SALEM — Peabody Essex Museum has committed to keeping some Phillips Library archives in Salem and putting part of the collection on exhibit in a new gallery.

But opponents to the museum's plans to move the rest of the materials to a storage facility in Rowley have called for state intervention.  

Wellesley-based attorneys Eric Reustle and Tom Harrington, representing Hawthorne Hotel owner Michael Harrington (no relation), have filed a request with the Attorney General's Office calling for an investigation into whether the Phillips Library materials should be kept in Salem based on "donative intent."

"We believe that certain collections of books, papers and articles ... have been removed from the City of Salem, despite the fact that these materials were donated on condition that the corporation's collections be kept in the City of Salem," an introductory letter reads.

The Attorney General's Office, among other things, oversees nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts.

"The Attorney General has authority under state law to oversee and investigate the due application of charitable funds, to ensure they're being put to the purposes of which they were given," Reustle said in an interview. "This is a request to the Attorney General to exercise the authority with respect to Peabody Essex."

Michael Harrington said he owes his livelihood and legacy to the history in Salem and wants to see the Phillips Library kept local instead of split in two.

"A bifurcation, I say, is not an idea I developed an enthusiasm for," he said. "Keep it not only in Salem, but allocate resources so this doesn't become an obscure entity."

The filing quotes the legislation that created the Essex Historical Society in 1821, which states a "library and cabinet of the said corporation, shall be kept in the Town of Salem." The Legislature made the same requirement in 1848, when the Essex Institute was formed. 

Peabody Essex Museum was formed in 1992, in part through the consolidation of the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem. 

"It seems clear that the Essex Institute received donations upon the conditions set forth in its statutory charter," the filing concludes. "Because PEM acquired the Essex Institute collections subject to this condition, we believe that the Essex Institute collections should be returned to the (city of) Salem."

The next steps, Reustle said, depend on the Attorney General's office.

"They're not bound to launch an investigation just because they received a letter from us," he said. "They'll look at the letter and see if it has merit, and if we do, they'll reach out to Peabody Essex."

Jay Finney, chief marketing officer for Peabody Essex, said the museum doesn't believe there's "any merit" to the challenge. 

"We have spoken to the Attorney General's office as well, had conversations about that," Finney said. "There's a lot of history on the organization, what it was then, and we don't believe that (the filing) has any bearing."

Some materials to stay

In the meantime, the museum is developing its plans for what parts of the library will return to Salem.

Peabody Essex first announced its plans to move the library collection to a facility in Rowley late last year. The announcement came as a shock to many and triggered fierce local opposition. It also spurred the creation of a working group, made up of historical partners and city officials, to find a way to keep part of the library's history in Salem. 

After its meeting April 23, the working group crafted a statement on its progress. 

First, the statement reiterates the museum's position that the collection "cannot return to Salem in whole at its former location." As a result, Peabody Essex will pay for a voucher program to help Salem residents get transportation to the collection center in Rowley.

Plummer Hall, one of two historic homes making up the Phillips Library campus on Essex Street, will also be accessible during regular museum hours. "A set of materials" from the library's collection will be available there, and workstations to access digitized materials will be available. Online access to materials will be free for Salem residents.

A "Salem history exhibition/experience" will also be set up in Plummer Hall, using part of the library's collection to showcase the city's role in transforming America "from a remote and young nation into a global presence during the late 18th and early 19th centuries," the statement read.

Finney said the working group plans to meet again, although a date is not yet set. 

There's one major hurdle to clear before the museum can go forward with its promises, Finney said: a windowless "stacks" building on the property, once serving as library storage but no longer code compliant, needs to come down. The building was constructed in the 1960s and is on the back of the library's other historic home, Daland House.

The Historical Commission was close to voting on the issue on May 2 — three of six voting members signaled plans to support the request — but the vote was delayed to the commission's next meeting on May 16 so members could digest newly presented information.

"The key to allowing public access to the building and reading room and Plummer Hall, and the second floor where this exhibition will be, is to be able to take down the stacks," Finney said. "That allows us to make the building up to code and habitable."

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.