BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Joe Gromacki, renowned Chicago lawyer, ardent preservationist, and learned historian, might add one other title to his list: farmer. Every summer, the high-powered city dweller escapes to the country—his destination: Kelton House Farm.
Gromacki’s 18th century Connecticut Valley saltbox house once sat in the upper Connecticut River Valley, before it was carefully moved and reassembled in Southern Wisconsin by a previous owner. Kelton House Farm defines historic preservation and reflects the brilliance of an owner who loves his surroundings.
Its acres of lush gardens, aviaries, heritage breeds of animals, ceramic collections, furniture, needlework, textiles, metal wares, glass, and other decorative arts combine together to make something more than just a bucolic getaway from professional demands, but as a celebration of colonial history in America. Peeking through the home’s library, you will come across books and pamphlets from the period. Even the limited number of reproductions of decorative arts and other handicrafts that dot the interior, including wooden buckets and barrels, have been created in as authentic manner as possible.
The gardens feature plants grown during the Colonial period, including hundreds of varieties of heirloom perennials, biennials, herbs, and other plants. Many of these plants are of British and European origin, while others are native to the New World.
And Gromacki helps to keep it all thriving. A graduate of Yale and the University of Virginia Law School, Joe is a senior partner at Jenner & Block. While life as an attorney keeps him busy, he is equally devoted to preserving America’s history and heritage. Joe serves as a Trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Layton Art Collection in Milwaukee, Chair of Historic Deerfield, member of the National Trust Council, and numerous other organizations dedicated to preservation.
Classic Chicago salutes Joe’s passion and perseverance and is pleased to share a conversation we recently had with him about Kelton House Farm and his preservation efforts.
When you’re able to get away from your busy life in Chicago and steal away to the farm, what do you like to do most to unwind?
I truly enjoy working in the gardens. I find such peace and tranquility at the farm. I also delight in sharing the farm with others. As we harvest vegetables from the gardens, I have fun hosting small dinners and luncheons for my friends. We always dine al fresco, in the restored Potting Shed, and the meals feature foods that we foraged from the farm or harvested from the gardens.
What is your summer routine at Kelton House?
Summer is a very busy time at the farm! At the height of the summer season, we spend a lot of time weeding, watering, and fertilizing the plants and deadheading the spent flowers. While I have many perennial gardens with heirloom plant varieties that live through the winter, many of the gardens are replanted every year. That is certainly true of the heirloom vegetable gardens as well as the cutting gardens, which contain hundreds of varieties of annual and biennial flowers that we grow for use in flower arrangements in the house and around the farm.
Beginning in early spring, we plant the seeds saved from our own plants each year, or young plants we start in our greenhouses. For climbing vegetables, we build support structures from twigs and poles we harvest in the woodlands. We also open up the bee house and have leaned the straw skeps that house the bees.
Tell us about the original owners.
The Kelton family built their farmhouse on a four-square-mile tract of land, known as Kelton Corner, just east of the Connecticut River, near Deerfield, Massachusetts. The Keltons were an ancient family of Scottish origin. Thomas Kelton was among about 150 Scottish prisoners taken by Oliver Cromwell after the battle of Dunbar and sent to New England. By at least 1728, Kelton and his descendants moved outside of Boston to Northwestern Massachusetts and were among the earliest settlers in that region.
In the third quarter of the 20th century, the house, still in a fine state of original condition, was dismantled, moved, and reconstructed at its current location in rural Wisconsin.
When you began to restore Kelton House, you returned to Historic Deerfield for research. Tell us about that community.
For the last decade or so, I have been a member of the board and late last year I assumed the role of Chair. I am honored to serve in this capacity—it is a very special place. A museum of history, art, and architecture, it sits on a mile-long street laid out in 1671 and is still lined with 26 eighteenth century and 14 nineteenth century houses, still on their original sites.
It is a quintessential New England village, surrounded by working farms and rolling cornfields along the Deerfield River. It became, for me, a home away from home; a place where I find peace and tranquility and celebrate the colonial American spirit. This place matters to me deeply.
What is most difficult about preserving a landmark such as your farm?
I sought to restore the Kelton House to very exacting standards. When I acquired the property, the house was in a fairly good state of preservation—in that many original elements survived—but many later improvements had to be removed and or redone. For example, I spent the better part of a decade collecting antique eighteenth century crown glass to be used in glazing the windows of the house and eighteenth century hardware for the doors and such. I used 17th and 18th century Delft tiles in restoring the fireplaces. I also sought out old-growth timber salvaged from an 18th century shipwreck to replace certain areas of clapboard siding on the exterior of the house.
All of the interior paint colors are the original shades, which we determined after having experts conduct careful analysis on the paint history and the paneling. Lime and horsehair plaster was put onto the walls and ceilings of the house to replicate the original material, and unpainted wood paneling was left in its original state, after using special enzymes to remove the linseed oil that had been applied to the walls.
What has given you the most pleasure?
What gives me the most delight is researching the background of the house and the family that built it, which helps me appreciate the historic significance of the house. I have also enjoyed researching the design, structure, and planting of colonial American gardens—research which has inspired the extensive gardens at the property.
Did your parents share with you a commitment to preservation?
