Red Sox spring training got underway this week and with it comes visions of spring, and a soon-to–be packed Fenway Park. But nearly a decade before the first bricks of Boston's storied ballpark were laid, another Boston jewel opened in the neighborhood — willed into existence by a unique woman with a unique vision for Boston.

When their 1-year old son died in 1865, Jack and Isabella Stewart Gardner, two well-to-do Bostonians, threw their energy into travel — and beautiful, timeless things.

"The two were always interested in the arts, but really started forming an art collection together in the 1880s," said Shana McKenna, an archivist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

While their travels netted some impressive pieces, Isabella built much of their extraordinary collection through mail correspondences, most notably with the American Art historian Bernard Berenson, whom she met when he was student at Harvard.

"He would write to her a beautiful letter describing a painting," McKenna said. "They traded photographs very regularly. I think she had a good eye. She was taking a chance sometimes, but she bought what she liked and she bought some really wonderful things."

The Titians, Rembrandts and Boticellis soon overwhelmed even the ample space of the Gardners double-brownstone mansion.

"Their home on Beacon Street really just couldn’t hold all the treasures they began buying and they decided at that point to begin planning a public museum," McKenna said.

At the time, the MFA was in Copley Square — as was most of the city’s art, but Jack Gardner had made much of his fortune in real estate. And with the completion of Fredrick Law Olmstead’s parkway system, a new neighborhood, the Fenway, caught his eye.

"I think he knew that his area was brand new, it was going to be quickly developed," McKenna said. "And they probably wanted an area where they could have the space to build what they really wanted to."

What they wanted was a building that would, itself, be a work of art to house their collection. And so the work began in earnest.

"Jack Gardner is keeping track of whose money is buying what," McKenna said. "Gardner’s money is purchasing paintings, his money might be purchasing architectural elements. But it’s clear that they’re invested in building this together."

That all that came to a crashing halt one fateful winter day.

"Jack Gardner passes away in December of 1898, so there’s definitely kind of a lull in that time period," McKenna said.

Undeterred, Isabella would forge ahead.

"They break ground in 1900." McKenna said. "She spent the entire year of 1902 installing the artwork in the museum. She worked on writing a museum guide that would also be sold to the public. She was very much a curator and a director at the same time."

Finally, on Feb. 23, 1903, the public got their first glimpse of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s unique vision. Capacity for the day was 200. The cost was $1 a ticket. It was unlike anything the local press — or the public — had ever seen.

"She saved letters," McKenna said. "Thank you letters from the public. This is an excerpt from a letter: 'How grateful we are to you for giving us the opportunity of looking up such beautiful things.'"

Gardner would spend the rest of her life adding to her collection, arranging and rearranging the space, perfecting every detail. That’s largely how it still looks today, with one major exception. In 1990, thieves disguised as Boston Police officers broke in and stole 13 works of art, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer.

"So it certainly doesn’t look the way in did in 1903, but it looks the way that that she left it in 1924," McKenna said. "The flowers, the sound of the fountains, the combination of decorative arts and paintings, textiles all together. It’s a very unique experience."

One painstakingly crafted by Isabella Stewart Gardner, who first opened her doors to art lovers everywhere, 112 years ago this week.

If you have a tale of forgotten Massachusetts history to share, or there's something you're just plain curious, email Edgar at He might just look into it for you.