- Historic Sites
Mrs. Jack And Her Back Bay Palazzo
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
Perhaps the greatest bargain she ever got was Jan Vermeer’s The Concert , one of only about thirty-six existing paintings by the Dutch master. When the picture came up for auction in Paris in 1892, both the Louvre and the National Gallery in London wanted it, but Mrs. Jack outbid them and got it for six thousand dollars. It was added to a collection that eventually included works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Rubens, Simone Martini, and Mantegna.
In 1898 Jack Gardner died of a stroke at his club. Between the inheritances from him and from her father, Belle found herself in possession of a fortune estimated at upwards of $5,000,000, sufficient to realize the ambition she had cherished since girlhood. Now she would build her palace.
During their travels in Europe the Gardners had been picking up not only paintings but bits and pieces of old houses, palaces, and monasteries. Among these trophies were the mosaic floor of the palace of the Empress Livia near Rome, a doorway and two stone lions from Florence, and eight balconies from the Ca’ d’Oro, most resplendent of Venetian palazzi. All of these would be used in the palace she planned to erect on the newly filled land of Boston’s Back Bay. Since the land had recently been salt marsh, the palace would have to rest on pilings, even as the palazzi of Venice itself did. The first pilings were driven in the summer of 1899.
Mrs. Gardner left the driving of the piles to the contractor while she took off on a final buying tour of Europe, but by spring of 1900 she was on the scene to supervise construction. First off, she decreed that the brick walls could not rest on a flat foundation but must be laid on an irregular surface of rough blocks so that they would seem to rise directly from the earth. Almost at once she ran into trouble with the building inspector in Boston, who insisted that such a large structure must have a steel frame. Mrs. Jack insisted that if marble columns would support a palace in Venice they would do so in Boston. At length, knowing that all of Boston was looking forward to seeing her “Eyetalian palace,” she informed the inspector: “If Fenway Court is to be built at all, it will be built as I wish and not as you wish.” As usual, she had her way.
During the next three years friends found Mrs. Jack a changed woman. Where she had spent money freely, she began saving pennies. The big rooms of her Beacon Street house were closed off in winter to save fuel, and guests accustomed to her lavish lunches found themselves facing a single lamb chop. Mrs. Jack had money for nothing but Fenway Court.
Although she employed an architect, Mrs. Jack was the true designer. She did not hesitate to turn window casements inside out, to put capitals of Roman columns under the columns they originally crowned, or to stick Victorian wooden tracery on a Renaissance wall. Thanks to her almost unerring taste, it all worked.
In fair weather and foul, it seemed that Mrs. Jack was always on the building site. She took her lunch with the workmen, bringing her sandwiches and contributing ten cents a day for oatmeal to clarify the drinking water. When the workmen had trouble getting the right pink-and-white effect on the walls of the courtyard, she seized two sponges and showed them how to slosh the paint on. On another occasion she wielded a broadax to demonstrate just how the timbers of the ceilings should be rough-cut in the old Italian style.
Among the Italian workmen who had been recruited for the job she took a liking to an ex-gondolier from Venice, one Theobaldo Travi, nicknamed “Bolgi,” who impressed her as having the proper respect for the materials he worked with. Bolgi became her superintendent, and when Mrs. Jack found that he was also a cornet player, she worked out a series of signals for summoning the workmen she wanted: one toot for masons, two for steam fitters, and so on. Later, in her will, Mrs. Jack provided that Bolgi should be lifetime superintendent of Fenway Court.
During construction Mrs. Jack allowed only a handful of friends to take a coveted glimpse at the future palace, knowing that their reports would tantalize Boston society. Finally the palace was finished, and she sent out invitations to a grand opening.