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Gardner shows off its graceful update

When leaders of the 109-year-old Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum unveiled its $114 million addition yesterday, they did so with an eye toward the past.

Coming Sunday, a special magazine section takes a look at the new Gardner with interactive graphics, videos, galleries, and more.

On a January evening in 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her new museum in grand fashion, with a concert, a courtyard filled with flowers, and priceless art all around. Yesterday, at the official unveiling of the Gardner’s $114 million expansion, the spirit of the glamorous socialite who once lived on the fourth floor of the original palazzo museum seemed to hover over the proceedings.

BOSTON, MA. 11/ 30 /2011: NOTE: DO NOT USE MAGAZINE ONLY The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum extension and preservation project under construction and finished site. The Museum is scheduled to open January 19th, 2012 ( David L Ryan / Globe Staff Photo ) SECTION : MAGAZINE SLUG : gardnermuseum REPORTER staff

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum gave the media a preview yesterday.

“It wasn’t an easy job’’ coming up with an expansion worthy of the museum’s original benefactor, said architect Renzo Piano. “You cannot compete with magic. What we did was not about becoming bigger. It’s about saving the palace.’’

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The Gardner’s $118 million renovation - melding the new $114 million, 70,000-square-foot addition with the old but extensively refurbished museum - comes near the end of a massive, decade-long museum building boom in the Boston area. It has included expansions of the Museum of Fine Arts and Peabody Essex Museum, and the construction of a new Institute of Contemporary Art. The Harvard Art Museums are undergoing a massive renovation, expected to be completed by 2013.

What’s different about the Gardner project is its connection to the singular force known as its founder. So strong was Gardner’s vision of this house-museum that her will stipulated it remain virtually unchanged after her death. The museum had to seek approval from government boards and regulators to create a new building because of restrictions outlined in the will; the original museum remains little changed.

Normally, when a museum expands, talk centers on the glittering new construction. But yesterday, many spoke of the legacy of Gardner, who counted artist John Singer Sargent and writer Henry James among her friends.

Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley referred to the project as a “preservation.’’ She said Gardner herself never anticipated that the museum would grow to the point that roughly 200,000 visitors would stream in each year. That influx created stress on the palace and also made it hard for the museum to expand its programs. The new glass-and-copper-clad building, connected to the palace through a 50-foot-long glass passageway, should solve those problems.

The space includes a music hall, greenhouse, gallery, gift shop, restaurant, and expanded room for educational programs. The building will serve as the Gardner’s new entrance, with visitors entering the palace through the glass walkway.

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The opening will bring increased expectations. Hawley said the museum projects attendance increasing to 250,000 people per year and adding 3,500 members to the current 4,000.

Dan Monroe, director of the Peabody Essex Museum, praised Hawley and her board.

“People tend to think of the Gardner in a certain way as this specialized gem, and expanding that, and giving themselves a bigger platform by which to work, posed some very distinctive challenges,’’ he said.

MFA director Malcolm Rogers said he was thrilled to see the Gardner open the Piano wing.

“It’s invigorating to see one of Boston’s greatest institutions reinventing in an exciting way and contributing so much to the vitality of Boston and our neighborhood as a cultural center,’’ he said.

Yesterday’s events, offered to the media, marked the start of 10 intense days that will include special unveilings for donors and trustees and performances by, among others, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The Gardner, which has been closed to the public since November, will open the new space and reopen the refurbished palazzo to the public Jan. 19.

Touring the new space, Hawley admitted her nerves were shot.

“There are just so many moving parts,’’ she said. “Some wiring still hasn’t been done.’’

Still, it was hard to see any of the unfinished work yesterday morning. Curators offered thoughts on the new spaces and those that had been renovated within the palace, particularly the tapestry room. For years, that space had been filled with chairs, so that the Gardner could hold its popular music series.

Yesterday the restored room featured newly cleaned floor tiles; a long, rectangular table with silver candle-holders; and new lighting. Across the passageway, in the museum’s new music hall, A Far Cry, the Gardner’s resident, held an open rehearsal.

“It’s a miracle it’s so good,’’ Hawley said of the complete project. “It’s better than I thought it would be.’’

Which is not to say it was a stress-free march to the finish line. Piano, she said, is very detail-oriented and doesn’t hesitate to make changes. For example, he had the newly built coat room ripped out a month ago because he felt it did not look right. Workers put their finishing touches on the redesigned coatroom Tuesday. Piano also had an elevator door changed from green to gray.

“Renzo,’’ she joked, “will be drawing until you take the pencil away from him.’’

Reflecting on the project, Hawley also admitted feeling mixed emotion to see the work coming to an end. She noted the presence of Piano and so many others connected with the project.

“There’s a sadness that this incredible group, this team we’ve been living with, will be going away,’’ she said.

That sense of melancholy did not shade yesterday’s proceedings. Observers raved about the building, citing the way it connects to the existing palace. The palace can be seen through so many windows in the new wing, in the gallery, in the café, from the central stairway, and in the “living room,’’ a space designed as a kind of lounge.

In turn, the restored tapestry room now includes a direct shot of the new building. In the past, the windows in that space, used for music performances, were covered up.

“Wherever you are in the building, we have a view back to the palace,’’ said artist Lee Mingwei. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like this, where the contemporary and historical are so close.’’

Barbara Hostetter, president of the museum’s board of trustees, spoke of Gardner’s legacy in prepared remarks and highlighted the “simple and elegant’’ passageway linking the old and new spaces. She also talked of the next phase of the expansion: living with the building.

“How does the lobby look in the muted light of a snowy evening,’’ she said. “How does it sound when alive with crowds of visitors? Which balcony will be the favorite? What is it like to ascend that magical staircase in the morning? In the evening? And how does the building aid the museum’s work?’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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