Connected \\ September 25, 2019

Building for the future

While his name is not engraved on any official shiny building wall plaques, my father contributed to the growth of many of Boston’s most significant cultural institutions — New England Aquarium, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Athenaeum, Harvard University, to name a few.

For 35 years, Tom Flynn worked as a union pipefitter for Boston Local #537, helping to install the systems that carry the steam, air and gas used for heating and air conditioning. For the past two years whenever I walked by the construction crews in hard hats building PEM’s new wing, I thought of my father and how hard he worked, and perhaps how I should have acknowledged that more often.

Today I like to show my two daughters the many buildings around Boston that Papa worked on. A few years ago, we surprised my parents with a two-night stay at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf, right next door to the New England Aquarium. Upon hearing of my father’s work history, a kind staff member offered to give this “special guest” a private behind-the-scenes tour. He even took a photo. In it my 83-year-old dad is beaming.


Tom and Alice Flynn

Tom and Alice Flynn after their New England Aquarium private tour. Courtesy photo.


Construction workers don’t need a long resume to tout their accomplishments. They can just point. As the Peabody Essex Museum prepares to unveil our 40,000-square-foot new wing this weekend, we want to take a moment to recognize the contributions of the hard-working members of the Turner Construction team. None of this would be possible without them.

Last month Brian Kennedy, PEM’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, and Robert Monk, Chief of Facilities, Security Operations and Planning, invited the construction and design teams to return to the museum for a special appreciation night, with drinks, hors d’oeuvres and the opportunity to see the new space.

“We thought it was appropriate that they be the first people to see the new wing before it opens,” says Monk. “The work they did is truly appreciated. It does help make PEM what it is. These guys were out there in sub-zero temperatures and sweltering heat. It’s not easy. What they have accomplished here is going to impact a lot of people’s lives.”

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

Norris Gibson Turner Union Carpenter

Here, we introduce some key members of the construction team.

Norris Gibson
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


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.”

Joe O’Neil Union Carpenter Steward


Joe O’Neil
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.”

Michael Weatherwax  Turner Senior Project Manager


Michael Weatherwax
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.”


Michael Pitts  Turner Union Labor Foreman


Michael Pitts
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.”


Jeff Williams Sweeney Drywall Co. Superintendent  and Union Carpenter


Jeff Williams
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.”

grid of images new pem building

TOP, ABOVE AND ALL PORTRAIT IMAGES: © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.


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