Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’  design of the Monk's Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum aims to interpret the museum’s meandering gallery layout, and the rich colors and textures of its idiosyncratic collection, in a contemporary landscape context. While the garden is accessible from both the original museum building and Renzo Piano’s new addition, it is not the primary connection between them, freeing it to focus instead on cultivating a sense of place. The garden is given its own interior, with the aim of provoking extended quiet contemplation rather than hurried passage.
The garden is surrounded by a high brick wall, and the design aims to soften this enclosure through the creation of a small-scale, dreamlike woodland. Composed of approximately 60 trees including stewartia, paper bark maple, and gray birch, the groves establish a detail-rich palette of colors and textures suitable for intimate appreciation. Winding paths, paved in a striking combination of black brick and reflective mica schist, meander through the trees. Rather than intersecting, the paths playfully meet and diverge, while also gently widening in places to create nooks for garden chairs.
The exterior gardens at the Museum are an extension of the interior gallery spaces. Directly next to the cloistered interior on the first floor is the space that Gardner dubbed her “monks garden.” This early reference to the garden was formalized and it is now known as the Monk's Garden. In 1908, Isabella Gardner wrote to art advisor Bernard Berenson, “I don’t have time to read, because I trot about with the gardeners. And the little monk’s garden at Fenway Court is very dear too.”
During Gardner’s time, the Monk's Garden was planted in an Italianate style with tall, vertical evergreen trees in rows along part of the main walk and along the edge of the brick wall. Over time she added a large pergola covered with vines and the beds along the pergola were planted with flowers, a design that is reminiscent of the Italianate garden at her Brookline estate.
In October, 1907, a close friend of Gardner's, F. Marion Crawford, wrote “…so you are going to enlarge the Monk's Garden! I wish I could be of use. I have just built a XIIIth century wellhead over the reservoir in my garden…and it is a great success.” As Crawford describes, sculptural and architectural elements were as much a part of the garden as the plantings. During the building of Fenway Court, Gardner was on the construction site every day, directing the workmen to place architectural elements, which she considered artworks. Not one object was allowed to be placed without her approval. Fragments can be seen installed within the garden walls, and features of interest include secluded seating and an ancient sculpture from Zagarolo, Italy.
Photographs show some of the changes to the Monk's Garden and the South Garden that occurred during Gardner’s lifetime. After her death in 1924, Morris Carter, first director of the Museum, immediately made changes to the garden. Although he was an avid gardener, Carter did not share her taste in gardens. He added shrub plantings and a rock garden in the Monk's Garden, noting that he was working upon the layout that Gardner had designed. While Gardner’s will strictly governs the arrangement of the artworks within the galleries, the outside gardens were not described. She wrote, “I prefer that the vacant land shall remain open, but if the Trustees deem it necessary for the protection of the Museum, they may erect buildings thereon…"