Rural New England: Architecture in the Round

Unique New England structures include Massachusetts' round stone barn, and Vermont's one-room schoolhouse and non-denominational church

| May/June 1985

Engine magazines are devoted to old round gears, flywheels, band wheels, bull wheels, and drive wheels and they are interesting; however, a change now and then reates thought – especially if they are old, odd, rural and round. So read on about a few New England oddities and the persons related thereto:

  • The round stone barn near Pittsfield, Mass., designed and built in 1825-26 by a group of (at that time) advanced agriculturalists and proud craftsmen.
  • At Brookline, Vermont, a round schoolhouse designed and built in 1821-22 by a local well-respected medical doctor with a hidden past.
  • At Richmond, Vermont, the one and only round non-denominational church designed and built by a native farmer carpenter in 1813.

Shaker round stone barn in Hancock, Mass.

A noted existing example of round durable and functional construction is the Shaker round stone barn now part of the Hancock Shaker Village Museum actually in Hancock, Mass., but served by Pittsfield, Mass.

The barn was built by a religious group now long gone known as Shakers. A spin-off group from the Quakers, part of their philosophy was that if you treat the land well, it will treat you well. That philosophy is still applicable today. The Shakers were constantly trying to improve their farming methods by selection and breeding. Their plants, grains, fruit trees and animals became outstanding and they were adopted by farmers throughout the country. They also designed and built their own buildings, most of which are still standing due to their sturdy construction and simple basic design.

This barn is noted as being the first large round stone barn built in this country. It was used as a prototype by other farmers and promoted by several agricultural colleges, resulting in construction of round barns in most of the states and in Canada. Some are still standing and several are in constant use in the state of Vermont. This barn has been repaired twice, once after the formation of the Shaker Museum Village of about twelve original buildings all in excellent condition.

From the photo and schematic note (view them in the  Image Gallery ) you can see that the barn has three entrances – one at grade level for cattle, one ramping up from grade to a second floor, and one descending from grade so that a team of horses and wagon can drive completely around the building and exit at the point of entry. That is, one drive-way is above the cattle floor and one drive-way is below the cattle floor.

On the upper drive-way floor, several loads of hay could be unloaded at one time with the aid of gravity that is pitching downyard – as mow built above wagonload height, additional manpower was necessary. Gravity was also used to clean the livestock floor, as all manure could be dropped through several trap doors to wagons or sleds beneath. The circular arrangement of windows and central ventilating shaft permitted control of temperature and humidity during the winter months. Also heading all cattle into a circular center aisle permitted easy feeding.