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Salem Inn retools its 19th-century buildings for a green future

“It’s our responsibility to save the planet," said Dick Pabich, who owns the Salem Inn with his wife, Diane.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

When future guests come to stay at the Salem Inn, they will be able to experience not only a taste of the city’s rich history but a connection to a contemporary global issue.

The 40-room boutique hotel is in the final stages of a project aimed at eliminating or significantly reducing the use of fossil fuels at the three 19th-century buildings that make up the downtown business.

Begun in December and set for completion in April, the $442,000 project involves replacing the inn’s four existing natural gas and oil furnaces with high-efficiency heat pumps, and installing rooftop solar panels, according to the inn’s owners, Dick and Diane Pabich.

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The couple, who opened the inn in 1983, said they are undertaking the energy retrofit as one way to contribute to the fight against global climate change.

“We just want to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Dick Pabich, adding that he hopes other businesses will be inspired to do the same. “It’s our responsibility to save the planet. That’s the way I feel about it.”

Pabich said the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only strengthened his belief in the importance of reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Russian President Vladimir Putin “can do all the heinous things he is doing because he controls all the gas and oil in Russia. Eliminate gas and oil and you eliminate a dictator.”

Dick and Diane Pabich, who are 81 and 80 years old, respectively, said their interest in climate change flows from a lifelong appreciation for the natural environment.

“We’ve always lived near the ocean,” said Dick Pabich, including in past homes in Beverly and Marblehead, and currently on Salem’s Winter Island, “and we try to be good caretakers of the environment.” Two of the couple’s three children have advanced environmental degrees, one of whom — David Pabich — runs a local real estate business co-owned by his parents focused on restoring old residential and commercial buildings.

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“Looking out at Salem Sound from our home we can see the sea rise,” Dick Pabich said. “We’ve been here 25 years and we’ve noticed the sea level getting higher. We now have waves crashing up on our lawn.”

The Peabody House is one of three 19th-century buildings that make up the Salem Inn.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

City officials said the Salem Inn project helps advance Salem’s 2021 Climate Action Plan, which calls for the city to exceed the state’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. As part of that plan, the city last year created a Sustainability Department to help community members carry out green-oriented upgrades to their properties.

“There can be a lot of challenges to these kinds of projects,” said Esmeralda Bisono, Salem’s sustainability and resiliency manager, citing high upfront costs and — in the case of historic buildings — potential permitting hurdles. But she said her office tries to educate property owners about available incentives that can defray costs.

“Having an historic property like the Salem Inn offers a really important case study,” Bisono said. “We would like to work with them to see how they can provide insight and inspiration to other Salem businesses.”

“I applaud the Pabichs for these sensible and important investments in their properties, and I encourage other Salem businesses and homeowners to reach out to our new Sustainability Department to find out how they can do the same,” Mayor Kimberly Driscoll said in e-mailed comments.

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The project includes replacing the inn’s existing natural gas and oil furnaces with high-efficiency heat pumps. The new unit pictured on the top of the wall in this guest room in the Peabody House is replacing the old-fashioned radiator on the floor, according to inn owner Dick Pabich.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“Almost 55 percent of Salem’s greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings, especially because so much of our building stock — both residential and commercial — is older. Working together, we can invest in and support efforts to remedy this and help curb our local contributions to the climate crisis,” Driscoll added.

In addition to owning and operating the Salem Inn, the Pabichs have been active in real estate over the years, including purchasing a waterfront home in Marblehead that they turned into the Spray Cliff On the Ocean bed and breakfast (they have since sold the property and the business).

The Salem Inn started with one building — the 1834 West House, a three-town house structure on Summer Street. It expanded in 1990 to include the 1854 Curwen House, an Italianate Revival located nearby on Essex Street, and in 1993 to include the 1874 Peabody House, a single-family Dutch Colonial home two doors down from the West House.

The West House is one of three 19th-century buildings that make up the Salem Inn. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The inn combines historic features ― including old-style furnishings, working fireplaces, and room names that connect with the city’s past — with such modern amenities as complimentary Wi-Fi and, in some rooms, jacuzzi tubs.

The energy project has involved removing a gas furnace from each of the three buildings and an additional oil furnace from the West House. They are being replaced by heat pumps in the three buildings, which together total 22,354 square feet. The electric pumps heat and cools homes by moving air between indoor and outdoor spaces, which causes a transfer of thermal energy.

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Solar panels are being installed atop the West and the Peabody houses, and solar batteries are being added to store the energy.

The Pabichs estimate the arrays — and newly installed solar panels on their own home — will supply most or all of the power needed to run the heat pumps and the inn’s other electrical devices. The couple plans to sell surplus power from its home solar array to the grid, to be credited toward the inn.

The heat pump system cost the inn $246,700. The net cost of the solar panels on the two inn roofs and their own home — taking into account federal tax credits the project received — was $160,631, with an additional $35,000 for the batteries. The couple expects that through energy savings, the inn should recoup its investment within roughly 10 years.

The rooms at the Salem Inn are heated and cooled with high-efficiency pumps. Each unit pictured outside the front door of the West House connects to an individual guest room inside. Eventually these units will be hidden from view from the street with a lattice covering. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Since the Curwen House is in the McIntyre Historic District, Dick Pabich said the inn did not seek solar panels for that building, anticipating that the city’s Historical Commission — which must approve changes to building exteriors in Salem’s local historic districts — might object.

Patricia Kelleher, Salem’s preservation planner, said solar panels are not prohibited in the city’s local historic districts, but are reviewed by the commission on a case-by-case basis.

“They look at the visibility of the panels, are there opportunities to place them in locations where they are not visible from a public way, or to design them in ways that limits their visibility and impact on the historical character of the building,” Kelleher said.

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Kelleher said that without seeing a plan, she could not comment on whether the commission would have approved placing solar panels on the Curwen House.

With that hurdle avoided, project permitting has been relatively smooth, Pabich said, though design details of the solar panel systems for the Summer Street buildings are still undergoing city review since the properties are in Salem’s urban renewal district. Pabich noted that the heat pumps installed outside the inn’s buildings are largely hidden by fencing.

While he hopes other hospitality businesses will consider similar retrofits, Dick Pabich said it may not be feasible for all to do so, noting that factors such as a building’s sun exposure, for instance, can determine if a solar array is practical.

Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem — a nonprofit that does tourist marketing for the city — said the Salem Inn project “presents an exciting opportunity for businesses in the hospitality and tourism industry to rethink their reliance on fossil fuels.

“Bringing science and innovation to the inn is such a smart idea and incredibly relevant in light of current events, ‘’ she said, referring to the Ukraine war.

Fox said the project also is “going to be a really great selling point for the Salem Inn going forward. Green tourism is a growing segment of the tourism industry.”

The Pabichs also expect the project will help the inn attract visitors.

“I’m very excited about the project both because of the environmental benefits but also from the point of view of marketing,” Diane Pabich said. “I think environmentally-conscious people will love it.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

One of the new high-efficient heating and cooling system units is pictured on the top of a wall in the lobby of the West House at the Salem Inn. Jim Davis/Globe Staff