BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The Peabody Essex Museum is approaching a routine ditch digging with the care reserved for a piece of Chinese export ceramics.
The job is straightforward enough: Dig a ditch between two buildings to lay underground utility cables, one of the early stages of the $200 million museum expansion scheduled to be completed by 2017.
But the construction path is problematic: It runs near Yin Yu Tang, the 200-year-old Chinese house that was the centerpiece of an earlier expansion and remains one the museum’s most popular attractions.
To make sure all goes well, the PEM is erecting a virtual plywood wall to protect the delicate exterior of the Chinese house. There will be a layer of insulation between the plywood and the house.
“The plywood doesn’t even touch the building,” said April Swieconek, director of public relations at the museum.
The PEM is even asking its contractor to take extra care with the ditch.
“They actually have to dig the trench the old-fashioned way ... by hand,” Swieconek said. “It’s the only (antique Chinese house) on this side of the world. There’s nothing else like it so they’re taking extra special care with it.”
Built around 1800, the house has 16 rooms and two fish ponds and was home to eight generations of a Chinese family. It was moved here as part of the 2003 expansion and reassembled on-site by Chinese craftsmen.
Although visitors enter the house from inside the museum, the exterior sits along Charter Street, a narrow roadway that runs behind the museum, from Central Street to Hawthorne Boulevard.
In another precaution, the Chinese paver stones at the house will be lifted by hand and numbered.
“When they’re put back, they’ll be put back in the exact same location,” Swieconek said.
The museum sent out a notice a few days ago announcing the project and plans to cut down two trees next to the Chinese house. Earlier plans to cut down trees on the Essex Street pedestrian mall sparked protests from a few local residents.
National Grid recently informed the museum that this work required more excavation than expected, according to the PEM statement.
“We regret having to remove these two trees from our property, but the work cannot proceed without this step. Whenever possible, we try to avoid alterations of green space in the downtown area and will continue to look for locations to do replanting wherever appropriate and feasible.”
During this utility work, which began yesterday, Charter Street will remain open. The Chinese house exhibit also will not be affected, an official said.
The painstaking project is scheduled to be completed by March. Swieconek said construction crews are proceeding deliberately because of the importance and delicate nature of the Chinese house.
“It’s our jewel,” she said, “so we’re being cautious.”