Design New England

A Garden for Wandering

Image 1 HiRes.jpg

Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella, 2013.

The Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, redesigned by Michael Van Valkenburgh, includes twisting pathways and abundant foliage.

The Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was designed by Isabella Gardner herself in 1901. But she never got it quite right. Even though she was an experienced horticulturist (or perhaps because she was a experienced horticulturist), she fussed with the cloistered garden, located on the historic building’s eastern side and enclosed by a brick wall, from the museum’s opening in 1903 until her death in 1924. Many changes to the garden have taken place since then, but none so extensive as the complete redesign landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh accomplished this fall as the final piece of the museum’s extensive renovation, which included the new Renzo Piano-designed wing. Open to visitors during regular museum hours, the new 7,545-square-foot garden reverberates the museum’s spirit of eccentricity with a clever design and twisting paths that make it appear to be larger than it is.


Van Valkenburgh lived in Boston for more than 25 years, and though his firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., is now based in New York, he has an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a home on Martha’s Vineyard. When the museum’s building committee and director Anne Hawley were visiting gardens by the top nominated candidates for the Monks Garden project during the selection process, Van Valkenburgh was at his Vineyard home, so he invited them to his own private garden there, which is nearly the same size as the Monks Garden (and, we’re sure, gorgeous). That sealed the deal.
“Coming to the garden is not a practical experience,” Van Valkenburgh said as he stood in the museum’s Spanish Cloister during a preview event, nodding to the finished garden seen just outside through the Chinese Loggia. “I thought of the garden as a place to get lost.”
Your mind just may take a break basking in the foliage of 66 trees and more than 7,000 perennials (2,100 bulbs are scheduled still to be planted). And the 530 feet of winding paths placed in the garden’s 7,545 square feet might turn you around a bit, but you won’t truly lose your way — you’ll enjoy just being in the garden, and then walk one of the many paths back. “It’s not about getting here or there or anywhere,” said Van Valkenburgh, adding that like the museum, which invites personal exploration and study rather than presenting a singular, direct path to view the artwork, the garden is meant for meandering. A pause in nature during a museum visit.

Image 3 HiRes.jpg


Courtesy of Alex S. MacLean, 2013.

An aerial view of the Monks Garden shows the historic building on the left, the curved brick wall at the top right, and garden filling the space between.

You can enter the garden either through the historic building’s Chinese Loggia, where plants are pressing up against the glass walls, or you can emerge from the contemporary glass connector, which links the old building with the new. There, the garden has a softer edge, welcoming visitors in gradually. Curvy walkways made of dark clay with specks of shimmery mica schist expand the space by creating numerous pathways and vantages, and the fullness, achieved from ferns, wild ginger, daylilies, Hellebore, Japansese Stewartia, gray birch trees, and red and white camellias, juxtaposes with the openness of the museum’s central indoor courtyard. No bricks were cut for the project — an interesting detail that achieves an organic quality around the path’s edges.

Image 6 HiRes.jpg


Courtesy of Elizabeth Felicella, 2013.

Shimmery mica schist gives the clay bricks sparkle.

Historical photos of the Monks Garden are on the museum’s website, and the history is interesting to follow. Gardner’s initial design was, not surprisingly, Italianate, with tall trees planted in rows. Within a few years, she enhanced the garden with a pergola covered in vines. After her death, museum director Morris Carter added more shrubs and a rock garden, but when Roland van N. Hadley became director in 1970, he hired Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, to re-grade the garden and plant new trees, shrubs, and ground covers along a bluestone path. That was how the garden looked until the museum briefly closed to prepare for the opening of the new wing in 2012. Now, we’ve got Van Valkenburgh’s interpretation of Gardner’s vision to enjoy.
Great design is always at your fingertips — read the September/October 2013 issue online!

Jump To Comments


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on