July 15, 2012

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Reinvents the Greenhouse


THE NEW MODERN GREENHOUSE AT THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDENER MUSEUM IN BOSTON, DESIGNED BY ARCHITECT RENZO PIANO.



There is something to said about efforts that are done well, for there are few projects today that are not cutting costs with materials, or looking for shortcuts at the cost of aesthetic value or quality. So when I heard that the recent addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston had included the re-invention of their growing and display greenhouses, and that the design was undertaken by the Pritzker Prize winning Italian architect Renzo Piano and his Renzo Piano Building Workshop, was more than interested to visit. The museum was kind in inviting me to come for an entire afternoon for a complete tour of not only Renzo's masterpiece, but also the restoration efforts underway in the older part of the museum, much of which I will save for another post.


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THE COURTYARD INSIDE THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM, IN FULL JUST DISPLAY OF WHITE OLEANDER, BLUE HYDRANGEAS AND PALMS. IT'S LIKE STEPPING BACK IN TIME. IN THE 1960's WHEN I LAST VISITED, THERE WERE AMAZING POTS OF WHITE MADONNA LILIES.



GREAT CARE AND PLANNING RESULTED IN A GREENHOUSE ANEX THAT HAS MULTIPLE WORKSHOP AREAS FOR TRAINING, WORK SHOPS AND MORE.

Modern greenhouses are still rare, of course, we know of the Davies Alpine House at Kew designed by Wilkinson Eyre, but in American, there are few such structures. The Isabella Stewart Gardner complex has growing greenhouses near by in Brookline, and exhibition and educational greenhouses designed by Piano adjacent to the museums new entrance, so any visitor can see them.

THERE ARE EVEN CLASS ROOMS FOR WORKSHOPS. TERRAZZO FLOORS, DRAINAGE AND AUTOMATIC SHADES MAKE THIS GREENHOUSE PRACTICAL AND FLEXIBLE.



 Renzo Piano is no small architect, in a few weeks, Olympic viewers will see his latest project THE SHARD, towering over the city of London - the tallest skyscraper in Europe which opened last week on July 6. Many will recognize his most well known earlier project, the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris, France but, which was completed in 1977, but since then, Mr. Piano has created some of the most important contributions to global architecture including the impressively grand Modern Wing at the Chicago Art Institute, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Morgan Library and Museum expansion, in NYC ( which I greatly enjoyed) and the New York Time Building in New York, which would make any Spiderman happy given its facade.

There is so much to see at the new Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, that I encourage all of you to make time to visit. But if you are not from the Boston area, you may be wondering who was she, and what is this museum all about?

THE COURTYARD  WITH A POTTED PLANT DISPLAY IN JUNE. THE VENETIAN ARCHITECTURE BLENDS SO WELL WITH THE PALMS AND TROPICALS. IMAGINE WHAT THIS WAS LIKE IN 1909 ON A SNOWY DAY.


Her life history is worth reading  and maybe even better than 50 shades of Gray, so keep it at your bedside. Isabella Stewart (1840-1924) was born in New York and married Bostonian John Lowell Gardner, Jr. (Jack) in 1860. The Gardners' wide travels inspired a passion for art that evolved into a passion for collecting, like many did in the Victorian Era with plants, dogs, etc. When Isabella's father died and left his fortune, Isabella started collecting herself, especially in Italy.

At the same time, Mrs. Gardner began keen collections of plants. One account  ( in Edith Warton's Italianate Villas and their Gardens, New York 1904, states that "One of the earliest Japanese gardens in the US was planted in 1885 for Isabella Stewart Gardener, a woman keenly interested in the arts of Japan through her association with the circle in Boston collecting Japanese art for the Museum of fine Arts.". But there are few written accounts of her gardens, most are about the artwork.

Yet I was curious. In photos of the Monks garden I can see many Japanese plants that were very popular in Kyoto at the turn of the century, such Edo period plants as Asagao ( Japanese Morning glory) that were often trained onto trellis;s a cut short so the could bloom early on bamboo poles and wisteria.

After years of collecting art, the Gardners built and opened their museum in 1903, where they could display and share their collections. During Gardner's lifetime, she welcomed artists, performers, and scholars to Fenway Court to draw inspiration from the rich collection and dazzling Venetian setting, including John Singer SargentCharles Martin Loeffler, and Ruth St. Denis, among others. Today, the museum’s vibrant contemporary Artist-in-Residence program, courtyard garden displays, concerts, and innovative education programs continue Isabella Gardner’s legacy.

