Design New England

Design night at the museum


Visitors take in the sights of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s famous courtyard, where a wooden structure provides a safe spot for the conservation team to clean the sculptures one by one with lasers.

If you haven’t been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum near Boston’s Back Bay Fens since the new $114 million wing designed by architect Renzo Piano opened in January, now is the time to go. Not only is the famous indoor courtyard alive with lush plantings, but the new wing allows for an outdoor landscape that the old Gardner never had. On a recent guided tour with the musuem’s marketing director Matt Montgomery, we discovered there is no better place to experience the glorious new gardens at the Gardner than from inside the simple 50-foot glass connector (refered to by Piano as “the umbilical cord”) that leads from the new building to the original 1901 Fenway Court. The wing, which doubles the museum’s footprint, is comprised of twin glass cubes. One houses Calderwood Hall, an extraordinary concert space with a central area for performers surrounded by three single row balconies for 360 degree listening. The other holds the expansive Special Exhibition Gallery, which boasts a movable ceiling used to control height and natural light depending on the exhibit. (The current show, Magic Moments: The Screen and the Eye – 9 Artists 9 Projections, is up through August 20.)


On the ground floor is the expanded Gift at the Gardner and Café G (with outdoor terrace), as well as an education studio, a comfortable place for sitting and reading known as the Living Room, and greenhouses, where flora for the courtyard is grown. (There is also an off-site greenhouse facility where plants are tended.)


The open design of the new grand staircase keeps visitors visible and interacting with the space — and aware of the historic palace behind it.


Calderwood Hall is a one-of-a-kind space, with three balconies each only one row deep. The walls, made of white oak, are set 2 feet from an outer concrete wall for more acoustic control.



The greenhouses provide a nuturing spot for courtyard plants, from blue and white hydrangea and jade plants to the tropical Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet.

Piano’s addition takes stress off the historic building without disrupting the order of its galleries. Holly Salmon, associate objects conservator, says the conservation team plans to honor Gardner’s wish to keep the historic galleries looking as she wanted them “forever,” a daunting task, but Mrs. Jack did like to challenge.

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