IPSWICH — About a decade ago, architect Mathew Cummings was looking for a builder for restoration of the circa 1747 Day-Dodge House. He wanted someone who shared his intense, exacting approach to historic construction. He found housewright James Whidden of Ashburnham, who was, if anything, even more determined to cleave to the old ways.
“If you wanted it done right, you called him. If you want it done right away, you didn’t,” Cummings said with a smile.
Kindred spirits, Cummings and Whidden then worked on more old Ipswich houses together, including the Captain Sutton House (c. 1690) and the Daniel Lummus House (c. 1715). Eventually they started talking about a project totally unconstrained by modern building codes or clients’ needs.
They hatched plans to recreate the 1657 Alexander Knight House, an English-style, one-room house. They would build it on the grounds of the Ipswich Museum, using traditional tools, materials, and methods, and donate it to the institution when they were done.
“We’re always repairing these homes; we don’t get to build one,” said Cummings, a museum vice president. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to construct something like this from scratch.”
They broke ground in 2009, on land adjacent to the museum’s 1677 Whipple House, on the side of South Main Street, which is also Route 133/Route 1A, in downtown Ipswich. Volunteers devoted countless hours to everything from historic research to masonry to website design.
The stone foundation went in the ground in 2010. Last September, they raised the timber frame.
Then, in November, Whidden died of natural causes at age 49. His friends are carrying on the project the way they believe he would have wanted.
Last weekend, passing drivers slowed to look and some stopped to take pictures as two interpretive artisans from Plimoth Plantation led the installation of the Knight House’s thatched roof, fitting armloads of dried reeds into place.
“In part we do this out of respect for him,” said Plimoth’s Michael French. “To come back and give him a hand here.”
Alexander Knight and his wife came over from England, where he had owned an inn, in 1635. A year later he already had significant property holdings here. But his life took several bad turns, including the death of a child in a fire, until he was more or less indigent by 1656, even working as an indentured servant. Perhaps in light of his previous status, the town voted to provide him a piece of land and a small house. The exact location is not clear, Cummings said, but it was near the project site.
Architectural historian Susan S. Nelson uncovered his story, including the original town register from April 1657, which describes the decision to “secure a house to be built for Alexander Knight of 16 foote long twelve foote wyde 7 or 8 foote stud upon his ground to pryd thatching other things nesasary for it.”
It’s not known what happened to that original structure. Materials and even structures were often reused in the old days, and it has been suggested that Knight’s house became part of the 1680 John Kimball House on High Street. Cummings said he, Nelson, and Whidden went looking for evidence of that, but found none.
Ipswich is known for having perhaps the largest surviving stock of First Period (1625-1725) homes anywhere, but they tend to be well-built houses of successful people. The Knight House re-creation will show what life was like for the ordinary person of the era, Cummings notes. By today’s standards, it seems no bigger than a backyard shed or mountain hut, tiny and rustic, but authentic construction still demands a lot of work.
White oak joists and white pine boards were cut with the water-powered saws at the Ledyard Up-Down Sawmill in Ledyard, Conn., and Taylor Sawmill in Derry, N.H. The hewing and joinery was all done by hand. Whidden’s role has been assumed by Matthew J.M. Diana, who studied preservation carpentry at Boston’s North Bennet Street School and worked for Whidden.
“We spent at least two weeks just hewing if you add up all the days,” said Diana. “A lot of it is processing and manufacturing, and it’s all by hand.”
Cummings estimates they’ve spent only a couple of thousand dollars for materials and an occasional meal for the crew. Much work awaits for the project to be finished by the end of the summer as planned. The wood-framed open hearth and chimney will be covered with wattle and daubing mixed from clay and water and other materials. “Stirring gets really difficult when you put the grass in,” said Cummings, who is hands-on at every stage.
French and other Plimoth Plantation artisans have provided occasional advice and they came in September 2009 to help the Knight House crew harvest thatch for the roof, mostly nearby in Essex. The group cut phragmites and stored them to dry behind the museum’s main building, the 1800 Heard House across the street.
Last weekend, French and Plimoth’s Justin Keegan positioned rolls of bundled and tied reeds around the edges of the roof to hold in the thatch. Then they laid the loose, cut-to-length phragmites across the lathe to form the “fleeking,” or base, layer. In the yard below, Cummings and crew broke up bales of hay, wet them down, and trampled them to a loose mat that would form the 6-inch middle layer. When French and Keegan return in July, they’ll put down a carefully layered “dress coat” of reeds over the top.
“To have folks who want to thatch, who want to put the correct period tools and processes to work, we want to help support that,” said French.
Cummings’s family has a century of Ipswich roots, and his practice, Cummings Architects, has been in business here since 1999. He said he’s excited about the potential for living-history events like open-hearth cooking demonstrations in the Knight House, which are simply not possible in the Whipple or Heard house. But he lights up most at the idea of drivers simply coming around the corner and encountering the houses together on what has been the community’s main road for centuries.
“It’s not just a building to me,” he said. “We’re rebuilding a fragment of the original landscape.”
Whidden’s name comes up often. Seemingly everyone working on the site approaches a visiting reporter sooner or later to talk about Whidden’s skills, his devotion to the work.
“No Jim Whidden, no Knight House,” said Cummings.