The Lady of the House

Isabella Stewart Gardner left strict orders: The palazzo she built on the Fens should never, ever change. But museum director Anne Hawley has some strong ideas of her own. Inside her radical—and risky—plan to propel the beloved institution into the 21st century.

The offices on the fourth floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have little of the grandeur of the galleries below. The top floor is instead choked with clutter, teeming with exhibition booklets and chopped up by cubicles. Reaching it requires a ride in a rickety elevator, which Gardner installed when she was building her yellow-brick palazzo on the Fens more than a century ago. The elevator rises slowly, past the museum’s second floor, with its Michelangelo and Rembrandt, and past the Titian and Botticelli on the third—past all 2,500 works of art that were arranged by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself.

For several months each year, Gardner used this space as her private apartment. She felt that a caretaker’s close attention was so important that before she died in 1924, she mandated in her will that future museum directors were to live here, as well. That dictate and others similarly designed to preserve her museum have contributed to its unique charm as a timeless place. But they’ve also been an obstacle to its management as a modern institution.

As the museum’s staff grew from 15 to more than 100 in the decades after Gardner’s death, its leadership was eventually prompted to convert the apartment to offices. The renovation was a makeshift solution to overcrowding that, in deference to her will, left certain domestic accoutrements in place. Gardner’s china is still kept in her kitchen, and a photocopier sits away from the wall in her old dining room lest it scuff the antique wallpaper. One unlucky staffer works in what used to be one of Gardner’s closets. “It’s been a little rabbit warren up here,” says Anne Hawley, the museum’s current director. “My board president says she expects someone to claim the bathtub soon.”

Hawley’s own office, in the former drawing room at the end of the hall, is decorated as it was when Gardner welcomed guests here: thick Oriental rugs, grand piano, ornate chandelier. Hawley, who is 65 and favors dark jackets accented by colorful scarves, has an expressive face and, when engaged in conversation, a way of emphasizing her point by reaching out to touch the other party’s arm or shoulder. Hired 20 years ago to shake up an institution that an uninspired board of trustees had let lapse into irrelevance and disrepair, she is widely credited with infusing the museum with a vitality that hadn’t been felt since the days of Gardner herself. And yet Hawley has also weathered enormous losses. She was on the job less than a year in 1990 when thieves talked their way past the security guards and made off with some $500 million worth of art in what remains the world’s largest art heist. Making the blow doubly devastating, the cash-strapped museum had been unable to afford theft insurance.

Since then, Hawley has orchestrated a metamorphosis, increasing attendance by 60 percent with a mix of ambitious new programs. But preservationist-minded critics say Hawley has steered the museum dangerously far from Mrs. Gardner’s vision. To them, there’s no greater cause for alarm than Hawley’s audacious new plan: a dazzling glass and steel addition designed by star architect Renzo Piano. Larger than the original museum building, the new wing will become the main entrance and will feature a performance hall, exhibit space, and a vastly expanded restaurant and gift shop, all at a price tag conservatively estimated at $60 million.

Envisioned as an antidote to the overcrowding that Hawley’s own programs have caused, the expansion is the sort of thing that makes museum directors gush with pride. Anywhere else, such plans are talked about with the same unalloyed enthusiasm that accompanied the opening of the ICA, or the construction of the new wing at the MFA now rising outside Hawley’s window. But because of the peculiarities of the Gardner, Hawley isn’t afforded that luxury. “I never thought I was going to have to build a building,” she says, a note of apology in her voice. “I didn’t want to build a building.”

Because Gardner’s will is so specific, such an addition required the approval of the state’s highest court—which, when it was granted last month, was a stinging blow to a group of neighborhood preservationists who had been trying to block the project for months. To them, it reveals a shift in values that now imperils the museum. Hawley, they say, has gotten caught up in her own ambitions and forgotten that she serves at the will of Gardner herself. “I think Anne Hawley wants a legacy other than the theft,” says Ellen Moore, who is part of the group, called the Friends of Historic Mission Hill. “Instead,” adds Mary Ann Nelson, another member, “she’s going to be the person who destroyed the Gardner.”