SALEM — The Peabody Essex Museum recently punched several holes in a newer portion of the Phillips Library building to determine whether it contains asbestos or other hazardous materials. Museum officials say it's a normal procedure undertaken before any construction project.

Some of those fighting to keep the Phillips Library in Salem disagree, however.

The Historical Commission will dig into the holes at its meeting Wednesday night, when it will discuss the damage as part of a "violation notices" agenda item. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. and will be held in the third floor of the City Hall annex, 120 Washington St.

The museum's action came as it pursues a controversial plan to move most of the Phillips Library's materials to a storage facility in Rowley and to renovate the library's historic building on Essex Street. The museum has said it would maintain public access in part of the building, along with select materials from the library's collection of historic documents.

Most of the downtown building would be used for museum offices. A 1966 addition to the building, referred to as the stacks and originally used for library storage, would be demolished.

The roughly a dozen holes involve bricks punched out of the stacks' outer wall, and asbestos was found in every case, according to Bob Monk, the museum's building director.

"Prior to any construction project, you have to do a hazardous materials assessment," Monk said. "You're required to look for things like asbestos, PCBs, those sorts of things."

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, and asbestos are commonly found when doing projects downtown. The state Department of Environmental Protection regulates the process of handling and removing such hazardous materials. 

"You have to know, going in, what you're dealing with," Monk said. "This has to be done one way or the other. It would be part of the process whether we move ahead or not. We need to know."

'Defacing' building

Jessica Herbert, chairwoman of the Salem Historical Commission, objects to the work taking place. She discovered the holes while visiting the site last week. Her husband, whom she describes as "a construction guru," told her the holes were evidence of a search for asbestos.

"I said, 'Why are they worried about asbestos when they aren't taking the building down?'" Herbert said. "I'm trying to build trust between them and the public, and what they do is they start punching holes in a national historic building, right in time for us to have a public site visit to look at it."

That site visit took place Saturday morning, with about 40 people attending as museum officials walked the Historical Commission through its plans.

The stacks building itself isn't historic, but its connection to Daland House and Plummer Hall — two historic buildings that make up most of the Phillips Library structure — grants it historic protection, according to Herbert.

"It doesn't matter that there have been later additions," Herbert said. "It's the building as a whole. Does the museum think it's OK to deface a national, historically registered building?"

Herbert said the city's bylaws allow the Historical Commission to assess fines of $500 a day for violations that are not corrected. 

Monk, on the other hand, said the museum was within its legal right to do the work.

"We didn't do anything that isn't reversible," Monk said. "It's the type of thing that you'd normally do in preparation for any type of construction project, so you can learn what's feasible and what isn't.

"Unfortunately, approaching it from the exterior in the stacks building was the only place we could do that," Monk continued. "If the project doesn't go forward for any reason, it's very easily reversible."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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