BY LAURIE NIVISON AND JESSE VANEK
To Chicagoans, few people are more synonymous with historic preservation than Joseph P. Gromacki. His efforts to preserve and protect our city’s illustrious history are legendary and, undoubtedly, many of this magazine’s readers will be on hand to applaud Gromacki when Landmarks Illinois honors him at the Legendary Landmarks Celebration this Thursday, March 5.
While his contributions to preserving Chicago’s civic and cultural riches are well-known and deserve high praise, many Chicagoans may be less familiar with one of the historic preservation organizations that Gromacki holds most dear: Historic Deerfield in Deerfield, Massachusetts.
“Deerfield is a remarkably well-preserved colonial New England village, established in the 17th century but representing a broad historical timeline and featuring an incredible array of classical Georgian and similar houses organized along a main street and village common. Significantly, its original sense of place is completely intact in a manner that is unmatched at any other colonial village in our country,” Gromacki explained.
As he noted during his remarks at the magnificent party he held at the Casino Club in late November of 2018, and more recently at a cocktail reception he hosted at the stunning Lotos Club in New York City during Americana Week this past January, he currently serves as the board chair at Historic Deerfield. He also co-chairs the museum’s America’s Town, America’s Story campaign, a $10 million initiative to strengthen the museum’s resources for preservation, restoration, and visitor engagement.
Located in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts, Historic Deerfield is nestled in a centuries-old, quintessential rural New England village with authentic, historic buildings that date as far back as 1714. This unique museum, which maintains 54 buildings (including 12 that are regularly open to the public), focuses on the importance of small-town America to our national culture.
The museum was incorporated in 1952 to sustain the work of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Flynt of Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1936 the Flynts enrolled their son at Deerfield Academy, a nationally-known college preparatory school founded in 1797, located in the center of Deerfield, Massachusetts. They became enamored with the village, feeling that it was important to preserve the town’s history and to save its 18th– and 19th-century buildings. They began to purchase and restore the old houses along the one-mile street, carefully preserving the buildings and objects that told the story of early American life.
Historic Deerfield’s significance rests in the preservation of its buildings and nationally significant collections of household goods: 28,000 artifacts both rare and common. These include furniture, metalwares, textiles, needlework, ceramics, and more—some created in Deerfield and nearby, some in urban centers that set the bar for taste, some brought to America as part of the trade with England and China. All of these objects document the stories and founding years of our nation as well as the currents that run through them.
Once at Historic Deerfield, visitors can tour one or more of the 12 historic houses open to the public or take an even deeper dive into history by visiting the exhibition gallery building, the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, and by conducting research in the Memorial Libraries where extensive holdings of private and public papers from early Deerfield residents are preserved. These include diaries, account books, sermons, and many other materials. Visitors can dine and stay at the historic Deerfield Inn, built in 1884, and shop at the museum store, which features a large selection of crafts and gifts made in the USA, along with an extensive book collection.
Chicago was well represented at the festivities of Americana Week in January, including the Americana auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the opening of the Winter Show, exhibitions, and other events. Chicagoans who spent time in New York City during that eventful week along with Gromacki included Jay Krehbiel, John Bryan III (also of Nashville), Todd Schwebel, Monica Obniski, Steven Zick, Ellenor Alcorn, Melinda Watt and Michael Langley, Sarah Kelly Oehler, Leslie Fitzpatrick, Cathy Busch, Marty Shapiro, and Kaye Gregg, among others.
You might wonder how a Chicagoan like Gromacki became involved with a museum over 1,000 miles away. While he had visited Deerfield several times before, he really came to know it because the early 18th-century saltbox house at his farm in Wisconsin was originally built just north of Deerfield. It was then moved to rural Wisconsin and lovingly restored as a setting for his fine and decorative arts collection.
Through this lens, he began to visit Deerfield in earnest nearly 20 years ago, with his restoration architect, in order to learn more about the history and architecture of his own house. He used Deerfield as a base for research. “As an amateur but passionate historian, I suppose you could say that it was love at first sight: I soon came to view Deerfield as a cultural history museum of national significance . . . in a fabulous setting,” Gromacki said. “For me, Deerfield is a unique place in the American landscape—a living, breathing embodiment of The American Story—and I am devoted to its preservation as a part of our national fabric.”