In September of 1896, Willard Sears was on a train to attend the wedding of a relation, Ruth Simpkins to be held in Yarmouthport. Sears, who had co-designed a number of Boston landmarks, including the new Old South Church downtown with Charles Amos Cummings, still took his own commissions after Cummings retired in 1890. On this trip, he encountered Isabella Stuart Gardner, a well-known character in Boston. A New Yorker, who had married into a well-known New England family, Gardner was known and gossiped about for racy dress and unpredictable behavior.
Gardner loved design. She loved to travel; and she accumulated things, art pieces and artifacts, through the 1870s and 1880s. She asked Sears, who had done work for the Gardners before, to prepare a set of plans for a museum with apartments above, but not to discuss the matter with anyone.
In 1898, Sears wrote:
Called on Mrs. J. L. Gardner at 2 p.m with the drawings for the Museum…and she informed me that she had purchased a lot of land 100 ft. by 150 ft. on the Back Bay Park to build the Museum upon – That she wanted me to make new drawings, & to include a small theatre with the Museum.
Sears, likely chosen in part for his tractability, would continue to take direction from Gardner, who remained adamantly involved in the placement of every architectural element, throughout the design and construction of Fenway Court. The new lots were on empty land, adjoining parkland newly laid out by Frederick Olmsted. Gardner arrived daily at the Fens site, carrying a dinner pail, to oversee construction. Designed after an Italian Palace, the ornate building is studded with architectural ornaments and full of arches and pillars, which she often had torn out and remade to her exacting personal vision.
The theatrical, intimate museum opened to the public in 1903. Each room, designed to a different theme is filled with her art, furniture and other collected oddities. The provisions of Gardner’s will–she died in 1924–stipulated that the collection she had installed remain as she had left it. For that reason, the three frames which held paintings stolen in a famous 1990 robbery of the Museum stand empty in their original places.
Last week, the Gardner museum unveiled plans for a $118 million wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano. The new wing, for which the museum has already broken ground, doubles the museum’s space, with a new performance space and gallery that will hold temporary exhibitions. It will become the entryway to the museum.
Piano argues: “It’s the opposite side you enter, but there is the same sense of discovery.”