Mrs. Gardner & Mr. Sears

January 24, 2012

The reopening of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum shined a spotlight on the home Mrs. Gardner built in the Fenway with the assistance of architect Willard Thomas Sears.

It’s a good time to remember that for 40 years Mrs. Gardner’s principal residence was on Beacon Street in the Back Bay. And, that Mr. Sears’ work endures throughout the neighborhood. 

150-152 Beacon Street

When Isabella Stewart married Jack Gardner in 1860, her father built what author Bainbridge Bunting called, “a conservative twenty-two foot residence” for her at 152 Beacon Street. In 1880, the Gardners bought and annexed the adjacent house at 150 Beacon Street. Both houses are now gone but there is a Gardner plaque on the property’s fence.

 It was in the Back Bay that the couple amassed the majority their renowned collection of artwork and it was here that she and her husband began to draw up plans for Fenway Court.

Mrs. Gardner’s Salon

 It was also in the Back Bay that Mrs. Gardner socialized with friends, including men like Henry James, James McNeill Whistler, and John Singer Sargent. In 1899, the Boston Globe said, “For years Mrs. Gardner has had in Boston the only ‘Salon’ in the European sense. Here she was wont to entertain daily the brilliant men and smart women of that city.”

She was a celebrity. Newspaper sketch artists were the paparazzi of her day. They would capture her image at the opening of a play or in her box at the horse races. Mrs. Jack Gardner’s image would lend glamour to an article about the event.

 A Big Personality

 It was also in the Back Bay that she gained her reputation as a colorful character. That same  Globe story reported that, “She startled all fashionable Boston by attending summer ‘pop’ concerts and drinking beer in public.” She went to boxing matches and even, “borrowed a lion from the Boston Zoo and paraded it before the whole public.”

 The Architect

 Willard Sears’ work is scattered throughout the neighborhood. Two of his large apartment hotels, the Marlborough at 416 Marlborough Street and the Hotel Cambridge at 483 Beacon Street, stand a block apart along Massachusetts Avenue.

 With his partner, Charles Amos Cummings, Sears designed 21 single-family homes in the Back Bay Residential District, an office building at 372-378 Boylston Street, the Old South Church in Copley Square, the Cyclorama building in the South End, and the Pilgrim Memorial in Provincetown.

 The Man for the Job

Jack Gardner was in favor of hiring Sears as the architect for the new home in the Fenway. According to the Museum, he said, “…I think our chance for economy with sufficiently good work and good management, and attention to business is perhaps better with Sears than anybody.”

 In Mrs. Gardner, Sears took on a very involved client with a firm vision of her personal museum. “The architect kept a diary during construction and it documents a most demanding client. Isabella insisted on choosing the location of every architectural element. As arches were erected, she would change her mind and have them entirely redone,” says a Gardner Museum essay on the the building of Fenway Court.

 The partnership of Mrs. Gardner & Mr. Sears produced a palace that has charmed people since January 1, 1903 when 500 guests were invited to Fenway Court. Last week, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum reopened with a new addition and restoration of the tapestry room that had been used for concerts.

  • Mobrienphd

    The Marlborough is a beautiful building.

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