installments.

The board fashioned a balanced budget, including those payments, but it required some painful cuts. The planned hiring of a new director was put on hold; the paid staff consists of one full-timer and two part-timers. Museum operations depend on a cadre of dedicated volunteers.

They face an uphill battle. In 2005, admissions were down 33 percent from 2003 levels. “It’s part of an industry-wide trend, but it’s also our own fault,” says Hambleton. “We were so focused on our problems that we couldn’t focus on marketing.”

And says Smith, “the programs and activities that used to be mainstays have pretty much disappeared.”

So the Enfield Shaker Museum is in rebuilding mode, and Hambleton acknowledges that time is short. She denies rumors that the museum will have to sell off some of its buildings. “We have to let people know we are here to stay,” she says.

Will it happen? “I’m not sure it will work without some component of dining and lodging,” says Smith. “A nonprofit can have meal and lodging income, as long as it supports the program offerings. There needs to be some thought and planning in restoring the dwelling.”

She is encouraged by the progress so far, but her assessment is guarded. “There’s a chance we can move forward,” she says.

If not, it’s unclear what will happen to the Great Stone Dwelling and the other Shaker buildings in Enfield. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places, which prevents its wholesale redevelopment. But if it can’t survive as a museum, what will become of the former Shaker community?

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