Down To The Wire As 'New' Gardner Museum Readies To Open

The facade of the museum's new building is worked on. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The facade of the museum's new building is worked on. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In less than two weeks the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will unveil its ambitious $180 million extension project. Between then and now construction workers and museum staff will work long hours, down to the wire, both outside and inside the gleaming glass and steel structure.

Anne Hawley, the Gardner museum's director (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Anne Hawley, the museum's director (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The 70,000-square-foot building doubles the size of the original museum and was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. It’s situated just 50 feet away from the Gardner's historic palace. Dozens of freshly planted trees and shrubs fill the earthy space between the old and new buildings. A glass-enclosed walkway links the museum's past with its present.

Standing in the airy, contemporary foyer on Thursday — flanked by the Gardner’s new cafe, museum shop and “Living Room” — Museum Director Anne Hawley predicted, "I think some people will like it and some people won't.”

Of course that’s to be expected, she mused, as with any work of art. But Hawley is visibly pleased with the outcome. At this moment, though, she was focusing on a long list of tasks at hand.

"Names are going up on the donor wall, there are hundreds of details that we're addressing right now,” she explained. "And I think probably will continue to address after we open.”

Final preparations are made in the Isabella Stewart Gardner's Tapestry Room. At right is Valentine Talland, the room's objects conservator. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Final preparations are made in the Isabella Stewart Gardner's Tapestry Room. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The “new” Gardner museum opens to the public on Jan. 19. The institution has been closed since mid-November to get ready for the much-anticipated debut.

The four-story building also features a new conservation lab (where climate control is still being tweaked), an acoustically pristine music hall (the first performance is opening day), a sun-drenched green house (for the Gardner's gardener Stan Kozak) and well-lit classrooms for art education. Hawley reminds me how each of these elements was created to alleviate stress on Gardner’s original museum.

The Venetian-style palazzo has been undergoing painstaking conservation as well — most notably in the Tapestry Room.

As we walked upstairs to see the changes, Hawley and I passed through the museum's famously lush indoor courtyard. This week the ornate mosaic at its center will be thoroughly cleaned, she explained, along with most everything else in the palace. "It will get done!" she pronounced.

The 4,000-square-foot Tapestry Room has played the role of performance space since the 1970s, but the expansion project — with its impressive new concert space — has enabled conservators to revert the grand hall back to its former, spacious glory. A fireplace that hid for years behind a stage is now visible and very much reborn.

The Tapestry Room's transformation will be highlighted during the museum's opening celebrations. Hawley said it symbolizes how the new building's construction has indeed succeeded in breathing life into Ms. Gardner's much-loved original creation.

This program aired on January 6, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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