Their influence no doubt inspired my own activities in this area. My parents have painstakingly restored a circa 1844 Cream City brick farmhouse in rural Wisconsin, where they now reside. The property has been in our family for a long time, with many generations having spent time living there.
As avid gardeners, my parents have extensive gardens. At one time, my mother grew several hundred varieties of heirloom roses at their farm, Rosewood Farm. Some of the earlier gardens date back to the middle of the nineteenth century.
How did your commitment to preservation efforts begin?
I have always been interested in history and studied American and British history at Yale. I also studied art history and became keenly interested in art, architecture, and design as a result—not only the aesthetic attributes associated with such things, but also for what we can learn about a culture, including our own culture.
It was a very logical next step for me to become interested in historic preservation and the notion of saving important places for future generations. I have become convinced that by preserving the important edifices, monuments, and landscapes of our past, we can learn more about who we are.
You are a member of the National Trust Council of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. How would you describe that work?
The National Trust is a privately funded non-profit organization that works to save American’s most historic places. As the leading national voice for preservation in this country, it protects significant places representing our diverse cultural experience by taking direct action and inspiring broad public support.
I was first introduced to the Council by my good friend John Bryan, who previously chaired this invitational group of supporters of the National Trust. I met John in my capacity as outside legal counsel to General Motors, where he served as an outside director. In 2003, we both worked on the Farnsworth House Project—I was trustee of the Landmarks Illinois group. The National Trust and Landmarks Illinois worked together to acquire and preserve this icon of modernist architecture for roughly $7.5 million.
Do you enjoy visiting historic sites on vacation?
I am particularly fond of British country houses and gardens. Earlier this year, I visited one of my favorite places, Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, created in the 1930s by Vita Sackville-West, the poet and gardening writer and her husband Harold Nicolson, an author and diplomat. The garden is a series of ‘rooms,’ each with a different character of color and/or theme, the walls being high, clipped hedges and red brick. The ‘rooms’ and ‘doors’ are so arranged that, as one enjoys the beauty in a given room, one suddenly discovers a new vista into another part of the garden. To me, the place is quite magical and I relish every opportunity to visit Sissinghurst, as evidenced by the fact that I already have been there twice so far this year.
I have just returned from a summer trip to Japan, where I visited many historic temples, shrines, and gardens around Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. When it comes to gardens, Kyoto is perhaps the best place to visit, offering an environment rich in history and evidence of all the major Japanese traditions. Emperors, aristocrats, and samurai included wonderful gardens at their residences, some of which can still be explored today.
One special highlight was a visit to the famous moss garden at Saiho-ji, acclaimed by many as Kyoto’s most beautiful garden. In 1339, the famous monk, Muso Soseki, became the head priest of the temple and remodeled the garden as part of his Zen meditation routine. During the Edo period, the temple fell into disrepair. It must have been at this time that moss slowly encroached the garden until it covered it all. Today there are 120 types of moss in the garden, each with its own texture, color, and unique qualities. The garden exudes serenity. It is an extraordinary place to visit, especially during the rainy season from mid-June to mid-July, when the moss is quite lush and velvety. I am now inspired to develop a moss garden at my farm in Wisconsin.
What is the main identity of local and national preservation efforts today?
Historic preservation in American has long depended on grassroots supporters to help effect change at the local, state, and federal levels. This includes advocating for preservation funding, saving historic places, and influencing key legislation that protects our country’s heritage. From speaking up for Historic Tax Credits to advocating locally for places in your own community, grassroots leaders and organizations help to protect the places that tell the story of American and its rich history. Even major institutions, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have active ‘Main Street’ programs and work closely with grassroots initiatives to identify and save important places.
Many preservationists stress that you should choose your battles—that you can’t save everything. Do you agree?
Nothing in this world is static: our society, as well as our cities, grow and change constantly. Generally speaking, this is a good thing. But I also believe we must preserve places that hold special historic importance, whether that is because of the architecture or the story of the people who lived there. I think you must consider age and integrity: is the structure old enough to be considered historic, and does it still look much the way it did in the past? Does the property have the potential to yield information through archeological investigation about our past?
Would you give me an example?
I believe that it is very important to pursue historic preservation projects that can have strong precedential value that may influence behavior in other contexts. The Save the Shrine efforts in Chicago are good examples. With declining practicing populations, as well as a shortage of priests, many of our nation’s great churches are threatened. Many church governments cannot afford to preserve all the churches under their jurisdiction.
In the case of the Shrine, a Renaissance Revival masterpiece of church architecture, a fire had ravaged its structure and its continued existence was threatened because the Archdiocese in Chicago simply could not afford to preserve that and all the other historic churches in the area. Through the efforts of so many good people, particularly my friend and colleague Emily Nielsen, this masterwork of early 20th century Chicago ecclesiastical style by architect Henry Schlacks was saved from demolition. And perhaps best of all, it is now owned by an organization that is committed to restoring the building and continuing its ministry.
By saving the Shrine of Christ the King, an important precedent was established that can be adopted by other citizens and organizations to save churches in their own communities.
With a reverence for beauty, purpose, and history guiding him into action, Joe has been helping so many maintain not only the structures of their communities but the integrity of their history. We are so thrilled that on the grounds of his beloved Kelton House Farm he may be surrounded by such a storied past in his present and future.