When Isabella Stewart Gardner died in 1924, her will created an endowment of $1 million and outlined stipulations for the support of the museum, including the charge that her collection be permanently exhibited “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever” according to her aesthetic vision and intent. Gardner stipulated that if her wishes for the museum were not honored, the property and collection were to be sold and the money given to Harvard University.

EACH SPRING, THE HORTICULTURAL STAFF SHOWS OFF THEIR CULTURAL SKILL BY INSTALLING AN ANNAUL EVENT BASED AROUND MRS. GARDNERS BIRTHDAY, WHICH FALLS IN APRIL, A RITUAL SINCE 1904 - THE HANGING NASTURTIUMS WHICH HAD BEEN TRAINED IN THE GREENHOUSES FOR MONTHS. THIS IMAGE IS FROM BOSTON ZEST.


Today, the new museum offers all of the amenities of a major museum, with a cafe and dining area, shopping, in the new wing. Classrooms and workshops bring in the community, and with a museum store unlike any other I had visited before with beautifully curated objects, it has a magnificent concert all, as music was just one of the tent poles that Mrs. Gardner supported.  There are evening events and concerts, especially their new Museum After Hours events. I encourage you to check their site to see what might interest you.

The entire new wing is separate from the main museum, which was built like a large brick home at the turn of the century. Mr. Piano crafted the space primarily with glass, a large, transparent cube with a long glassed in passage way leading through the garden into the main museum. On either side, there were interesting installation of plants, hundreds of Hamamelis laid out like a carpet, promises a colorful spring, planted so thickly that I could only imagine what the site would be like on a cold, February day.

OK, PERHAPS THE NICEST POTTING SHED IN THE WORLD.


 These plantings are part of an aggressive project by Charles Waldheim, who is the consulting curator of Landscape at the museum ( Hopefully, they will consider adding a new position - consulting Curator of horticultural projects? ahem)  Once one begins the journey through the glass passage way, your mind is cleared, through the aid of caged singing canaries, and a canopy of large Pinus bungeana and Hornbeams, which envelope the transparent corridor.  So thoughtful, it serves as a visual palate cleanser, helping one adjust from the starkness of modernity on one side, and engaging new senses of smell, light and sound upon entering in what appears to be the nineteenth century.

Once in the main museum, little has changed at first glance beyond careful restoration of fabrics, floor tiles and the re-opening of some rooms. Perhaps the finest experience here for gardeners will be the courtyard, still breathtaking as ever, with 6 stages horticultural installations yearly ( I've been told to check out the Japanese Chrysanthemum exhibit in October. On my visit, as it was June, a less exciting display of delicate light blue agapanthus ( a variety that I must have) as well as while oleander and blue hydrangea, composed a cool yet serene scene on a hot, early summer day.

This entire visit began with an email that I received in April, a note from one of the horticultural staff and blog follower at the  Museum asking me if I might be interested in allowing them to obtain some of our rarer Clivia species and crosses, as they would complement their annual Nasturtium exhibition in the conservatory, and, provide some variety to the older specimens that they have in the collection. Of course, I was delighted, and soon, we will be getting together to review options for these and other plant contributions that I might be able to offer ( standard heliotropes perhaps? A nerine show? I discovered a party review the social section of in a 1910 New York Times society page where "Mrs. Gardner enchanted her guests with the scent of Tuber Roses in the garden, as the music played".
THE MONKS GARDEN, OUTSIDE IN AN EARLY SHOW. CLASSICALLY ITALIANATE IN DESIGN, THIS WAS COMMON IN 1909 ( LOOK AT OUR OWN LONG WALK, ALSO CREATED 1910) . THE POTS AND VINES ABOVE LOOK LIKE MORNING GLORIES, MAYBE JAPANESE ONES, OR SWEET PEAS. IT WAS COMMON FOR TUBEROSES, CHRYSANTHEMUM AND OTHER TENDER ANNUALS LIKE SCHIZANTHUS WHICH WERE OFTEN GROWN IN POTS OUTDOORS, AND THEN MOVED AROUND FOR COLOR, AND BROUGHT INDOORS FOR LATE COLOR>


IN THIS EARLY IMAGE, WE CAN SEE WISTERIA VINES TRAINED ON TO PERGOLA, WHAT LOOKS LIKE JAPANESE IRIS AND WILLOWS. MANY OF THESE FORMAL EURO-CENTRIC GARDENS INTEGRATED ASIAN INFLUENCES INTRODUCED IN THE ARTS & CRAFTS ERA.

