On Presidents’ Day, my wife and I met friends in Boston to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Fenway, which is a case study in museum revitalization. The venerable, distinctive museum building dates from the early 1900s. Inside is the extraordinary and eclectic collection of an amazing woman, who turned her private passion for art into a public gem. The recent expansion of the museum has given the place a new vitality and appeal—I remembered it as a sleepy, quirky, side attraction dwarfed by the nearby Museum of Fine Arts. Museum Director Anne Hawley, appointed in 1989, has led the transformation. A visit to the Gardner is always special. Seeing the four-story atrium with its exotic plants and trees in late winter is not exactly like walking up the ramp from the dim innards of Fenway Park and gazing upon the bright green outfield, but there is some of that. The artworks make a catalog of art history. After touring the museum we enjoyed a fine lunch in the new cafe that offers everything from trout and oxtail to flat-bread pizza and quiche. Of note, Isabella married John Lowell “Jack” Gardner of Boston in 1860. Jack’s father’s mother, Rebecca Russell Lowell, was related to Percival Lowell, who arrived on Cape Ann in 1639. Jack’s shipping and railroad businesses were the source of wealth for the philanthropy for which Isabella and he are best known.
My wife and I did the be-a-tourist-in-your-own-state thing again yesterday as part of our “stay-cation” approach this summer. We started and ended our day in Andover, but spent most of the bright blue-sky day in Boston, which looked very good in the parts we visited.
Boston King Coffee on Main Street in Andover was our first stop for something different to begin the day. It’s a fine local eatery with a “Rainbow Scramble” egg dish (diced colored peppers, tomatoes, tofu, and ham) that we highly recommend. The menu lists Richardson’s Ice Cream, so I asked if it was from Richardson’s Dairy in Dracut—it’s from Middleton. The magazines on a side table included several issues of Forbes and a fancy wine publication. Just like the Owl Diner.
We moved right along to Boston after the rush hour and parked at a pricey garage near Faneuil Hall for convenience. We wanted to walk the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greeenway, which has been on our “to do” list. The day was perfect, sunny with a slight breeze off the harbor and powder blue overhead. We traversed the whole string of parks (North End, Wharf District, Fort Point Channel, Dewey Square, and Chinatown).
Web photo by Pennington courtesy of panoramio.com
Along the way we encountered fountains, magnificent flowers of many varieties, a vegetable garden, permanent and temporary sculptures, stretches of thick and well-maintained grass, plenty of benches and individual red steel chairs, swaths of sunflowers and black-eyed Susans, a mass of bamboo and a bold red angular arch referencing the familiar old ornate gateway to Chinatown, an artificial brook, and lots of people of all ages enjoying being outside. The Greenway makes a second Boston Common, only long and narrow. On either side of the Greenway the city presents itself as an attractive, energetic capital. My impression is that Boston post-Big Dig is so much more vivid and so much less gritty and hard-edged. With the ocean and Harbor Islands providing a vista to the east and the greened-up streetscape, recycled seaside commercial buildings, and steel-and-glass towers forming the land’s edge in that district, Boston really feels like a world-class city on the order of London or New York.
We circled back to the Wharf District via an inland path that took us through Downtown Crossing, past the failed huge Borders Bookstore and bronze Irish Famine Memorial, to the North End through Christopher Columbus Park with its own Rose Kennedy tribute rose garden whose caretakers are the Friends of the park. We wound our way through the always interesting North End, stopping at the iconic Paul Revere on horseback statue and stepping into the Old North Church at 193 Salem Street, dating from 1723 (“the oldest standing church building in Boston”). We learned something new: the two lanterns hung from the steeple on April 18, 1775, were displayed to watch guards in Charlestown for “one minute” only, according to the guide in the church. That was enough to foil British plans to disrupt rebel activity in Lexington and Concord.
By 12.30 pm, we were ready to eat again and picked a small pizza place on Salem Street, one whose compact dining room opened onto the street. As of yesterday, it was the best pizza we have tasted—maybe being so hungry helped. The place, whose name I can’t recall, has a white decor with a bar on the left and small kitchen in the back. There are tables for maybe 20 people. On the way to lunch we bought Italian cookies at a tiny bakery, also on Salem St., which we sampled when we sat for a while along the waterfront before retrieving our car.
On the way home we retraced our route through Andover, where we bought a few books and a cool, collectible “On the Road” orange steel water bottle from Penguin Books at the Andover Bookstore (founded in 1809). We walked up and down Main Street, loaded with small businesses that appeared to be doing well enough. We spotted a couple of For Rent signs on side streets, but overall the downtown is lively. Near 4 p.m., we left town to do one last errand.
