Sweeping change for the Gardner

Museum to present design for its $118m wing today

Director Anne Hawley and director of operations Jim Labeck with a model of the wing (center) now under construction at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The structure “relieves a lot of stress on the historic building,’’ Labeck said. Director Anne Hawley and director of operations Jim Labeck with a model of the wing (center) now under construction at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The structure “relieves a lot of stress on the historic building,’’ Labeck said. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

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This morning, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will unveil the design for an ambitious $118 million expansion created by Italian architect Renzo Piano, a new glass and copper-clad wing that will fundamentally change the way visitors experience the museum.

The project, expected to be completed in early 2012, will more than double the size of the museum, creating a new entrance, music hall, gallery space, and other facilities for an institution largely unaltered since its opening in 1903.

Gardner’s original Venetian-style palazzo will remain almost untouched as the wing connects to the existing museum through a glass passageway. A new four-story building will host the gift shop, cafe, and coat check, which are now in cramped quarters. A new 296-seat music hall will allow the Gardner to stop holding concerts in its delicate, often overcrowded tapestry room. A soaring gallery for temporary shows, a visitors’ “living room,’’ offices, and conservation and education facilities will round out the building. A smaller second structure will host greenhouses and apartments for artists-in-residence.

The new wing will add 70,000 square feet to the museum’s current 60,000 square feet. Construction is already underway on the wing, which is located in part on the grounds of Gardner’s former Carriage House, destroyed in July amid controversy over the terms of Gardner’s will and the Carriage House’s historic significance.

The project is part of an unprecedented local museum building boom, with the Institute of Contemporary Art opening its new waterfront home in 2006, the Museum of Fine Arts set to open a massive new wing later this year, and the Harvard Art Museum aiming to open its renovated Cambridge complex in 2013.

In an interview, Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley praised the way Piano’s design complements the current museum. The new main building will be 11 feet shorter than the palazzo, and its glass-walled first floor will afford visitors a see-through view of the site.

“It’s possible to wander up to the music hall and hear music, wander into a gallery and see an art project,’’ Hawley said.

The new wing was created out of necessity, the museum emphasized. In the Gardner’s early days, about 2,000 people a year visited. Today, annual attendance hovers around 200,000.

“It relieves a lot of stress on the historic building,’’ said Jim Labeck, the Gardner’s director of operations. “That’s really its most important function. It provides the space the museum has really needed for 10 years so its programming can really blossom.’’

Visitors now enter the museum via the Fenway. The new entrance will be around the corner on Evans Way, through a low-slung glass structure. Museumgoers will walk through the new wing into a glass corridor shaded by trees, entering a section of the palace now occupied by the gift shop. From there, visitors will enter the Gardner’s central courtyard through a new opening in the East Cloister. To accommodate the entrance, a sarcophagus will be moved a few feet away.

“It’s the opposite side you enter, but there is the same sense of discovery,’’ said Piano by phone.

The new cafe will be nearly three times the size of the current one, and the gallery will provide four times the current space for contemporary art and changing exhibitions. The music hall will surround performers on all sides by seats, including three balconies with seats just one row deep.

The Gardner announced its expansion plans in 2004. That year it hired the world-renowned Piano, winner of the Pritzker Prize for architecture. Bill Egan, a museum trustee who chaired the Gardner’s building committee, said Piano’s design respects the existing museum.

“The whole goal here was to make sure that we didn’t change the experience of the palace, and only enhance that,’’ said Egan. “I think we’re going to have one of the great small concert halls in the world, but you know what? We’re not going to have as many seats as [music director] Scott Nickrenz would have liked because the size was basically controlled by how big Renzo felt it could be as compared to the palace.’’

Piano said he’s most pleased with the new building’s transparency. “The sense of lightness is a fundamental element,’’ he said. “The new building will be more visible, more accessible, more understandable from the outside.’’

The total cost of the project is $118 million, and the Gardner aims to raise an additional $40 million-plus in endowment to support it. It is looking to raise $20 million more for other preservation projects not related to the new wing.

While the MFA and ICA held successful fund-raising campaigns during the economic boom, the Gardner struggled to complete its fund-raising during a recession. Museum trustees extended Hawley’s deadline for raising $100 million from last January to last May. She hit that target. The Calderwood Charitable Foundation gave more than $10 million. The music hall will be named in honor of Norma Jean and Stanford Calderwood.

The recession also meant that construction costs fell dramatically during the last two years. “There was tremendous pressure on all of us because our building people were saying you really need to get under contract in this environment because you’ll get a much better price,’’ said Hawley.

The Gardner’s leaders were so eager to start building, they didn’t bother holding a ground-breaking ceremony. In July, the museum began drilling energy-reducing geothermal wells to help the project earn an LEED certification. The foundation has also been poured.

Patricia Jacoby, the MFA’s deputy director, said she was impressed by the museum’s ability to start work during a recession.

“They had to make a case for scarcer resources than we did,’’ said Jacoby. “They were rather smart to put a hole in the ground. That just reinforces there is a vision, there is a specific need, and they are not going to let the world hold them back.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at