Essential Architecture- Boston

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (U.S. National Register of Historic Places)


Willard T. Sears


Boston, Massachusetts




Venetian Renaissance palazzo


incorporating numerous architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures.


The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or Fenway Court is a museum in Boston, Massachusetts with a collection of over 2,500 works of European, Asian and American art, including paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts. The museum also hosts [2] of historic and contemporary art.

In 1896, Isabella Stewart Gardner hired architect Willard T. Sears to design the museum[3].

The museum was established in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924), a wealthy patron of the arts. It is housed in a building designed to evoke a Venetian Renaissance palazzo, but it was built entirely from the ground up in Boston, out of new materials, but incorporating numerous architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures. The antique elements are seamlessly worked into the design of the turn-of-the-century building. Special tiles were custom designed for the floors, modern concrete was used for some of the structural elements, and antique capitals sit atop modern columns. The interior garden courtyard is covered by a glass roof, with steel support structure original to the building. The building was not brought to America from Venice and reconstructed; that is a common misconception.

The museum has a small but outstanding collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, ceramics, prints, drawings, manuscripts, rare books, jewelry, and Japanese screens. It is particularly rich in Italian Renaissance paintings, as well as in 19th-century works by John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. The first Matisse to enter an American collection is housed there.

The Gardner Museum is much admired for the intimate atmosphere in which its works of art are displayed and its flower-filled courtyard. Most of the art pieces are unlabeled, and the generally dim lighting is more akin to a private house than a modern art museum. There is additionally a performance hall in which a piano and extra seating are located, and concerts [4] are held there most Sundays from September through May.

Gardner began collecting seriously after she received a large inheritance from her father in 1891. Her purchase of Vermeer's The Concert at auction in Paris in 1892 was her first major acquisition. In 1894, Bernard Berenson offered his services in helping her acquire a Botticelli. Berenson helped acquire nearly 70 works of art for her collection.

To honor their founder, the museum offers free admission and occasional special events for anyone named Isabella.[5]

On the morning of March 18, 1990, thieves disguised as police officers broke into the museum and stole thirteen works of art, including a painting by Vermeer (The Concert) and three Rembrandts (two paintings, including his only seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and a small self-portrait print) as well as works by Manet, Degas, Govaert Flinck, and a French and a Chinese artifact. It is considered the biggest art theft in US history and remains unsolved. The museum still displays the paintings' empty frames in their original locations due to the strict provisions of Gardner's will, which instructed that the collection be maintained unchanged. The thefts are a subject of a 2005 documentary called Stolen which in a slightly different version had earlier appeared on Court TV.

In September 2004 and February 2005 there were reports in Variety, the Boston Herald and The Boston Globe about a new theory emerging on the theft, as in early February 2005 the FBI flew an American art dealer from New York to Paris to meet with the French National Police and pursue new leads. [6]

Several of the people implicated by the emerging theory, which alleged that the Boston Mob did the burglary and then brokered the paintings to European dealers and collectors through an art dealer affiliated with the Genovese crime family, had been arrested in 1999 for an armored car robbery, a robbery they never even got to attempt. In 2001 one of the alleged robberers to be, David Turner, got a sentence of 36 years while another, Carmello Merlino, got 47 years. [7]

In late 2005, the museum hired a former Homeland Security official who helped to rebuild security at Logan Airport after the events of September 11, 2001. The museum then immediately brought MAC Systems and General Electric in to conduct a large-scale and comprehensive upgrade ot the facility's access control system. More upgrades are in the works to ensure that the events of March 18, 1990, are never repeated.

Although Isabella Stewart Gardner stipulated the current collection remain in the state it was in upon her death, with everything arranged according to her stipulations, the museum from time to time has organized temporary exhibitions. On November 29, 2004, it announced this exhibition program would grow, and will construct a new building to accommodate growth outside the original Gardner collection. Renzo Piano's firm is to serve as the expansion's architects. The new building will triple special exhibition space, create new office and cafe space, and relocate the museum's main entrance. The planned completion date is 2010.[8]
Mrs. Jack Gardner was a Boston Society woman, and had a beautiful building constructed in the Fenway. The building was modeled after a 15th century Venetian palace. Before she passed away, she had stipulated in her will that the building remain unchanged, forever. It contains a beautiful courtyard, with flowered gardens, protected from the New England weather by a glass roof.

