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By M. E. Jones


SHIRLEY — Shaker buildings dating back to the 19th century still stand on the grounds of MCI Shirley. A half-million-dollar grant from the state assures that nine remaining buildings will be saved, thanks to the partnership between the Shirley Historical Society and the Massachusetts Department of Correction.

A recent tour of the site outlined the history of the Shaker movement, which began in England in the 1700s and moved to America a century later. Communities grew up in Harvard, Lancaster and Shirley.

“Pleasant Garden,” the Shaker community in Shirley, was established in 1793. For a time, the community prospered but by the late 1880s, only 15 members remained.

In the early 1900s, the property was sold to the state to become the Shirley Industrial (reform) School for Boys. During that era, many Shaker buildings were modified to be used as dorms and other purposes, with additions such as dormers, cupolas, trim and porches. The institution also built new facilities. It closed in the 1970s.

Work in progress

Today, many of the old Shaker buildings are in use, but others have fallen into disrepair. A dozen buildings were targeted for restoration, but the number was cut to nine after an evaluation determined that some were too far gone.

In one instance, modern use led to ruin: the old Shaker laundry building was damaged — probably beyond repair — by leaking steam pipes.

In 1962, the meetinghouse was sold and moved to the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield. A sign now marks the site where it stood, between two restored Shaker buildings included in a recent tour, one of which represents the most work done on any of the buildings, said Alvin Collins, of the Groton Historical Commission, who’s the clerk of the works for the restoration project.

According to Shirley Historical Society curator Meredith Marcincewicz, who has been advocating this cause for years, Collins’ hands-on knowledge of historic restoration has been invaluable, not to mention his enthusiasm.

He describes the job with relish, from first phase structural shoring up, emergency fixes and weather-proofing to heavy lifting that came later.

Collins praised the cooperative effort that made the project possible from paid contractors to MCI administration and staff, even the inmates who worked on the project. “I know they’re here for a reason…” he said. “But they took pride in their work.”

The inmates learned useful trades, he said, but also became “vested” in the project. In one instance, when the budget for professional period window restoration got tight, a crew set up a shop to do the job on site. It was their idea, he said; they asked to do it.

A job well done

The tour focused on two finished products, including the building that was the most challenging to restore: A white clapboard colonial with a center chimney that houses Department of Corrections offices and is slated to be the visitors reception center.

The front door opens into the future meeting room, with authentic features and décor that includes a Shaker-style table and chairs. Employees who work there are delighted with their new office space. “It has transformed how we do our work,” one of them said.

Transformed is the best word to describe this makeover, inside and out. It included removing 20th-century add-ons such as an interior wall on the first floor and the front porch, rebuilding the back porch, installing new siding and electrical wiring, a new paint job and professional window restoration all around.

The interior was a wreck when he first saw it, Collins said. “The floor had dropped 12 inches” and had to be jacked up from the basement. The heavy-lifting took two months.

One of the next items on the to-do list is to put up signs that identify the Shaker buildings and their history, Marcincewicz said.