When Boston’s eccentric, endearing socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner first opened her Fenway Court version of a 15th-century Venetian palazzo to live in and house her precious works of fine and decorative art in January 1902, she had a seal designed bearing a phoenix and the inviting motto c’est mon plaisir (it’s my pleasure). Now, 110 years later, with a $4 million renovation and the addition of a new $14-million wing designed by Renzo Piano, Mrs. Gardner’s home is pleasing yet again.
In 1990, when thieves disguised as museum guards took off with 13 of its priceless masterpieces—including work by Degas, Rembrandt and Vermeer—the Gardner Museum became the target of sensational publicity. The heist is still unsolved.
In deference to the historic museum built by Willard T. Sears to Gardner’s specifications, the new building is set 50 feet behind the original, which rises some 11 feet above it. Piano’s geometrically spare gift-box features a first floor enclosed in glass, above which seemingly floating rectangular volumes, clad in pre-patinated copper and brick, are organized around a central double staircase. At the large new user-friendly side entrance on Evans Way, museum visitors are greeted with spectacular views of an on-site two-story sloped greenhouse and numerous boxed trees. Views of exterior gardens as well as of the historic museum help define a building designed to complement and provide a service area for what is now reverently referred to as “the Palace.”
Anne Hawley, director of the Gardner since 1989, recently told A.i.A., “the greatest argument for expanding the museum was to move inappropriately placed programs into purpose-built spaces, so that we can ensure the restoration and conservation of the historic museum spaces.” At the well-attended press opening, Hawley told a group assembled in the orchestra level of the new four-floored cube-shaped Calderwood Performance Hall that the addition is “a work of art in itself” and that “since its inception in 1999, it was never meant to compromise the Palace.” Instead, the addition was intended as “a bustling counterpoint to the serenity of the fragile Palace.”
The 296-seat performance hall, a collaboration between architect Piano and acoustician Yashuhisa Toyota, is suited for concerts, performances and lectures that were previously hosted in the sound- and light-challenged Tapestry Room on the second floor of the Palace. The Calderwood Performance Hall is a stacked block with an area of 6,000 square feet and a height of 42 feet with a central stageless floor designed to keep the public close to the performers. The fine acoustics were showcased by a rehearsal of the Gardner’s resident chamber orchestra.
Piano, noted for projects including the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the upcoming redevelopment of Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, has here created a light-infused building including a café, gift store, space for educational programs, two resident artists’ apartments, conservation labs and collection storage. A new visitor orientation area called the Living Room is currently inhabited by a pair of singing canaries in elaborate cages (a restaging of artist Lee Ming-Wei’s 2000 exhibition).
Standing three stories high, the new Special Exhibition Gallery is presently host to a show of monumental canvases by contemporary Scottish artist Victoria Morton. They could never have been accommodated in the Palace. Here, the skylight ceiling is adjustable to 12-, 24- and 36-foot heights.
A glass-enclosed narrow walkway that Piano referred to as “an umbilical cord to the object of desire” leads from the new foyer directly to the Palace’s inner atrium. Visitors are treated to a fine view of the core of the Palace, where a variety of fresh orchids, lilies and other plants are arranged among ancient sculptures.
Oliver Tostman, the recently hired curator of the collection, greeted reporters in the restored Tapestry Room, the largest exhibition space in the Palace. This 4,000-foot area was originally designed in 1914 to feature 10 massive mid-16thcentury Belgian tapestries depicting the lives of Abraham and Cyrus the Great. Replacing an original two-story music hall, the Tapestry Room had long been over-filled with chairs and a large stage for concerts and lectures. The creation of Calderwood Hall has allowed the Gardner to celebrate the return the grand hall to its original purpose. In keeping with archival photographs, the Tapestry Room has been rearranged to showcase a baby grand piano and an exquisite dining room table and chairs, which Mrs. Gardner liked to use when entertaining special guests. Furniture has been reupholstered; lighting enhanced; paintings and tapestries cleaned and restored.