January 11, 2012 / 10:50 PM / 6 years ago

Boston's Gardner museum unveils major expansion

BOSTON (Reuters) - Boston’s venerable Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum unveiled a major new wing on Wednesday designed to honor the magic of the original building, modeled on a 15th century Venetian palazzo, while making room for growth.

The $114-million glass-enclosed addition was designed by Renzo Piano, whose projects include the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the New York Times headquarters in midtown Manhattan and the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The addition contains a 300-seat concert hall, educational center and special exhibition space.

The job, Piano conceded, was a difficult one because of the restrictions imposed in the will of founder Isabella Stewart Gardner, a prominent art collector who died in 1924.

Gardner left precise instructions on how her intimate collection of fine and decorative art can be arranged. Almost 90 years later, museum trustees honor her wishes.

Aesthetically, the challenge was to find a way to marry a modern structure with the original building, the design of which was micro-managed by Gardner before the museum opened in 1903. The Gardner museum is on the national register of historic places.

Piano made the new building, a light-filled glass enclosure, a kind of homage to the old, with its beloved pink walls, arched windows and galleries organized around a lush, plant-filled courtyard.

“The palace is the constant reference,” Piano told reporters inside the cube-shaped music hall, in which the audience faces the musicians, but also each other. “You are constantly in dialogue with the palace.”

Visitors now enter through the addition, which connects with the old building via a glass corridor. Some observers might find this diminishes the dramatic impact of the courtyard, which previously burst into view just a few steps after entering through a dark, brick lobby.

But the new 70,000 square foot wing has allowed the museum’s large tapestry room, which until recently was used as a concert and lecture hall, to be returned to its former glory, said museum director Anne Hawley.

“The greatest argument for expanding the museum was to move misappropriated programs into purpose-built spaces, so we can ensure the restoration and conservation of the historic museum spaces,” she said.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York and moved to Boston with her husband, John “Jack” Lowell Gardner Jr. After the couple’s only son died of pneumonia, Gardner helped alleviate her depression by indulging her passion for travel and art. Her favorite destination was Venice, which inspired the design of her museum.

The collector was considered something of a Bohemian in Boston, where her friends included the writer Henry James, and artist John Singer Sargent. A 1922 Sargent portrait, “Mrs. Gardner in White,” now hangs outside the new special exhibition space within the new wing.

Overall, the Piano wing is designed to create a continuous flow in which old and new achieve a balance.

“You never forget the palace, the object of desire,” said Piano.“This (addition) is a homage to the fact that this is where everything started.”

The new wing opens to the public on January 19.

Reporting by Toni Clarke, editing by Ros Krasny and Patricia Reaney

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