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.

These days, laid out on the antique table in Hawley’s office is a dollhouse-size model of how the Gardner will look when the project is finished. The model is made of foam board and plastic, and it comes in a plywood box that folds up so Hawley can bring it to public meetings or, presumably, into the homes and offices of potential donors.

Bending down to peer into the first floor of the Piano-designed portion, Hawley is Isabella-like in her enthusiasm. After passing through the new entrance, visitors will be able to sit and read about Gardner, if they’d like, in a reception area. They can visit the gift shop, or the café, which will have tables set up outside in a garden. There will be a classroom where schoolkids can work on art projects. A new exhibition gallery will feature work on loan from other institutions as well as pieces created by the artists in residence, who will live in two apartments upstairs. There will be concerts in the new performance hall and gardeners raising plants in the new greenhouse. “We want everything to grow,” she says. “The museum at work is a vibrant place of growth.”

As visitors enter the addition, Hawley explains, they’ll be able to see, across the expanse of all that is new, the Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Of course, with so much else to see, some of them might never make it over there.
Staff writer Francis Storrs chronicled television’s home-improvement juggernaut This Old House in the February issue.