The museum's collection is very significant, containing Asian, European, and American works of art. Some of the important paintings include Giorgione's Christ Bearing the Cross (c.1500), Raphael's Lamentation (c.1504), Titian's Rape of Europa (c.1562), Rembrandt's Self Portrait, Age 23, and John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo (1882). Other works of art include ancient and medieval sculpture and objects, and the building itself.

A great feature of the museum is the atmosphere of being in a wealthy residence. Visitors can roam the floors casually and observe the artworks, unlike modern museums with tall painted walls and fluorescent lights everywhere. The Gardner Museum is a cosmopolitan jewel in Boston's Back Bay.

One of the greatest art thefts in History occurred at the museum in 1990, and a huge reward is still offered for the safe return of these works.

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The Biggest U.S. Art Theft

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

On March 18, 1990, two men dressed in police uniforms and donning fake black mustaches banged on the door of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 1:24 a.m. Even though it was against museum policy, the two security guards let the officers in. The cops told them that they were simply investigating a disturbance on the grounds. It took only a few minutes for the security guards to realize that the men were thieves. The disguised intruders tied up the guards and quickly carried out one of the biggest art heists in U.S. history.

Lady & Gentleman in Black, Rembrandt

In just 81 minutes the men swept through the museum taking with them 13 items, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Govaert Flinck and Manet painting, a bronze Chinese beaker, five sketches by Degas and a bronze eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag. Rochelle Steinhaus reported in her article that the paintings were "savagely cut" from their frames "leaving (the) ragged edges of the canvas behind in otherwise empty frames," which significantly decreased the paintings' value. The carelessness exhibited by the thieves indicated that the robbery was not conducted by art lovers who wished to keep the paintings for personal pleasure but were more likely stolen for ransom. The paintings were estimated at a value of around $200 to $300 million.

According to the FBI, the assailants were white, medium complexioned men with black hair and dark eyes. One of the men appeared to be in his early 30s, standing at around 6 feet tall and weighing about 180-200 pounds. The second man was thought to be in his late 20s or early 30s, with a slim build, between 5'7" to 5'10' tall, and with a Boston accent.

Tom Mashberg stated in his March 2000 article in the Boston Herald that the younger-looking thief told the guards before fleeing, "Tell them they'll be hearing from us." Yet, no one ever did. Despite a $5 million reward offered by the museum, the paintings were never seen again. The heist sparked a rash of theories about who stole the art work, leading "FBI investigators and private eyes hired by the museum (to) pursue leads pointing to South American drug cartels, the Irish Republican Army, Japanese underworld figures and even Boston-area mobsters," Mashberg reported.

A vast majority of the leads were dropped and as the years passed hope slowly diminished in ever finding the thieves or the stolen objects. Yet, in 1997 the FBI turned their attention to two possible suspects, convicted art thief Myles Connor Jr., and his friend, antique dealer William P. Youngworth III. Even though both men were imprisoned at the time of the big heist, they were thought to have masterminded it from behind bars, Steinhaus suggested.

Myles Connor Jr

That year, Youngworth and Connor tried to strike a bargain with the FBI offering to "broker the return" of the paintings in exchange for immunity for criminal charges, the reward money and Connor's release from jail, Mashberg stated. In fact, Youngworth arranged for the Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg to see one of the paintings, Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee, in a darkened New York warehouse. Ed Butler reported in The Independent that Mashberg did see a painting that resembled the masterpiece but it was uncertain if it was genuine. Not surprisingly, the deal never went through because the authorities were not willing to submit to the outrageous demands.

Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee

Other deals were arranged with Youngworth, some of which directly involved the museum. However, all of them fell through. When it came down to it, Youngworth wasn't able to prove that he could get the paintings, although he still claims he knows who stole them. Chances are the masterpieces are scattered around the world probably being sold as copies instead of the originals that they are. It is expected that that is the only way thieves are able to get the paintings off their hands and collect on them.

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