By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — The Peabody Institute Library seems to sell itself.
In an effort to convince the City Council to fund $3.1 million to make repairs on the historic downtown building, library director Martha Holden invited the members on a tour. Only four councilors showed up last night — Arthur Athas, Barry Osborne, Anne Manning-Martin and Tom Gould — picking their way through the third and second floors, which have been evacuated due to cracks in the roof supports.
The roof has been secured, Holden explained, but more work needs to be done as it remains open.
“Even with the mess,” said Athas, “I’m impressed. It’s an old building but it’s something to be proud of. ... It’s good to see where the money is going.”
Athas had posed some of the sharpest questions to Holden at last week’s meeting of the finance subcommittee. He conceded that his visit, which included a stop in the elaborate 19th century Sutton Room, had helped him to understand the library request and would likely impact his vote.
At the same time, some of the more skeptical members failed to appear, including councilors Jim Liacos and Rico Mello. Liacos had noted that $3.1 million was spent on heating and air conditioning repairs only a few years ago. A leak in the roof brought on by heavy snow in 2011 resulted in an insurance check of roughly $500,000 that was spent on the aforementioned roof repair.
Moreover, Holden cannot rule out still more requests for funds in the future, noting that the slate roof has stood for a century and the elevator may need fixing.
Liacos called the library “just a money pit,” and Mello questioned whether libraries in general have a future in the computer age.
Holden noted that councilors Bob Driscoll and Dave Gravel had made visits to the library previously. “I had hoped to have more councilors here tonight,” she said. Other members are urged to come at some other time.
“The offer is on the table,” Holden said. “Even if they end up voting against it I prefer to have them come here.”
Built in 1852 thanks to a donation from the city’s favorite son, George Peabody, the library is considered one of the Peabody’s most beautiful buildings. But Holden went from floor to floor showing its shortcomings, including leaky windows and poor air circulation. Ironically, some of those problems are worse in the library’s addition, built in the 1970s.
Also of concern is the humidity in the Sutton Room, the grand heart of the building, with ornate moldings and a parquet floor added in 1905. An earlier effort to preserve these features by establishing climate control in the room failed to achieve its aim and more work is needed.
“We didn’t get what we expected here,” Holden lamented.
The size of the investment makes it mandatory under federal law that the library will have to spend an additional and substantial sum bringing it up to Americans with Disability Act standards. Holden pointed out that disabled patrons do complain about difficulties entering the building.
“We shouldn’t be worried about being mandated to meet those standards,” said Manning-Martin.
“It’s a good amount of money,” conceded Osborne, “but it’s money well spent.”
The council has voted in favor of advertising the work, but with the proviso that the request could be cut or eliminated.
The finance subcommittee is scheduled to take up the request at a meeting on Thursday.