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.

On February 11, 2002, the Gardner’s board of trustees assembled at an off-site retreat at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. With the museum back to fiscal health, Hawley and the trustees gathered to discuss the idea of building more space—specifically, a proposal for an addition behind the Palace. The roughly 65,000-square-foot project seemed a larger undertaking than some had expected. But Hawley, who can be a charismatic speaker, cast the moment as a rare opportunity for something grand. “Today,” she said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks, “we are at a signpost beckoning us to embark on a journey that I hope will be as bold and evocative as what Isabella Stewart Gardner set out to do 100 years ago.” Later in the day, before retiring for cocktails, the board members were given a chance to respond to what they’d heard. David Scudder, an investment banker who then helped manage the Harvard endowment, captured a shared sentiment when he spoke up. “We accept the premise that we have to build. But how much do you do before losing the visitor experience?”

With its contemplative courtyard and idiosyncratic layout, the museum that Gardner created had a singular feel. The last thing the trustees wanted to do was lose the very things that made it unique. In the 1990s, they commissioned a series of visitor surveys. “Overall, respondents don’t feel the Gardner should change,” a 1996 focus group report concluded. “There is wide knowledge of the will and…the museum is viewed as preserved history of a bygone era.”

Even as they debated the particulars of the building, the trustees plowed ahead. They had hired Robert Campbell, the Globe‘s Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, whom they now asked to help them winnow a list of architects who could design their building. Notably absent from the list was the man who eventually won the commission, the world-renowned Renzo Piano. He hadn’t bothered to respond to the museum’s inquiries.

But Hawley had quietly been in touch with Piano, talking to him by phone after wealthy Dallas art collector Ray Nasher, whom the museum was said to be courting as a donor, arranged a call. She believed the celebrity architect could be the perfect choice, and made an impassioned pitch to the trustees. Later, a construction consultant they’d hired explained that an architect like Piano would be 15 percent to 20 percent more expensive than a lesser-known one. And because Piano doesn’t bid for projects, they would have to offer him the work before he even submitted a design.

For a Boston museum, bringing in an internationally recognized architect is especially valuable. The Hub’s art community receives 60 percent of its foundation donations from out of state, and those patrons tend to support the name brands more than the institutions that fly beneath the national radar. It’s equally important that a museum not appear as a fringe player to locals: According to the Boston Foundation, of the 650 cultural organizations in the state, the half dozen with budgets over $20 million take in 65 percent of donations. By going with Piano, particularly at a time when the MFA and ICA were engaged in big projects, the Gardner would be announcing it was a major force worth supporting.

As far along as late 2004, however, several holdouts on the board still believed the museum only needed purely functional space for offices, the shop, and the café. But Hawley, backed by trustees including Barbara Hostetter, continued to push for something iconic that could incorporate a new performance hall and a special exhibit space. In September of that year, a group of trustees met to finally settle the debate. “What are we trying to create here?” asked Bill Poorvu, according to minutes from the meeting. Like his fellow trustee Vin Ryan, he puzzled over how a plan launched to address utilitarian needs had grown so ambitious. The reservations surprised Hostetter, who wondered why they’d spent years in planning only to wind up building space for more staff cubicles. The addition couldn’t be “a trailer park,” she said.

Two months later, in a meeting at the museum, the board voted unanimously to hire Piano. As Hawley and the trustees celebrated, someone ran over to the café and returned with a bottle of champagne.


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.

gardner piano


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.”


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.