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Critic’s notebook

Gardner’s leaky roofs imperil art treasures within

Plastic sheeting protected a Roman sarcophagus called “Revelers Gathering Grapes’’ from water dripping from the glass roof over the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard.
Plastic sheeting protected a Roman sarcophagus called “Revelers Gathering Grapes’’ from water dripping from the glass roof over the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard.Sebastian Smee/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the catastrophic art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the institution finds itself facing a different sort of crisis. It is not as sudden or dramatic as a nighttime raid by armed criminals — more of a persistent nuisance that over the past month has turned into an unfolding humiliation.

On the night of Feb. 12, a day after the Gardner’s longtime director Anne Hawley publicly announced her intention to resign, a guard noticed that water had started dripping into one of the museum’s best known galleries, the Chapel Room in the Long Gallery on the third floor.

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The Tapestry Room, one floor down, sprang several leaks that same night, museum officials said. Buckets and rubber mats were deployed on the floor in this gallery, where Mrs. Gardner used to host parties and musical performances. Objects were rushed to conservation or draped in plastic to prevent damage; whole areas were cordoned off.

Over the weekend, the roofs over both galleries were cleared of much snow and checked for damage. But the leaks continued, the museum officials said.

In the courtyard, a Roman sarcophagus — one of the museum’s most illustrious objects, the finest example of its kind in the United States — was also covered in plastic because of drips caused by gathering condensation, improperly drained, under the glass roof. The drips have stained the marble.

And on March 1, another room, the Little Salon, adjacent to the Tapestry Room on the second floor, was closed off to the public and partially deinstalled after it, too, was found to have leaks.

A bucket collected water leaking into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
A bucket collected water leaking into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.Sebastian Smee/Globe Staff

Hawley, the museum’s director, acknowledged leaks have been an ongoing problem since Feb. 12.

“We are extremely cautious when a leak is detected and will drape and deinstall art as a preventative measure,” explained Hawley. “We err on the side of caution and leave the plastic covering up until we are certain that any leak in the area has been stopped since water often travels. This is not always an ideal visitor experience, but protecting the collection is our top priority.”

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But earlier this week, a month after the problems began, water was still running down the wall into a bucket just inches from a tapestry in the Tapestry Room. The Little Salon remained closed to the public. And the Chapel Room, which contains the finest example of Gothic stained glass in this country, as well as choir stalls, an altar, and various polychrome sculptures, was entirely cordoned off, the objects in it still covered in plastic.

Many New England homeowners will relate: Leaky roofs have been the story of this cruel winter. But it turns out they are nothing new at the Gardner, a 1903 building that is home to a priceless collection of art and that is, along with Fenway Park and Faneuil Hall, one of Boston’s sacred sites.

The building was in poor shape before Hawley arrived in 1989. Leaks were rampant, and the facility had no modern climate control. A new glass roof was installed over the courtyard in 1991, and Hawley oversaw the introduction of a climate control system, completed in 1996.

The roofs over the Chapel Room and the Tapestry Room — the two main problem areas of late — were repaired or replaced in 1997 and 1998, respectively.

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But soon after, the Tapestry Room was leaking again. According to two former long-term Gardner employees, water has leaked into the galleries on average “two or three” times a year ever since.

Museum officials declined to address whether there have been frequent leaks since the late 1990s.

“We have acknowledged to you that we have had leaks in the past but nothing in comparison to what we have experienced this year due to the historic snowfall,’’ said Kathy Sharpless, the director of marketing and communications at the Gardner.

Two weeks before the leaks began, the Gardner’s donors, trustees, and leaders gathered at a party to celebrate the completion of a huge fund-raising effort — $114 million for a new building designed by Renzo Piano and $50 million for an endowment funding preservation of the old building and maintenance of the new.

During the planning for that project and subsequently, Hawley maintained repeatedly that building the wing was meant to help preserve the old palace, primarily by reducing the pressure of wear and tear. The museum’s shop, cafe, and music venue are all now in the new wing.

“We have had a preventative maintenance fund in effect since 1999, when we finished putting over $11 million into the building,” said Hawley. “We add a million dollars to it each year as part of the capital [endowment] campaign. . . . Dollars and resources have never been an issue.”

Hawley also noted that the museum has “been systematically reinstalling all the galleries to their 1926 appearance and are two thirds of the way there.”

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Yet even as galleries are being refurbished at great expense, Hawley seems to have struggled with the fundamental task of protecting Mrs. Gardner’s interiors from the outside elements, with major ramifications for museum visitors.

And for the collection. Dripping water has damaged objects.

In an e-mail, Hawley confirmed that lifting gesso, gilding, and paint on a polychrome sculpture had been caused by the moisture from the leaks this year. A small linen tablecloth was discolored, and several reproduction textiles were also affected. A polychrome wood piece and two more reproduction textiles in the Little Salon were damaged, and in the Tapestry Room, the back of a small tapestry became wet.

Gardner officials declined to discuss incidents of water damage to works prior to this winter. But the Globe recently determined, from a publicly available online application for tapestry conservation funding, that a tapestry depicting a scene from the life of Abraham was “affected by a roof leak.’’

In addition, according to two former employees, there has been damage to the frame around the 15th-century Spanish fresco of Saint Michael, which hangs over the fireplace and which several times has been removed from the wall to prevent further damage.

According to Hawley, elaborate protocols have been put in place to deal with the leaks. But the protocols don’t address the core problem.

The roof over the Tapestry Room and the one over the Chapel Room are flat, which is where the issues start.

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The Chapel Room roof is made from copper with lead seams, which can expand and contract with extreme temperatures, while the Tapestry Room roof is a rubber membrane covering older roofing materials, vulnerable to leaks if it is penetrated.

They are checked and reseamed twice a year — “we have found no major deficiencies,” Hawley said. But the leaks continue.

James Labeck, director of operations at the Gardner from 1998 until September last year, said that the museum had hoped the new roofs installed in 1997 and ’98 would last for 20 to 25 years.

But since the leaks began again so quickly, it is hard to know why it has taken so long to address the issue in a comprehensive way — especially when more than a hundred million dollars was spent on an entirely new building in the same period.

Why wasn’t the roof fixed properly before the museum embarked on a massive, multimillion-dollar overhaul of its galleries?

Since substantial roof repairs would inevitably involve deinstalling and probably closing certain galleries, wouldn’t it have made more sense to address the roof issues before overhauling the galleries?

The warning signs were there.

Labeck said that the roofing system over the old palace is unusually complicated. The integrity of the rubber envelope over the tapestry room has also been compromised by mechanical equipment for climate control.

According to Hawley, the roofs are scheduled to be replaced in two to three years, well within the life expectancy of 25 to 30 years.

In light of recent events, she said, the museum’s facilities manager, Mike Holland, “anticipates that this schedule will now probably be accelerated. We will know more in the spring.”


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.