Renzo Piano Preserves Isabella Stewart Gardner's Vision at Her Museum

In January 2012, the Fenway’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum reopened after a major preservation and building project designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Story originally published in July 2012.

Enter the palace though a tunnel between the stairs—so very fanciful a concept it could be taken from the pages of a fairy tale. Constructed entirely of glass panels overlooking a small forest of trees and garden beds, the bright corridor seemingly leads into a dark abyss, but as you grow near to the end of the hallway, the eyes adjust and vision clears. No, you haven’t taken a shortcut through time and space to 15th-century Venice, Italy, you’ve merely stepped across the threshold of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, from its sparklingly modern new wing into the magical, dimly lit, brick East cloister of the institution’s original 110-year-old building.

In January 2012, the Fenway’s genial Gardner Museum reopened to the public after a major preservation and building project designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano. The addition of Piano’s new, modern wing marks the first major move of its kind for the museum since Gardner’s death in 1924. And that’s because museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner put a clause in her will that the museum remain to her schema and that the permanent collection not be significantly altered.

The wealthy Bostonian loved art and traveled the world during the mid-19th century amassing a 2,500-piece collection of furniture, sculpture and work by masters, among them Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Botticelli and Degas. She built her home around her private collection, arranging it intimately in highly decorated, salon-style galleries. Early visitors might have stumbled across artists at work, as did those in 1903, when Gardner allowed John Singer Sargent to use the Gothic Room as his studio. The place was personal and welcoming, as it remains today.

So, for an institution that has made it its mission to stay true to Gardner’s vision, why change now? A glance at the museum’s former entranceway shows off patch-worked red floor tile, worn beyond repair by decades of visitors, and it is apparent just how necessary this preservation project has been.

The Gardner Museum buildings, where old meets new (©Steve Dunwell)
The Gardner Museum buildings, where old meets new (©Steve Dunwell)

For starters, museum attendance runs at 200,000 annually—that’s an increase of nearly 10,000 percent since Gardner presided over Fenway Court.

Secondly, by moving the museum’s popular music program, scholarly pursuits and conservation efforts into a new space, the museum can continue to preserve the original building and Gardner’s legacy. Museum director Anne Hawley says, “Isabella Gardner’s Palace, with its treasured collection and inimitable installations, its verdant courtyard and mesmerizing corridors, will always be the focus of the museum, but it could only remain so with the construction of a companion building ... [that] frees up the historic building to fulfill its historic purpose.” Piano’s modern construction is the museum at work, whereas the Palace is the inspiration.

The Gardner’s new lobby overlooks Evans Way Park, an offshoot of the Emerald Necklace that will endure as parkland. Landscaping was added in front of the new entrance. Piano uses lots of brick and pre-aged copper (giving a green hue) to tie it in with existing Boston architecture.

Hawley selected Piano—known for his work on Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou and Houston’s Menil Collection—because of his talent for integrating old and new building fabric, and also because “he encapsulates the extraordinary combination of architect, artist and builder, which is what contributes to his amazing capacity to envision great buildings and make them work.”

Just past the new lobby, The Living Room exemplifies Gardner’s appeal to a more personal experience. The orientation space is a resting spot for patrons to relax on couches and watch live songbirds chirping in antique birdcages. Flat-screen TVs show the history of the museum’s buildings, gardens and founder. And, for patrons to readily peruse, centrally located, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves hold books on gardening, art and other topics.

Perhaps the biggest change in the Palace is the restoration of the Tapestry Room. An 8-foot-tall, French-medieval stone fireplace cleaned of its soot and a restored Steinway piano collectively command the open room. Twelve tapestries hang down the walls, and the original Mercer tiled floor has been restored.

Back in the East Cloister, a living portrait of calla lilies, palm trees and orchids spreads before a springtime visitor. Vibrant orange nasturtiums dangle 20 feet from a second-floor balcony, while water lazily drips from the gaping mouths of sculpted fish into a wide fountain. This is at the heart of Gardner’s museum. “Gardner choreographed the visitor’s experience to enter the courtyard garden,” says Hawley. “It was intended to transport the visitor to a new place of the imagination.” Indeed, it does.

125 Evans Way, Boston, 617.566.1401