By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Two views of the city’s historic Peabody Institute Library are at the center of a debate on whether to spend $3.1 million to make repairs.
Is the library “one of the jewels of our city,” as proclaimed by Mayor Ted Bettencourt?
Or is it “just a money pit,” as proposed by City Councilor Jim Liacos?
Is it a vital resource, as maintained by library director Martha Holden? Or ought we consider City Councilor Rico Mello’s suggestion that libraries might soon be obsolete, thanks to modern technology?
The spark for this debate is a proposal to authorize borrowing $3.1 million for repairs, including shoring up trusses supporting the roof of the library.
The building was a gift to the city by favorite son and philanthropist George Peabody in 1852. It’s the building’s age that makes it both a historic icon and an expensive property to maintain.
Merely installing a single new window — windows also need replacing — will cost more than $4,000.
Worse yet, library repairs have already reached the amount required to trigger the Americans With Disabilities Act and mandate close to half a million dollars on improvements.
Finally, under questioning from councilors during a meeting of the finance subcommittee, Holden could not rule out yet another major project down the road.
“We don’t know yet if the elevator will have to be repaired,” she said. And the slate roof hasn’t been replaced in 100 years.
Frustrated councilors made their complaints after noting that $3.1 million was spent on heating and air conditioning only a few years ago.
Interviewed later, Holden made a case for maintaining the red-brick, Italianate building despite the cost.
“It’s arguably the most historically significant building in town,” she said. “I can’t say enough about its historic significance.”
No less important, she feels, is the usefulness of the library.
“I don’t know if the council is aware that we service hundreds of people, seven days a week,” she said.
Patrons come from all walks of life, rich and poor and everyone in between, she said. “I don’t know of a better use you get out of a public resource.”
Yet, because repairs have not been done, the second and third floors have been empty for more than two years, and books are stacked in the subbasement. The nationally known Holocaust Center, formerly housed in the library, was shunted to Kiley School.
“They’re dying to get back in,” Holden said.
Part of the problem stemmed from the need to relocate the heating and air conditioning to the second floor, after it was determined that the weight may have contributed to the cracked roof supports.
For now the roof is stable with steel supports, thanks to a more than $500,000 insurance payment following a 2011 leak brought on by heavy snow. But more work is required, Holden said.
“The ceiling needs to be repaired,” she said. “And it has to be done before we can move back into that space.”
As to the changes demanded by the Americans With Disabilities Act, Holden said they are essential. Many library patrons are disabled, and many of them have complained about access, she said. A ramp at the side of the building, for example, is too steep for many to use.
Part of the cost could be defrayed with a donation from the Community Preservation Commission, but that local board has a number of projects before it and its resources are limited.
Faced with such spending at a time when they also face a multimillion-dollar bond for a new Higgins Middle School, the council agreed to advertise the project, but only with the understanding that some or all of the plan could be amended in order to reduce the cost.
Holden agrees that some work can be held out for later — the windows, for example.
Councilor Arthur Athas complained that city officials had not itemized where the $3.1 million would go. He wondered why heating and air conditioning in the top-floor Sutton Room was included when the city only recently paid for HVAC work throughout the building.
“There has to be a little more detail presented to us,” he said. “I look at the building. You know money is tight. ... I don’t know what’s absolutely necessary.”
Even the mayor, who supports the expense, conceded, “I was a little disheartened when I saw this large number.”
The missing information, Bettencourt said, was an oversight.
“We’re finding one thing after another,” Liacos said. “In that old building, something is going to pop up.”
“This money is definitely needed,” Councilor Dave Gamache said.
Speaking during the regular council meeting, Mello said, “It seems to me this has gotten way out of control. They come up for bonds all the time. And it makes me wonder ... about the future of libraries.”
He asked if they would become outdated in an age when people access information at the touch of a button.