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Robert Lawrence Van Nice was born in Portland, Oregon on March 9, 1910. He graduated with a B.A. in Architecture from the University of Oregon in 1935 before receiving a Master’s degree in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1936 (degree officially granted in 1939). At MIT, he studied under the Dean of Architecture, William Emerson, who later hired him to conduct a large scale study of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, beginning in 1937.
After graduating from MIT, Van Nice worked in Iran under the architect and archaeologist Myron Bement Smith. Smith was studying Iranian Islamic architecture, and photographing and drawing as many monuments in the area as possible. Van Nice was in Iran from October 1936 to July 1937, helping to complete the survey of the Masjid-i Juma, or the Friday Mosque, in Isfahan. Van Nice made measurements and produced drawings for Smith, and also surveyed other mosques at Shiraz and Ashtarjan.
In 1937, William Emerson wrote to Van Nice in Iran with a proposal for work on Hagia Sophia, which Van Nice accepted. The beginning stage of the project, funded personally by Emerson, aimed at a detailed structural study of the dome of Hagia Sophia. Special emphasis was placed on the history of its construction and on the multiple building phases and repairs due to earthquakes. Emerson was interested in studying the “successive modifications with a view of learning what the original appearance of the building may have been.” Such a study of the building had never been undertaken and the time seemed appropriate for architectural research since Hagia Sophia had recently been converted into a museum in 1934.
For the beginning years of the project, Van Nice’s work overlapped with the uncovering and conservation of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia carried out by the Byzantine Institute, Inc., an organization founded and directed by Thomas Whittemore. Although it was sometimes reported that Van Nice was part of the Byzantine Institute team, his project was always separately funded and independently run. Emerson, though vice president of the Byzantine Institute from 1941 until 1957, intentionally organized Van Nice’s project as a separate entity.
The Byzantine Institute held the permit and approval from the Turkish government to work at Hagia Sophia. At first, Van Nice was only allowed to work in the parts of the building where the Byzantine Institute staff was already located. This meant that Emerson and Van Nice’s study began in the buttresses, and gradually grew to encompass most of the vast building. Starting in 1937, Van Nice worked largely alone at Hagia Sophia. As the fieldwork extended into subsequent decades, he was assisted by a rotating group of local student helpers, mostly culled from the engineering department at Robert College. Some of these fieldwork assistants, such as Yavuz Birtürk, Evgeni Vernigora, Mahmut Ötüş, Kaya Karamehmet, and Bülent Ezal, stayed in contact with Van Nice after leaving Robert College, assisting him with projects or simply remaining friends. Van Nice lived in Istanbul with his wife Elizabeth (known as Betty) for much of the time from 1937-1941.
Over the next few years, Van Nice and Emerson co-authored several professional papers on the structure of Hagia Sophia, and Van Nice published more on his own (for full citations, see the Bibliography). During World War II, Van Nice served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in the Counterintelligence branch (known as X-2). According to Van Nice’s OSS dossier at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), he spent parts of 1944 and 1945 in OSS field offices in London, England and Bern, Switzerland. When the war ended, Van Nice returned to his work in Hagia Sophia from 1946-1949. During his fieldwork, he was often accompanied by Betty and their three children (Robert, Jr., Molly, and Barbara). During this time, Betty was employed as an elementary school teacher at Robert College, where the family typically rented accommodations during their sojourns in Istanbul.
In 1950, Van Nice was appointed Visiting Research Associate at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. The Hagia Sophia project continued to be supported and personally funded by William Emerson, but Emerson hoped that Dumbarton Oaks would provide access to its many resources and community of Byzantine scholars as Van Nice worked toward publishing his drawings. Following Emerson’s death in 1957, Dumbarton Oaks supported Van Nice’s continued work. In the subsequent years, Van Nice returned to Hagia Sophia annually for fieldwork seasons (generally June to October) to survey, photograph, and conduct research on the building. He was in Istanbul for fieldwork seasons from 1953-1955 and 1958, and for the summer from 1963-1969. He spent the rest of each year at Dumbarton Oaks working on the drawings. Over the course of the project, Van Nice was assisted by several drafting assistants at Dumbarton Oaks, including John F. Wilson, Robert T. Halpin, and Howard B. Trevillian.
In 1958 and again in 1960, Van Nice accompanied a team of archaeologists led by George Forsyth on a joint expedition of the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and the University of Alexandria to the Monastery of St. Catharine at Mount Sinai in Egypt. Forsyth, a Byzantinist and an architectural historian, had selected the monastery since it was the oldest surviving Greek Orthodox monastery in the world. In addition to conducting an architectural survey, Van Nice assisted with photography and with the measurements taken by the team at St. Catharine.
In 1965, Dumbarton Oaks published the first installment of architectural plates of Hagia Sophia. The work, Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey, was published as an elephant folio with 25 plates, including sections and plans, which covered almost all aspects of the building. That same year, Van Nice was appointed Senior Research Associate at Dumbarton Oaks, and began work on the second installment of drawings.
From the beginning of the project, Emerson and Van Nice had envisioned a book resulting from the research, but the form of the potential text changed over the years. Around 1948, Van Nice completed a detailed outline and received edits from several sources, including Frederick Gardiner Fassett, Jr., Philip Whitting, Paul Underwood, and Ernst Kitzinger. In 1954, Emerson and Van Nice asked Cyril Mango if he would contribute a historical text to accompany Van Nice’s drawings and technical text. Mango agreed, and remained tentatively attached to the project until the early 1980s. When the first volume of plates was published in 1965, Dumbarton Oaks printed a prospectus detailing future plans for the project. According to the prospectus, the second installment of plates would be accompanied by a text volume, which would include historical contributions by Mango, structural analysis by Rowland J. Mainstone, and a systematic description of the building and the changes it underwent by Van Nice. Finishing the drawings took precedence, however, and the collaborative text never materialized.
Throughout his career, Van Nice also travelled widely within the United States, giving lectures at universities and other institutions about Hagia Sophia. He spoke about his project many times from 1941 to 1979, lecturing everywhere from the University of California, Berkeley to Vassar College in New York, and many places in between. On-site fieldwork at Hagia Sophia ceased in 1969, but Van Nice kept in touch with former assistants living in Istanbul and occasionally asked them to send him measurements or photographs of the building to complete the drawings he was preparing at Dumbarton Oaks. The second installment of 21 plates, including sections, elevations, and plans, was published in 1986. Van Nice remained at Dumbarton Oaks to organize his drawings and files, eventually retiring in 1989.
Van Nice passed away in 1994 in Bethesda, MD. He was survived by his wife Betty, and two of his three children, Robert, Jr. and Molly Van Nice.
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Peter Ian Kuniholm and Cecil L. Striker, “The Tie-Beam System in the Nave Arcade of St. Eirene: Structure and Dendrochronology” in Urs Peschlow, Die Irenenkirche in Istanbul: Unter-suchungen zur Architektur, Istanbuler Mitteilungen 18 (Tübingen: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth, 1977), 229-240.
Peter Ian Kuniholm and Cecil L. Striker, “Dendrochronological Investigations in the Aegean and Neighboring Regions, 1977-1982,” Journal of Field Archaeology 10, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 411-420.
Peter Ian Kuniholm and Cecil L. Striker, “Dendrochronological Investigations at St. Sophia in Istanbul: A Preliminary Report,” Annual of Ayasofya Museum (Ayasofya Müzesi i) 10 (1985): 41-45.
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Preferred Citation: Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. 1936-1989, MS.BZ.012, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
Some materials created by Rowland J. Mainstone are restricted.