Gardner museum expansion approved

Vote means 1907 carriage house will be torn down

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 19, 2009
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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's trustees voted unanimously yesterday to proceed with a new building designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano - a plan that has stirred up opponents who want a carriage house at the back of the museum preserved.

The purpose of the construction project is to relieve pressure on the existing building, which houses a shop, a cafe, performance space, and offices. The plan calls for demolition of the carriage house, erected by Gardner in 1907. The museum building opened in 1903.

It became a focal point of debate last week, when several staff members and experts associated with the museum suggested it may have been more central to Isabella Stewart Gardner's vision than the museum's leadership had realized or acknowledged.

They cited a recent essay by Robert Colby, a former curatorial fellow at the museum with a PhD in Renaissance art history from London's Courtauld Art Institute.

The Gardner museum's director, Anne Hawley, said Colby's essay, which built on research published by former director Rollin Hadley in 1978, contained nothing new. But Trevor Fairbrother, a freelance curator and former staffer at the Museum of Fine Arts, wrote in a letter obtained by the Globe that Colby's findings "make it certain that the Carriage House . . . constituted a key element in the founder's vision of Fenway Court . . . "

If officials who approved the construction project had seen the information in Colby's essay, they probably would have preserved the carriage house, he wrote.

One of the regulatory authorities, the Boston Landmarks Commission, said on Friday that it was reviewing Colby's findings. Last night, the commission could not be contacted. No one at the museum was available for comment. A statement from the museum said the board recognized the museum had met "a critical internal benchmark in its capital fund-raising." It said the vote marked "the final formal approval the museum needs."

"This project is first and foremost about preserving the palace and the collection," John Lowell Gardner, chairman of the Board of Trustees and great grand-nephew of Isabella Gardner, said in a prepared statement. " . . . This project is a harmonious marriage of preservation and progress."

The museum has not disclosed the project's cost, but it has been reported to be in excess of $100 million.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at