Reuters (left)/Gardner Museum (right)

How the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum walked the tightrope between its founder's wishes and a sleek new design

Cities are constantly in a tug-of-war with the old and the new. The Eiffel Tower was considered an eyesore when first built; the first skyscrapers of Chicago, similarly an outrage. Jackie Onassis helped fight a proposed modernist tower that would have transformed Grand Central Terminal in New York. Pennsylvania Station could not escape its destruction, replaced by Madison Square Garden. Fenway Park, with Wrigley Field the last of the old-time major league ballparks standing, avoided the wrecking ball and modernized replacement. The owners once said it was unsafe and would fall down any day. Since then, it has been extensively renovated and had multiple appendages added, and this year will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Of all the civic institutions of a city, museums are where these kinds of decisions are made routinely – to start fresh with a new building, or more typically, to make a modern addition, blending the traditions of the past with contemporary facilities and design. It can either be controversial and a study in contrast -- Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Dresden Museum of Military History, to cite one of many recent examples -- or more subtle, as in Norman Foster’s addition at the northeast side of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a second expansion after I.M. Pei’s addition at the southwest side of the neo-classical main building.

Over the next few days, Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will take center stage as a case study in how such institutions, and more broadly cities, can evolve in the 21st century. The $118 million expansion and renovation of the turn-of-the-century socialite’s residential palace in the Fens, tests our understanding of the city of memory, traditions and the powerful historic preservation movement in U.S. cities. That movement has left extensive restrictions, regulations, and binding guidelines in place to make sure certain buildings and entire districts are not altered. In the case of the Gardner museum, an additional covenant was in place: Gardner’s detailed will, which stipulated that the palace and the arrangement of the collection not be changed in any way.

A popular destination for both Bostonians and visitors, with its breathtaking four-story interior courtyard and gardens, the 1902 structure developed structural problems and had been worn down by the crowds. Musical programming could no longer continue, and there was only room for a makeshift café and small museum shop. Circulation and security became problematic; on a Saturday night in March 1990, thieves posing as police turned the museum’s world upside down, making off with works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet. The board wanted to modernize and create an addition, but how? A neighborhood group was opposed to new construction, and historic preservationists were watching closely, Gardner’s will in hand, lawyers at the ready.

The solution, after more than a decade of planning, design, and construction, is a cube-shaped glass and steel contemporary addition by Renzo Piano, unveiled this week just behind the palace, and open to the public January 19. It required two major moves: destroying a carriage house essentially in Gardner’s backyard, and punching through the rear wall of the 1902 building, to establish a glass connector to the new building, which includes a concert hall, exhibit space, a café, a "living room" space, coat check and visitor welcoming area, greenhouse, and quarters for artists and musicians in residence.

To make the connection between old and new, a sarcophagus had to be pivoted 90 degrees at the critical portal. The uninitiated would never have any idea this juncture had so much significance; the brick of the vaulted ceilings was painstaking recreated before transitioning to the glass of the connector walkway. It all looks entirely natural and appropriate, undisturbed, even serene. But that small act of moving the sarcophagus was technically a violation of Gardner’s instructions. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office looked at this strict reading of the will.

Nor will the museum be experienced in the same way, when generations of college students brought their parents on homecoming weekend through the grand front entrance, plunged into another world of art and gardens and a string quartet. Visitors must enter through Piano’s building; the old entrance will only re-open for special occasions. The Gardner did not have the luxury the Museum of Fine Arts did – re-opening its theatrical entrance on Huntington Avenue, which had been closed in favor of funneling people through the I.M. Pei addition. Visitors there stroll through the museum as it was before experiencing the new. At the Gardner that sequence will be just the opposite.

That might not be a bad thing, and potentially may make visits even more contemplative and rich. There’s a marvelous history of the Gardner, society in Boston at the turn of the century, and the museum in the living room, for orientation. Thus prepared, the visitor walks through the glass connector and is thrust into another world, and back again, to shop or drink and eat or relax. At a reception Wednesday night, Piano suggested the palace was introverted while the new addition was extroverted, all glass and steel cables and light and air. In the living room, the view is of the manicured gardens, the Fenway, and the Prudential tower rising up in the middle distance.

The museum, and the city, has gained a dazzling new gathering space, a contemporary (and LEED-certified, of course) creation that proposes to honor the past. Expansion backers, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, might argue that it was pulled off deftly, and that all parties were reasonable. Absolutists might say they bent the rules.

Across the Charles River, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow decreed that the view out of his house, where George Washington once was stationed, can never be altered. That kind of covenant will probably never be challenged; it will never be subject to a compromise or a modest, just-this-little-bit alteration. What made the Gardner Museum any different? The answer is that cities and institutions pick their spots. In other places the historic preservation sensibilities might become more unyielding. So goes the tension between evolving, and remaining frozen in time.

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