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A Modern Wing for a Venetian Palace

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum transformed


When the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened in the Fenway in 1903, its namesake envisioned that her private collection of some of the world’s greatest art, housed in a 15th-century-style Venetian palace, could be enjoyed by everyone. What Gardner, one of the nation’s foremost art collectors, could not have envisioned was that her museum would annually draw 200,000 visitors anxious to see the works by Michelangelo and Rembrandt that are among its 2,500 priceless works.

By 1999, museum officials had started to plan the museum’s preservation. But complicating issues were the terms of Gardner’s will. When she died in 1924, she left a $1 million endowment for upkeep, but stipulated that the permanent collection could not be significantly altered and nothing could be sold. She even forbade moving pieces that she had carefully placed in the museum’s 22 rooms. If the will were violated in any way, the entire museum was to be ceded to Harvard University.

Space was at such a premium that offices were crammed into closets and the museum’s popular concert series had to be held in the relatively small Tapestry Room. With Gardner’s conditions in mind, museum officials decided to open a new wing, designed to take pressure off the original building and protect its masterpieces.

In January, the Gardner opened its new $114 million, 70,000-square-foot glass-and-copper building, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, winner of architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker prize, who also designed Manhattan’s New York Times headquarters and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

The new wing, 10 years in the making, is connected to the historic palace by a glass corridor and houses a visitor center, a gallery for contemporary art, a state-of-the-art performance hall, an education classroom, a gift shop, a café, a greenhouse, and two apartments for the museum’s artists-in-residence.

Among those closely involved in the new wing’s planning was James Labeck (GSM’94), the museum’s director of operations. Labeck earned an MBA, with a focus on nonprofit management and public administration and real estate finance and development, at BU.

“We asked how this new building would relate to the historic building, keeping in mind things like the scale of the new spaces in relation to the historic building, so that they were not overpowering,” Labeck says. “We wanted to provide the capacity for the museum’s programs and to serve the visitors that come every day. The idea was to do what we do, only better, and in purpose build spaces for things like education, orientation, and exhibitions.”

The original museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum houses one of the world’s most intimate, eccentric art collections. Gardner and her husband, Jack Gardner, both born to wealth, were lifelong collectors, traveling throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and amassing a remarkable collection. They decided to open a museum, but Jack Gardner died before their vision could be realized. “Mrs. Jack,” as she was known, supervised the construction of the museum, originally called Fenway Court, a four-story Venetian-style palace inspired by Italy’s 15th-century Palazzo Barbaro. It took more than two years to build the museum.

Gardner then spent a year overseeing the installation of her collection, which includes paintings, furniture, textiles, manuscripts, and rare books spanning 30 centuries. It is the only private art collection in the world whose building, collection, and installation were created by one person.

Among the museum’s most beloved treasures are Titian’s Europa (1560-1562), John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo (1882), and Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Aged 23 (1629). The rooms all fan off of a multistory courtyard, with a Roman mosaic floor (AD 117-138), filled with flowers grown at the museum. The museum’s Long Gallery houses the Long Gallery Chapel, consisting of stained glass, choir stalls, and a first-century AD Roman altar. Portraits of Gardner are interspersed throughout the museum, perhaps the most famous being Sargent’s Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888). The two were close friends, and at one point, Sargent had a studio in the museum.

The Gardner made international headlines in March 1990, when a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers stole 13 works of art valued at $500 million, among them Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) and Vermeer’s The Concert (1665), both cut from their frames. The works were never recovered, and the case remains the most famous unsolved art theft in history. The museum has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of these works.

New wing

Instead of entering the museum from the courtyard, visitors now enter through the new wing. A light-filled lobby where visitors purchase tickets has views of the gardens and greenhouses as well as of the original museum.

Off from the lobby is the Living Room, an inviting space lined with bookshelves holding art books and furnished with couches and chairs, plants, and birds (don’t worry, they are in cages). Afternoon tea is served here.

Next door is Café G, which offers indoor and outdoor seating (in warmer months) and entrees ranging from $8 to $17. The café’s desserts have already garnered accolades—the seasonal bread pudding was named “Boston’s Best Indulgence” by The Improper Bostonian. Warm cinnamon doughnuts with a champagne crème anglaise also are served, a nod to the museum’s original opening, when Mrs. Jack served champagne and doughnuts to her guests.

Perhaps most significant, the new wing provides the museum’s first exclusive performance space. The Calderwood Performance Hall is an intimate space with tiered seating for about 300 surrounding the stage. On Sunday afternoons, classical chamber music is performed there. Future shows include a sold-out tribute to Lena Horne and jazz performances. The hall is also home to the museum’s resident chamber orchestra, A Far Cry.

Contemporary art has found a home in the new wing, with exhibitions by several artists with roots in the museum’s Artist-in-Residence program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Currently showing are (TAPESTRY) RADIO ON: New Work by Victoria Morton; Portrait, photographs of the historic building and collections; and Ailanthus, a site-specific outdoor installation.

In addition to the new wing, the Gardner has completed significant restoration work to stabilize the historic palace. Curators have cleaned and restored precious artwork, including the tapestries and the French medieval stone fireplace. The skylight over the courtyard has been replaced, and a climate-control system and new lighting to protect sensitive artwork has been installed. The museum is seeking LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for the new wing. Among the structure’s sustainable design components are a geothermal well system, daylight harvesting, use of local materials, and water-efficient landscaping.

It is expected that with this, the museum’s biggest renovation to date, annual attendance will increase to 250,000 visitors a year. In short, the museum’s new wing has been designed with Gardner’s original vision in mind—that the museum be “for the education and enrichment of the public forever.”

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, Boston, is open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Tuesday. By public transportation, take the MBTA Green Line E trolley or number 39 bus to the Museum of Fine Arts stop. Cross Huntington Avenue on your right onto Louis Prang Street and walk two blocks. The museum is on the left.

Admission is $5 for BU students with a valid ID, $15 for adults, $12 for seniors (65 and older), free for visitors under 18 and for anyone named Isabella. More information can be found here or by calling 617-566-1401.

Grace Ko can be reached at graceko@bu.edu.

Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

One Comment on A Modern Wing for a Venetian Palace

  • Lisa Roderick on 03.05.2012 at 1:50 pm

    We’ll have to go sometime.

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