Detective work helps revive a famed Boston landmark

Like a horticultural Sherlock Holmes, Patrick Chassé tracks down clues to gardens of the past. His latest challenge is to unlock the secrets of a magnificent courtyard garden long identified with a Boston museum and its charismatic founder.

Mr. Chassé, a landscape architect, has served since 2004 as the curator of landscape at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the first person to hold such a title there. His detective work involves documenting the courtyard's evolution and reinstating elements of its design as envisioned by Isabella Stewart Gardner in the early 1900s.

"Because gardens are considered more ephemeral and malleable, they're regarded as less important," he says in an interview at the Gardner museum. "Different administrators feel free to tinker and impose their own tastes, and that happened here."

In the 1970s and '80s, the focus was more on shoring up the museum's building and conserving its art, says director Anne Hawley. The courtyard was stripped back to a more Spartan design. Instead of the exuberant, experimental style favored by Gardner, the garden has gradually taken on a more classical, geometric appearance.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in 1840 to a wealthy New York family and married a well-heeled Bostonian. Together they traveled widely and she built an art collection that was eventually housed in a Venetian-style palace at the edge of the Back Bay Fens. Known as Fenway Court, it was designed by architect Willard Sears, under Mrs. Gardner's instructions, to showcase her art - which includes paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, and Sargent. The palace was opened to the public in 1903, and she lived in the fourth floor apartment until her death in 1924.

This woman with the outsized personality, who both scandalized and inspired New Englanders in her day, had a particular vision. She wanted to show visitors how art - whether on the walls or in a garden - should be lived with, how it interrelated. A number of paintings contain floral motifs or allude to the symbolism behind certain flowers. She also coordinated arrangements of cut flowers in the galleries to complement the art. Her favorites were violets, and in the spring, she kept them in a silver cup next to the 16th-century Italian painting "Christ Carrying the Cross," a tradition that persists.

"Instead of compartmentalizing things as humans often do when they're passionate about collecting, she interwove them in a way that is quite extraordinary," says Chassé. "It takes amazing confidence in oneself ... to do something that subtle and sublime."

Tourists come to see the courtyard and revel in the garden's soothing, moist greenness every bit as much as they come to see the art. For Bostonians, a visit to the courtyard is like being dropped unexpectedly into a Mediterranean landscape, complete with ivy-draped fountain, Greek and Egyptian statuary, and the courtyard's signature Roman Medusa mosaic.

Now, as then, pots of blooming plants such as azaleas and fuchsias form rotating seasonal displays, as do garlands of hanging nasturtiums that are grown to celebrate Gardner's birthday on April 14. She was celebrated for her exotic plants, such as orchids, and for her Japanese iris.

From archival photos, Chassé has begun to decipher the changes wrought in the garden. Some were the result of natural processes: The museum was built atop landfill and the courtyard has sunk about two feet since Gardner's day. Other alterations happened gradually, reflecting changing tastes and economic realities. He compares a 1920s-era photo with the present courtyard: "She had palm trees that reached up to the second floor, but over time, those died." He explains that growing such large palms would be impractical today, so he has introduced containers with fishtail palms to mimic the original shapes.

Chassé also hopes to identify and obtain plants and shrubs with historic pedigrees to recreate some of the lushness that Gardner relished. "She created more of an air of mystery for her guests to move through," he says. Visitors today are not allowed to walk in the garden because of concerns that they might brush against fragile statuary. Chassé's wish list includes allowing visitors limited entry, if preservation concerns can be addressed.

On Gardner's orders, the courtyard garden was photographed yearly, but that stopped when she passed away. The museum archives have yielded very little information on what was planted and where it came from, a situation that makes Chassé's job more difficult.

Gardner's instructions in her will were to keep every piece of art as she had positioned it. But she left no guidance for the gardens. "Everyone is under the impression that nothing can be moved," Chassé says, "That is true of the rooms, but not of the garden."

So he has had to rely on clues gleaned from letters, newspaper accounts, and any information his volunteers can dig out of local horticultural libraries. "She had a good eye," Chassé says, "and she had one of the best botanists in the country [Charles Sprague Sargent] as her adviser."

Director Hawley says that for the last decade the museum has been reexamining the links between Gardner's passion for art, music, and horticulture. "We wanted to bring back that Victorian lushness, but we also learned that you can't restore gardens to the letter," she says. Now, the emphasis is on elevating the courtyard to its former status as an integral part of the museum.

"By hiring Patrick Chassé, the Gardner is showing they really are thinking of their landscapes as part of their collection," says Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington.

Chassé's goal is to restore the garden to a version more in keeping with Gardner's adventurous spirit. "I see it as a parallel to the excitement in the art world when an X-ray reveals a hidden painting, leading to its eventual re-exposure. I hope to restore that original vision, but perhaps not as literally."

Even if records were found, some of the plant varieties Gardner grew are no longer available. Fashions change, and plants go into and out of cultivation. Instead, he sees his job as reintegrating the garden into the fabric of the museum. To that end, he has launched a landscape-design lecture series as well as garden-themed museum tours.

"Everyone seems to recognize that the landscape design is more tied to the spirit of the place," he says.

Museum-quality ideas

The courtyard garden at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum evokes serenity by appealing to four of the five senses. Many of the courtyard's key elements translate to humbler settings in home gardens. Remember, no garden is perfect: A UV filter was added to the courtyard's glass roof to protect the stonework. Now designer Patrick Chassé and head gardener Stan Kozak seek out exotic-looking shade plants that can survive in what Mr. Chassé calls "a big terrarium."

Pleasing the eye

Visitors enter the museum through a dimly lit corridor, which makes their first glimpse of the sun-dappled courtyard through stone columns so enchanting. The garden reveals itself slowly as visitors look down upon it from the galleries. Home gardeners might duplicate this effect with hedges of holly or screens of bamboo. An arch covered with wisteria or clematis dramatizes an entrance.

The sound of water

At the Gardner, visitors are soothed by the sound of water from twin fountains that trickles into a pool. While many home gardeners don't want the hassle of maintaining a large water garden, a number of reasonably priced tabletop fountains are available that require only an electrical outlet. A deck-size water garden can be made from a waterproofed half barrel filled with water hyacinth or papyrus.

Plant for pleasant scents

The courtyard's sumptuous array of blooming potted plants sends its perfume into the galleries. In spring, the heady smell of hyacinth and the delicate aroma of moth orchids spiral up. At other times, the scent of citrus trees or jasmine floats through the halls. Home gardeners might select plants for their scent, such as gardenia, lilac, scented geraniums and mints, lemon balm, and roses.

Textures embolden touch

The courtyard's design uses layers of texture, from the tiny leaves of baby's tears to the mottled stone surfaces of the statues and the spiky fishtail palms. Contrasts are heightened by juxtapositions such as rough and smooth surfaces, dark and light greens. Gardeners should consider a variety of foliage and not rely solely on blooming plants. Benches, birdhouses, and iron trellises also contribute to a range of textures.

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