When I first heard about the demolition of the Gardner Museum's carriage house (at left, photo by David L. Ryan), I assumed it was of no particular interest. Then, when I saw photos of it a few months later, I was immediately struck by its charm, and I began to understand why so many local groups had been fighting the museum's plans. And at last, I've suddenly realized today that I've been paying almost no attention at all to an unfolding local scandal.
In a word, the destruction of the Gardner carriage house to make way for the intended Renzo Piano addition is nothing less than a crime - against the city and Mrs. Gardner. New details revealed in today's Globe provide documentary support for what is clear to the average eye - the building is eccentric and personal, and very much in "Mrs. Jack's" style (the elaborate façade makes no architectural sense except as a private statement). Quibbles over whether or not the structure was explicitly included in her will are immaterial; these can only prove the museum is merely trampling on her legacy in spirit, not in legal name. Likewise claims that an expansion could not accommodate the existing building strike me as ridiculous - such challenges are supposed to be Renzo Piano's specialty. No doubt something in the program would have to go, or more money would have to be spent (and that may be what's behind the museum's determination not to yield). Then again, this wouldn't be the first time a Board has allowed its own drive to undermine the spirit of its founding charter - nor is this the first time the Gardner has betrayed Mrs. Jack. It's not even the second time. The theft of some of the Gardner's greatest treasures, of course, remains the largest blow to the city's culture in memory - and the safety of the collection was, in the end, the Board's responsibility. And recently we've learned, again in the Globe, that in the 70's the museum simply sold off most of Gardner's Asian art collection, to make way for a gift shop and café.
Frankly, this sad, eventful history, considered in its entirety, dwarfs the impact of the dissolution of the Rose Art Museum; indeed, it's among the most brazen sagas of negligence I've ever come across in the cultural world. The Gardner secretly sold off part of its founder's collection, then lost her Vermeer and two Rembrandts, and now has set about tearing down the most intriguing external feature of her house. And yet we've heard comparatively little about this last affront from the press until now. Thank God we finally are, of course - the Globe is to be commended for this spate of publicity, even if it's last minute. Indeed, it may be too late. The Board is meeting to vote on the plan tomorrow (Monday). I'm not sure what avenues are left to protest or influence their actions. But at least the situation has finally come clear - along with the rather despicable machinations of museum director Anne Hawley, who it seems has threatened the jobs of concerned staffers (the staff seems to be in mutiny anyway - most of the details of the story have come from anonymous leaks). In a sane world, of course, Hawley would get the boot, and the carriage house would be saved. But we're not living in a sane world, so I guess we'll have to stay tuned.