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6 More Historic Religious Settlements to Visit

Former religious colonies can be a wealth of historic architecture. Here are 6 worth a visit. By Clare Martin

    The Planetary Court at Florida's Koreshan State Historic Site, which housed the seven women who were administrators of the settlement.

    The Planetary Court at Florida's Koreshan State Historic Site, which housed the seven women who were administrators of the settlement. (Photo: Ebayabe/

    Koreshan State Historic Site
    Estero, Florida
    Now a Florida state park, this site was settled in 1894 by Cyrus Reed Teed, who intended to create a “New Jerusalem” for the followers of his religion, the Koreshan Unity Movement. While the self-sustaining community declined fairly quickly after Teed’s death in 1908, the site still holds 11 of the colony’s National Register-listed primitive clapboard buildings, which you can view on a self-guided tour.

    Ephrata Cloister
    Ephrata, Pennsylvania
    German immigrant Conrad Beissel, a disciple of Pietism whose beliefs relied heavily on celibacy and an ascetic lifestyle, founded the Ephrata Cloister in 1732 to provide a community for his 300 or so followers. The Cloister’s 12 remaining original buildings, constructed in austere Germanic style, include dormitories to house the 80 celibate men and women who lived in the community, plus workshops, bakeries, and a printing press that provided the industrial backbone of the cloister.

    The restored schoolroom at the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village.

    The restored schoolroom at the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village. (Photo: Seicer/

    Shaker Village
    Pleasant Hill, Kentucky
    The largest restored Shaker settlement in the country, the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill boasts 34 historic buildings and a 3,000-acre farm that raises heirloom vegetables and historic animal breeds. The village was originally settled in 1805 by a group of missionaries who emigrated from New York on foot; it flourished throughout the mid-1800s but gradually declined in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the 1960s, a grassroots movement (overseen by a former Colonial Williamsburg curator) restored the historic buildings, which had languished in private ownership for decades. Today, the site includes a living history museum, a gift shop selling authentic Shaker furniture and decorative items, and lodging in 13 of the restored 19th-century buildings.

    Thousand Island Park Historic District
    Wellesley Island, New York
    Although the prevailing character of the Thousand Island Park Historic District (located on one of the largest islands in the St. Lawrence River between New York and Canada) is more Victorian summer resort than austere religious community, the district does have faith-based underpinnings. In 1875, Reverend John Ferdinand Dayan came here with the intent of setting up a Methodist summer community; within a year, his dream became a reality. The walkable streets of Thousand Island Park hold a treasure trove of gingerbread-encrusted Victorian-era architecture, from Queen Anne and Eastlake to Stick and Shingle Styles.

    The Colony Church, one of four original buildings at the Bishop Hill Historic Site.

    The Colony Church, one of four original buildings at the Bishop Hill Historic Site. (Photo: Kepper66/

    Bishop Hill
    Bishop Hill, Illinois
    Although this utopian community established in 1846 by Pietist Swedish immigrants lasted only 15 years, its legacy continues today in the peaceful village of Bishop Hill, where artisan shops, restaurants, and inns are tucked into original buildings’ simple Greek Revival façades. The state of Illinois maintains the Bishop Hill Historic Site, which includes a history museum and four buildings—including the 1850 Colony Church and the Boys’ Dormitory—restored to their original appearance.

    Quaker Hill
    Wilmington, Delaware
    Founded in 1738 by Quaker William Shipley, Wilmington’s Quaker Hill neighborhood boasts a wide range of architectural styles, from 18th-century stone Quaker houses to later Italinates and Gothic Revivals. The 1816 Friends Meeting Hall (the third Quaker meetinghouse to be built in the community) is the final resting place of two notable Quaker figures: abolitionist Thomas Garrett, who helped an estimated 2,700 slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, and John Dickinson, a founding father who argued vehemently for a peaceful resolution with England in the face of impending revolution.

    Published in: Old-House Journal October/November 2012

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