Connected \\ September 25, 2019
Building for the future
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.
Here, we introduce some key members of the construction team.
Turner Union Carpenter
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island country in the Caribbean, Norris Gibson said he got some good advice from a friend on how to deal with working outside in New England winters. “He told me, ‘When it’s cold, you have to think warm,’ so that’s what I do.”
On the PEM project, Gibson focused on safety and protection measures, installing railings, temporary walls and stairs to support construction work. “Every day is different. All of the variety is a challenge and keeps me on my toes,” he says.
He previously worked at the museum alongside the carpenters who came from China to relocate the Yin Yu Tang House to Salem. “Some of their tools were a little different, but we all got along great,” he says.
A competitive soccer player and coach, Gibson said the sport keeps him in good physical shape and helps him learn to work effectively with a variety of personalities. “You learn how to be diplomatic,” he says, “which is important on any job.”
William (Billy) Samson
Turner Union Laborer and
Local Union Steward
Anyone who works in Salem tends to mark how long they have been on the job by a similar milestone. “I’ve now been through three Halloweens here,” says William (Billy) Samson.
As a laborer, he does “whatever has to be done.” That might be driving the forklift to deliver materials from one side of the job to the other, or surveying the space to make sure the museum operations were not negatively impacted by the construction.
While he takes great pride in his work, Samson says his greatest satisfaction comes from watching his two children succeed in their chosen fields: one is a nuclear engineer and the other is an environmental engineer.
“I always say to myself, ‘I’m doing jackhammer work and my two kids are sitting behind an office desk,” says Samson. “My friends say, ‘You did the right thing.’ I like to think so.”
Union Carpenter Steward
Some 40 years ago, Joe O’Neil remembers taking a class field trip to the Peabody Essex Museum. “This place has always been a part of our life,” he says. A longtime Salem resident who now resides in Beverly, O’Neil worked on the museum expansion in 1992 and was pleased to return to play a role in the new addition 25 years later.
As the union steward, he is the “eyes of the union hall” on site and supervises the carpenters, making sure “everyone is happy.” Now 57, he said he has learned in life that it’s more important to pick your battles than to always be right.
During his career, O’Neil has helped build Salem’s Bowditch School, Danvers High School and the new Department of Youth Services facility in Middleton, to name a few. “I don’t think I have ever had a regret about being a carpenter,” he says. “I have been lucky.”
Turner Senior Project Manager
From September 2017 to June of 2019, Michael Weatherwax oversaw a changing crew of 400 workers, who collectively spent 164,000 hours working at the museum. Tradespeople on site included electricians, painters, plasterers, carpenters, laborers, sheet metal workers, pipefitters, plumbers, masons, roofers, iron workers, glazers, insulators, sprinkle fitters and elevator mechanics.
Weatherwax worked closely with Monk and the team from Ennead Architects to make sure what was conceived for the space became a reality. His job required simultaneously paying attention to minute details and the big picture.
He said a museum project tends to be a more collaborative endeavor than the construction of an office building. “It’s not all about the drive to finish. The space you work in is just as important as the schedule and the budget, and, as a result, the relationships with everyone are more important,” he says.
The construction industry, Weatherwax says, has changed quite a bit. “Completing a project isn’t the only thing; we want to make sure the owners and team enjoy the ride along the way,” he says. “We leave here feeling good about what has happened.”
Turner Union Labor Foreman
Michael Pitts has quite literally helped the Peabody Essex Museum grow up. He was on site from 2002-2003, 2007-2008, and, most recently, from 2016-2019. He was one of the first to arrive on the most recent job and one of the last to leave.
“No day is ever the same, which I really like,” says Pitts. “I tell the younger guys, ‘If you don’t like what you are doing, don’t worry. It will change.’”
He praised the friendliness and professionalism of the security and facilities staff. The city of Salem, he also noted, is a fun place to work. Despite all his time here, Pitts said he has never come inside the museum as a regular visitor, but has made plans with family members to return this fall.
With the new wing set to open, Pitts said he feels proud he’s responsible for “just a little piece of it.” He jokes that it’s yet another building that he can point out to his wife and note his role in helping to build it. “I do that all the time,” he says. “She gets sick of having to listen to me.”
Sweeney Drywall Co. Superintendent
and Union Carpenter
Jeff Williams found the PEM job challenging in a very rewarding way. He worked for 15 months alongside electricians, masons, plumbers and laborers, among others, to build out the galleries, the new atrium and garden. “People will see the water fountain and won’t have any idea how many trades were involved with just this one feature,” he says. “It was all very complicated.”
He praised the PEM staff and architect design team for their vision for the space, which he felt grateful to help execute. This new wing is a project, Williams said, anyone would love to have on his or her resume.
“I have been in the business for 40 years and I could definitely put this as one of my highlights,” says Williams. “I think it’s a beautiful project myself. We built something unique that you know people from all over the world are going to enjoy for many years to come. That feels good.”