SALEM — The Peabody Essex Museum is moving forward on its $49 million expansion, but work on another project next door is quietly rolling along as well.

Over the last few decades, the museum has acquired three properties from 173 to 181 Essex St., located immediately next to the museum’s Asian Garden.

PEM bought the two closest buildings, 173 and 179 Essex St., in 2012 and 2013 respectively, according to Bob Monk, the museum’s director of facilities. The third building, 181 Essex St., was bought in the mid-1980s.

“Those were purchases of opportunity. The owners of the buildings approached us when they learned about our plans for expansion in the area of the Asian Garden,” he said, noting that originally the expansion was intended to be larger than what is underway now.

The museum expansion today involves building a three-story wing and new garden space next to the East India Marine Hall on Essex Street. As that project takes shape, work on the three buildings also has begun.

“Those buildings are in pretty poor shape,” Monk said, “and we’re taking the opportunity to make the infrastructure improvements they require. That includes structural reinforcement, new mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems.”

Tenants of the buildings are in the process of relocating so the work can be completed. Turtle Alley Chocolates is relocating to Derby Street, Monk said. Witch Tee’s, located at 173 Essex St. for about five years, will move into No. 181 when it’s ready, as will the Salem Consortium of Arts and Musicians.

Essex Street dream

For Joan Brennan, owner of Witch Tee’s, the building improvements will outweigh any temporary inconvenience. 

A Salem High School and Salem State College graduate, Brennan remembers when Essex Street was a booming shopping district, before the advent of malls.

“You had Empire Clothing Store, Almy’s. (Essex Street) was the shopping mecca in the old days,” she said.

As Brennan grew up, she envisioned owning a business on Essex Street. Her first venture more than 20 years ago put her effectively across the street, in the Museum Place Mall. But her dream was realized five years ago when she opened a second shop on the Essex Street pedestrian mall.

“As long as I’m on Essex Street, I’m happy,” she said. “The museum has treated me very well, and I’m looking forward to my new location.”

Brennan anticipates her shop will reopen sometime this winter.

The museum plans to put offices on the second and third floors of each building, but no tenants have been lined up yet. The spaces will not be finished until there are tenants.

The process involves “taking the buildings down to shell space and installing infrastructure,” Monk said. “That’s how you leave a building until you have a specific plan and requirement for it.”

There’s no firm timetable for completion. “It’ll be at least a year before we’re ready to get permanent inhabitants back in there,” he said. 

The museum could eventually end up using the second and third floors, Monk said, but retail is the focus for the first floor of each building.

“We’ve made a commitment to the city — and we intend to live up to that commitment — that the first-floor storefronts will always be available for retail operations,” he said. “If the museum does, at some point in time, locate museum administrative offices there, it’ll be on the second and third floors.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523, or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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