One local note for my friends at LNHPark. The Harbor Islands National Park info pavilion near the Aquarium was stocked with brochures from every Park in Massachusetts except Lowell and Saugus Iron Works. Either Lowell is popular or they need a supply of the standard brochures down there. The interpretive signage at the pavilion and all over the wharf district is top-notch. Boston collectively has done an excellent job on its public spaces in that part of the city.
More on city life: Look at this feature from boston.com and the Globe with ideas from young entrepreurs about how to make Boston more appealing for entrepreneurship, working, and living.
Big. Huge. Vast. Jumbo. Massive. A cornucopia of American art.
My wife and I met two friends for Sunday brunch at the Museum of Fine Arts. We hadn’t been to the MFA since the opening of the new Art of the Americas Wing and Shapiro Family Courtyard last November. To their great credit the folks at the MFA succeeded in making themselves the next new thing in Boston, not a small achievement for an organization that has been around as long as the MFA has. There’s something very un-Boston in the way the MFA emphasized size and quantity in the retooling of the visitor experience. We’re more accustomed to places that are compact gems, like Fenway Park and the North End. In the new courtyard and wing there is a “wow” moment around every other corner.
This is a super-sized MFA, from the spaciousness of the glass-enclosed courtyard with its ground-level eatery to the stunning presentation of certain paintings amid related sculptures, furnishings, and other pieces of decorative art. Displays run from dense salon-style galleries to near-scenic vistas featuring massive landscapes, historical narratives, and portraits. One painting, “The Passage of the Delaware” with Gen. Washington on horseback, measures 17 x 12 feet. Thomas Sully’s painting was commissioned in 1819 for the North Carolina State House, but miscommunication between the Governor’s Office and the artist led to the creation of a work too large to fit in the State House. The painting wound up on display in Boston. Now it fills a prime spot in the MFA’s new wing, coming in at about half the size of a drive-in movie screen.
“The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully (1819). Web photo courtesy of boston.com
While expansive as a whole, the new wing contains many mid-sized galleries, each with a prominent name inscribed high on one wall, a model of naming-opportunity fundraising. These are filled with works that I don’t recall seeing in my years of visiting the MFA. And if I’ve seen them, the way they are encountered now makes for a sense of discovery. The American folk art gallery appeared to be all new. Unexpected wall colors like burgandy and royal blue give paintings and art objects a fresh look. Old favorites like “Watson and the Shark” (1778) and “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (1882) take their places like family elders.
If you have been to the MFA in Boston 20 times before and haven’t been for a while, you should consider going to see the new and improved MFA. I doubt that you will be disappointed. This is a spectacular addition to Boston. We are fortunate to be so close to such a treasure.
“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by John Singer Sargent. Web photo courtesy of csmonitor.com
After watching our quarterback in Detroit on TV yesterday, I have to say I’ve never seen Tom Brady play better than he did on a couple of those second half drives. I’m ready to put him on the Boston sports Mt Rushmore with Carl Yastrzemski, Bill Russell, and Bobby Orr.
Read this NYT rave review of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing. Go there. Quickly now.
Frederick Ayer, brother to Dr. J. C. Ayer of patent medicine fame, is in the news today. He too was in the patent medicine business, also the coal business but even more so in the textile business in the Merrimack Valley in both Lowell and Lawrence. His fashionable home on Pawtucket Street in Lowell designed in the Second Empire style by S. S. Woodcock is now the home of the Franco-American School that celebrated its Centennial last year. One of his daughters – Beatrice – was married to General George S. Patton and daughter Ellen was married to William Wood Ayer’s partner in the American Woolen Mills in Lawrence. A study of the Ayers allows a fascinating look at the lives and influence of a local entrepreneurial family. For the locals a reminder that both brothers are buried at the Lowell Cemetery. The UMASS Lowell Center for Lowell History and the Lowell Historical Society are excellent sources for more on the Ayers, the patent medicine business and business in 19th and early 20th century Lowell. Check the Center for Lowell History here and the Lowell Historical Society here.
Of note today, is a mansion Frederick Ayer had built for his second wife on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. As stated in Meghan Irons story in today’s Boston Globe : ”It is believed to be the only surviving residential property designed entirely by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Art Nouveau titan.” About fifteen years ago a committee was formed to restore the mansion:
“This house was sort of the unknown to the Tiffany scholars, and it was largely unknown to the architectural scholars in Boston,’’ said Scott Steward, a great-great-grandson of Ayer and president of the restoration campaign. “It couldn’t have been more obvious on Commonwealth Avenue, but no one noticed it.’’