, Salem, MA

Local News

January 29, 2013

Repairs overdue at library

Proposal to borrow $3.1 million to fix historic building sparks debate

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.

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