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Ability, Integrity, and Excellence:

Preserving Our Colonial Past Jim Whidden's Way*
“Jim is a restoration craftsman in the best sense of the phrase,” says Susan Nelson, the distinguished architectural historian based in Ipswich, Massachusetts — and she should know, having studied dozens of colonial houses and seen Jim Whidden’s work transform the lucky ones.

Some of James David Whidden’s earliest memories are of playing with wood. He fondly recalls taking things apart to figure out how they worked. This was in Billerica, Massachusetts, where Jim’s family moved from the Boston area, and where a skilled carpenter who lived nearby befriended Jim and taught his eager student carpentry and cabinet making. “There was no question that I would enroll in the carpentry program at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School,” Jim remembers.

At Shawsheen, this self- directed young man began to purchase his own tools with money he earned working at a local gas station. Jim learned how to frame and build houses, including in Vermont where, through a local scouting program, he met a “gentleman farmer” who let a group of scouts work on his house and barn. “I had a blast,” Jim said. He also fell in love with the country, and developed a keen interest in traditional practices.

Jim spent the next few years working for furniture makers, marrying his wife, Tricia, moving with her briefly to Pennsylvania while she attended medical school, and returning to Massachusetts where he learned millwork. “We did a lot of turning on the lathe the traditional way,” Jim explains. “We cut joints by hand. I decided I either wanted to build accurate reproductions or restore antique pieces. Contemporary designs never spoke to me.” Eventually, with enough experience under his belt, Jim struck out on his own. He became involved in the traditional trades community, succeeded at juried shows, and was accepted into the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen.

Jim also began studying early American history — knowledge that sets him apart from others in his field. Jim knows how 17th-century families used their rooms, furniture, and tools. As Sue Nelson testifies, “Jim uses the same techniques to restore buildings that were used when they were first constructed, and he experiences the same intimacy of woodworker, wood, artist and materials.” While Jim restores or creates objects in the massive woodworking shop he built for himself in Ashburnham, Massachusetts (where he resides with Tricia and their two children), his professional focus remains on the North Shore.

As demand for Jim’s skills has grown he has become a contractor, directing like-minded craftspeople who share his values. Among the houses in Ipswich he has worked on include the ca. 1725 Widow Fuller House on Summer Street and the ca. 1737 Day-Dodge House on High Street — one of the most architecturally significant streets in America. Today, in conjunction with Ipswich architect Mathew Cummings, Jim is restoring the ca. 1685 Captain Sutton House near the landing site of the English colonists.

“What I do every day is not work for me,” Jim confesses. “This is a way for me to combine my profession with my interest in history.” He continues, “I almost see the houses themselves as my clients. My actual clients and I have conversations about their house before we agree on what should be done. It’s an educational process.” Jim’s quiet modesty belies rare, native talent. But the proof is in the work, and the work is incomparable.

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*This article is reprinted from North Shore Life magazine, with permission of GateHouse Media New England.

2008 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

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