Deerfield's restoration by wealthy collectors is topic of new book

July 26, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Restoring the fabric of American communities and enshrining the wholesome, small-town values of yesteryear is not just political campaign rhetoric. It was a motivating force behind the small group of wealthy antiques collectors earlier this century who restored historic towns as site museums and spearheaded a Colonial revival in design and decoration.

A case in point is Historic Deerfield, the bucolic Connecticut River Valley town founded in 1669 in northwestern Massachusetts, which today boasts 13 antique-filled Colonial houses open to the public. It is the subject of a new illustrated book by Elizabeth Stillinger. "Historic Deerfield" (Dutton Studio Books, $35), an in-depth look at Helen and Henry Flynt, the patrons of Deerfield.

The tapestry of early American life displayed in historic settings by collectors such as the Flynts was woven, in part, from whole cloth, when viewed from the objective perspective of current scholarship.

"The Flynts were playing house," said Grace Friary, Historic Deerfield's spokeswoman and wife of its director, Donald Friary, in a recent interview.

Times have changed.

"Deerfield now is in the vanguard of portraying life as it was. . . . We must show how people in Deerfield lived, not how a collector lived," Mrs. Friary observed.

Attorney Henry Needham Flynt (1893-1970) and his wife, Helen Geier Flynt (1895-1986), both had inherited sizable fortunes and lived in Greenwich, Conn. Their association with Deerfield began in 1936 when they enrolled their son at Deerfield Academy, a private boarding school founded in 1787.

Henry Flynt's 1952 book about Deerfield reveals that he was smitten with a desire to preserve traditional values of American liberty, family, community and Christianity from what he described, during the McCarthy period, as "the siren song of collectivism." Through rebuilding Deerfield, Flynt could spread his patriotic zeal.

What distinguishes Historic Deerfield from other site museums is that so much remains in place as it was -- or was imagined to have been -- in the 18th century. In contrast, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia was reconstructed in the 1930s by the Rockefeller family's philanthropy, since little remained of the town's original architecture.

Bill Gass, a local contractor employed by the Flynts, helped them create the Deerfield brand of Colonial revival architecture and interior design. Historians now criticize him for ignoring the evidence of original building plans, vanquishing authenticity to create comfortable spaces, and relying more on hunch than research.

Similarly, when the Flynts visited Henry F. du Pont's house and museum of Americana at Winterthur, Del., they fell in love with fancy Chippendale furniture, exotic Oriental rugs and rich silk upholstery and curtains, and started filling their historic houses with furnishings the country farmers of Deerfield wouldn't have owned. Nevertheless, the Flynts had the foresight and resources to salvage and preserve what remained of old Deerfield and install there some fine antiques. Their successors have put the collections in order and to scholarly use.

' Solis-Cohen Enterprises

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