THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM’S EXPANSION PLANS were, from the start, viewed skeptically by some historians and preservationists. How on earth could the museum add on to the majestic Venetian-style palace, built more than a century ago, without ruining it? Anne Hawley, the Gardner’s longtime director, never wavered. She bristled at staffers who questioned the project, even suggesting they consider working elsewhere. She urged board members to give money like never before, to cover the $118 million expansion and renovation. And she pushed Italian architect Renzo Piano to create, change, and refine what would become the Gardner’s second building.
The result? Numbers-wise, the expansion has been a blockbuster since opening January 19. More than 235,000 visitors have come into the Gardner, all of them through the museum’s new wing, which connects to the palace by a glass-covered walkway. The museum’s previous high had been 211,941 in 1999.
“It’s just been wild,” says Hawley, the museum’s director since 1989, who lives in Cambridge. “We knew we would have a good building, but I didn’t expect to love it.”
There is more to the expanded Gardner than the numbers, Hawley says. In her mind, the museum has accomplished its mission, to move so many of its support functions — from the coat room and gift shop to the restaurant — out of the increasingly cramped palace. And while the new building has drawn so much attention, Hawley is also proud of how the project served one of the Gardner’s oldest spaces. By creating a music hall in the new wing, the Gardner made it possible to reclaim the palace’s Tapestry Room. For decades, the space had been stuffed with chairs and a stage. No longer. The museum has removed the chairs and restored a medieval fireplace mantel and the floor tile. It’s a wonderful reclamation of the old.
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