 I would welcome such attention to horticultural detail again - schizanthus in the autumn, tiers of Amaranth and Heliotrope trained as standards in the summer, I would like to see as much attention paid to the plant material as has been done with fabric research.  This is a garden that deserves pot of white clay and Parma violets in February, long toms in a period style with Single Tuberoses in August, cascades on mums in November, period conservatory plants and not hybrids that are modern. Sure, this would take lots of staff and craftsmanship that is difficult to find today, as well as support, but it can be done.

 I will admit that I was sad to have missed the annual hanging of the nasturtiums, and I will need to return to see if autumn or winter offers a better display of plants. June is sometimes not the best time to see potted plants. On the day I visited, the display was primarily blue and white, with white oleander, a sweet pale blue agapanthus, and some out-of place hydrangeas and white Phalaenopsis orchids.  Old photos that I found at the Boston Public Library shows displays of tender primula species popular in the era, Primula farinosa, P. obconica and other Asian tender species common in cool greenhouses at the turn of the century. In most photos, I could identify tubs of olive trees, citrus and many pots of camellia often under planted with pots of early varieties or the species form of Primula species that are tender, which at the time were known as chinese primula. These early forms grew tall and larger than new selections. I would suggest that the growers at the museum try to obtain wild seed from one of the seed exchanges, or request seed from one of the Himalayan expeditions and see if they can grow them again.

EARLY IMAGES OF THE FENWAY COURST SHOW CHINESE PRIMULA SPECIES AND CAMELLIAS. FROM THE BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY.

In the little research I did do, I did find that the New York Times mentioned in 1910 that the Fenway Court has bouquets of Tuberoses during chamber music concerts.   I imagine that in her time, Mrs. Gardner would have had cascading Cymbidiums, or cool growing orchids which were common in Brookline glass houses, as well as the traditional conservatory plants grown in fanciful ways.  Hybrid blue hydrangea? Not likely, as they were not introduced yet from japan.  Lace leave forms, or simply first generation Japanese blue forms, yes.  I would have suggest searching for some heirloom Japanese varieties, the sort with magnificent floral heads with old, japanese names from the Edo period., That would see appropriate. Many cool growing conservatory orchids would have been used in June, but I doubt that hybrid  Phalaeonopsis would have been. Now with new greenhouses, I would encourage growers to source out some period orchids grown in turn of the century conservatories, as well as tubs of Crinum carefully crafted vines and summer bulbs like Calla lilies, true trumpet lilies and the then new asiatics, which surely, she would have procured from George Forrest at Harvard  at the time when he returned from collecting in China.

This is a conservatory that deserves tall white delphiniums. rows of calla lilies tubs, trained jasmine vines swapped out with Acacia trees, Crinum tubs, violets and trained Japanese plants. Thematically so much opportunity lies ahead for this crew, given their new greenhouses. How exciting.

I am certain the few visitors really notice such things, but they will. Such shifts in attention to detail and excellence will attract the experts, the connoisseurs, and build their audience. Plant lovers who will travel far and wide to see what one would only see at Kew, or Wisley. In many ways, this  is our Queen's residence, and her greenhouse and displays will rise to meet the quality of the art and collections within. I hope that soon, the plant material will rise up to meet this challenge. I am certain that it will in time - the yellow abutilon being trained in the greenhouse was a good sign!





3 comments :

  1. I am a Simmons College alumna and walked by this museum weekly. It's nice to see such a great improvement. I haven't been back there since I graduated years ago!

    ReplyDelete
  2. hopflower10:15 AM

    Right. Interesting, but I think I would chose a traditional glasshouse (like your own) over one of those modern ones!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I hope they follow your suggestions. It would give it that Victorian conservatory atmosphere, historically appropriate for such a great collection, greatly enhancing its modernistic addition.

    ReplyDelete

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