For years, staff members at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum addressed occasionally leaky roofs with a two-pronged strategy. Inspecting for vulnerabilities twice a year, they would also patch any spots that let water into the building.
But last winter, under the brunt of an accumulated 110 inches of snow, the historic palace sprang several chronic leaks, endangering items in the collection and forcing staff to take the drastic steps of putting out buckets, rubber mats, and shrouding some works in plastic sheeting.
The museum came under harsh criticism for its handling of those winter-weather crises. Now, the punishing season has prompted the Gardner to move up its maintenance schedule, embarking on a vast project to renovate or completely replace all the roofs that cover the building. The three-phase project, which will cost an estimated $1.5 million, will continue through the end of 2016. During that time, the Gardner will close the Chapel Room for roughly three months, and, starting next spring, the entire second floor will close for a nine-month stretch as workers replace the roof over the Tapestry Room.
“You have a historic winter and a historic museum,” said museum director Anne Hawley. “We can’t afford to take any chances.”
The roof project began quietly over the summer, as workers replaced the protective materials beneath the historic terra cotta tiles covering the museum’s upper floor. That maintenance, which had already been scheduled, did not affect any galleries or the visitor experience.
Starting next week, however, the project will enter its more complicated second phase, as workers close the Chapel Room, removing its artworks in preparation to replace the room’s copper roof with a more protective material.
The Chapel Room’s roof was originally scheduled for replacement in the next two to three years. Over the winter, however, it suffered a leak that affected some of the room’s sculptures, prompting the museum to accelerate the roof’s replacement. Gardner officials estimate the gallery will be closed through mid-November.
“The top-line consideration is always mitigation of risk to the collection and preserving the objects,” said curator of the collection Christina Nielsen, who added that none of the works suffered permanent damage. “I feel extremely confident that this is the right thing to be doing in the right manner, and this is the right time.”
Mrs. Gardner famously stipulated that no aspect of the collection could be altered following her death, which poses unique challenges for such a project.
“You’ve got all these elements woven into the very fabric of the museum, so everything we do is just unbelievably complicated,” said Hawley.
In the Chapel Room, for instance, museum officials want to replace the copper roof with a more protective material such as PVC, a decision they must first clear with the city’s Landmarks Commission.
“When you look at it from the street, you will not know that we did the roof,” said facilities manager Mike Holland, who added he was confident the change would be approved. “You’ll see a new copper cap. All the trellis work up there is being removed, repainted, restored, and put back up.”
But the real challenge — the “mother of them all,” as Hawley puts it — will come next spring, when the museum plans to close the entire second floor so that workers can replace the rubber roof above the Tapestry Room, a project they expect to span the remainder of 2016.
Officials had initially considered closing only a few of the second-floor galleries. But after considering the logistics of moving the gallery’s more cumbersome furnishings, they decided it would be safer to store the objects in adjoining galleries.
“Think about those marble steps, and think about eight people carrying a huge table down and back up,” said Nielsen, who added the museum lacks a freight elevator. “It’s like going off a cliff in a way.”
Complicating matters is the construction work itself. The Tapestry Room roof, which suffered several leaks last winter, comprises four layers of material, from the newest roof (which along with the Chapel roof was last replaced in the late 1990s) down to the structure’s original covering.
“That’s the fight we’re going to fight,” said Holland, who noted that by removing all four previous roofs, a new one can be installed at a greater pitch. “We’re not just doing the roof. We’re taking the opportunity while we have these galleries de-installed to take a look at any suspect material that ties into the roof and have it replaced or renewed. Whatever it needs done, we’re doing.”
To lessen the blow to visitors, the museum is planning to exhibit many of the highlights from the second-floor galleries in a special show devoted to Mrs. Gardner as a collector. The exhibit, which will be housed in the Hostetter Gallery in the museum’s new wing, will open next spring.
“They’ll still have that immersive Gardner experience, and then be able to step back into the exhibition space,” said Nielsen. “We’ll be able to juxtapose the work and make new connections, and allow the works to converse with each other in ways they haven’t before.”