Jim Diaz-Saavedra still remembers the distinctive smell of wood and rope from the boats he visited at the Mystic Seaport as a child.
On family trips to the Seaport, the Thomas Lee House in East Lyme and historic sites in his hometown of Waterford, Diaz-Saavedra discovered his love of history.
Now 50 years old, Diaz-Saavedra has combined that love with his passion for volunteering and his carpentry expertise. He spends countless hours preserving historic buildings and restoring older homes so they will be landmarks in the community for years to come.
"It's something I really enjoy doing as a carpenter," he said. "I like helping to preserve a part of history that might not otherwise be around for future generations.
Sandra Kersten Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, said the community needs more people like Diaz-Saavedra, who are willing to take on beautiful old homes and buildings as projects. Too often these structures have fallen into disrepair, she added.
"He can do the restoration they need," she said. "And they're our history. The people who built them, the people who lived in them, are the history of New London."
Diaz-Saavedra is the caretaker for the David Bishop House, a house built in 1796 on Washington Street, where New London Landmarks has an office.
"He's a great person to work with and he really loves New London," Chalk said.
He owns four houses in New London, in addition to his own. Three of the houses, which he personally remodeled, are now rented. He is renovating the last one, an 1851 post and beam Greek Revival home in the Riverside Park neighborhood.
Diaz-Saavedra has also worked on the Trolley Information Station in downtown New London and on the Custom House Maritime Museum, as well as helped maintain the city's parks as a volunteer with the Parks and Recreation Department.
At the station, which serves as an information booth for New London visitors, Diaz-Saavedra painted and helped install a new red cedar roof, similar to the original roof. Each year he makes sure the building can withstand the winter months, and when Superstorm Sandy recently downed a tree on the roof, he patched it with cedar shingles.
Diaz-Saavedra fixed the original, heavy wood doors at the maritime museum and he does other maintenance jobs there. And at the Old Town Mill, he decorates for the open houses and festivals and volunteers at the events.
Susan Tamulevich, executive director of the museum, said, "It's a beautiful volunteer effort by someone who's quite professional at it."
"We're very, very fortunate," she added.
Barbara M. Dixon, who coordinates events at the mill, said Diaz-Saavedra does a "tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work" and without him, the restoration of the mill would not be where it is today.
Diaz-Saavedra has worked as a carpenter since graduating from the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton in 1981. His mother, Irma, and his wife, Kathy, are also passionate volunteers. He and Kathy have a five-year-old daughter, Ava.
On a recent day, Diaz-Saavedra sat at his kitchen table flipping through a binder of historic postcards. He's an avid collector — he has more than 600, including 60 different views of the Old Town Mill. Every picture tells a different story, he said.
He wore a dark green shirt with the city's seal, a full-rigged ship underway. He was given the shirt after participating in a city-wide cleanup. On the back it read, "I am New London proud."
Diaz-Saavedra said he enjoys giving back to the city
"A lot of people never find inner happiness. They don't achieve what they're looking for. That's why I think carpentry is an awesome trade," he said, reflecting on his career and his volunteer work. "I like building things with my mind and my hands. It makes you feel good inside, it is that inner happiness."
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