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.

When she was building her museum
, Isabella Stewart Gardner took pains to shield what she was doing, hiring Italian masons who didn’t speak enough English to leak stories to the press. As the project neared completion, Gardner faced a problem: She wanted to test the acoustics of her music hall, but didn’t want anyone to talk about what they’d seen. So she held a concert for a group of students from the Perkins School for the Blind.

A century later, Hawley is leading the museum through an undertaking that is even more ambitious, one that will irrevocably alter Gardner’s creation, and she and the staff have been just as careful in its unveiling. If Hawley and the board had learned anything from the public outcry over the decision to convert the fourth floor to offices, it was that many people fiercely oppose any changes to a place they consider perfect as it is.

The museum kept Piano’s designs under wraps while they evolved (the architect experimented variously with plans to, among other things, build a Venetian canal around the museum as well as place the performance hall underground). By Piano’s fifth design, the board liked what it saw, even though it would require two dramatic breaks from Gardner’s wishes: razing an adjacent outbuilding called the Carriage House, and breaking through a gallery wall in the East Cloister, which would necessitate moving an installation of 3rd- to 15th-century artifacts.

In July 2006, with the design coming together, Hawley opened private consultations with Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office to determine whether the museum could go through with the scheme. The state’s lawyers didn’t see much of a problem with razing the Carriage House—it had never been open to the public—but thought the prospect of moving artwork was potentially explosive. They decided that a justice from the Supreme Judicial Court would need to make the final call.

It would be nearly a year and a half after first talking to the Attorney General’s Office before the museum would publicly acknowledge that the plans required moving art in the East Cloister. Even when the museum filed its 300-page notice to build, in November 2007, it mentioned only “a minimal intervention into the Palace.” That same night, the museum’s communications director e-mailed staffers instructing them to tell people that “the new building will not alter the Palace galleries or the positioning of the artwork.”

Indeed, the museum had already held a pair of public meetings on the project in which the subject of moving artwork seemingly never came up. It wasn’t until a reporter at the Mission Hill Gazette, a small community monthly, was granted a private tour late that month that Gardner officials explained the proposed changes. (A museum spokesperson says there was no intent to hide information, just that the question about moving artwork “wasn’t asked.”)

With the plan for the East Cloister now public, neighbors began choosing sides. Among the first to object was Kathryn Brookins, publisher of the Mission Hill News. “They want to bastardize an antique,” she says. “All you have to know about antiques is that they are more valuable unbastardized—don’t paint them, don’t scrape them, don’t add to them.”

To this day the most vigorous criticism comes from the Friends of Historic Mission Hill. To its members, the Gardner’s particular magic is that it never changes. After the museum finally filed its court papers in December 2008, the Friends filed its own brief. In it the group argued that breaking through the gallery wall and bulldozing the Carriage House would guarantee “the eventual loss of this unique Boston treasure.” The Friends also wrote to a litany of city and state agencies, and even sent one letter to Renzo Piano in Genoa (“We are turning to you as the one person with the moral and artistic authority to reconsider the current design…”). Piano never responded.

A year ago, group member Mary Ann Nelson attended a public meeting where Hawley and an architect from Piano’s firm were presenting their proposal. Nelson stood and announced that Hawley and Piano were betraying Gardner’s wishes. “I know this is a real challenge for very creative people when they have been given someone else’s vision and told, ‘You must keep it,'” she said. “I think the question for the Gardner Museum is how do we keep the integrity of Mrs. Gardner’s design? It’s not about another architect’s vision; it’s what is Mrs. Gardner’s vision?”

To the Friends, Hawley and the trustees have been too quick to put aside the will to chase their own ambitions. “People will probably go to the Barbara Hostetter wing of the Gardner Museum,” Nelson says, referencing its principal patroness. “They’ll have been at the Gardner, but they’ll not have been in Mrs. Gardner’s museum. They’ll have been at Anne Hawley’s Gardner.”