Isabella Stewart Gardner was a Boston legend, even in her lifetime. She was known as “The Queen of Back Bay,” but she had not always been a queen. She was far from beautiful and, in the age of Vanderbilts, only moderately wealthy. She kept her charities private while tales of her indiscretions, true or false, were often much too public.
Upon her marriage to Boston’s Jack Gardner, her father bought the newlyweds a fashionable home on Beacon Street, just a few doors away from poet Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Isabella and Jack Gardner embarked on a grand tour of the East in 1883. They spent much time in Yokohama and Tokyo visiting their Boston friends Sturgis Bigelow, Percival Lowell, and Ernest Fenollosa. Following treks through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, and India, they ended their tour de force back in Isabella’s favorite city—Venice.
Jack Gardner died in 1898 and Isabella set about building her dream, a museum designed in the style of a Venetian Palazzo in which she would live. Her palace would sit at the end of the Fenway, Boston’s new central park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and house her ever-growing collection of art from around the world.
She called her house/museum Fenway Court.
It sported three stories of balconies overlooking an interior courtyard roofed over with glass and filled with mosaics and statuary. Her private residence was on the fourth floor. This pleasure palace devoted to art was finished in 1903, four years before the Boston Museum of Fine Arts broke ground on their new location just down the street. Fenway Court opened with a grand celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a menu that included both champagne and doughnuts.