Assessment / Assistants / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

Invisible Assistants Revealed

Today yielded many more meticulously kept and paperclip-ed expense reports and time sheets, as well as an interesting bulk of correspondence between Van Nice and many of his assistants and workers that he hired in Istanbul to help with the Hagia Sophia project. These take the form of quick notes from the workers to let Van Nice know they would be late or absent from work for everything from car troubles to hemorrhoid troubles to government shut downs, as well as formal correspondence with a few workers that Van Nice kept in touch with for years after their work together.

It struck me as I went through this material that another function of archival records is to preserve those figures who would otherwise be lost in published reports and the public face of projects like the Hagia Sophia restorations.   I was reminded of an article by a professor of mine, Steven Shapin, called “The Invisible Technician,” now a popular topic in the history of science. (See American Scientist, Vol. 77, No. 6 (1989), pp. 554-563). When there is a single author accompanying a published paper, such as Van Nice’s many publications on the Hagia Sophia, it is easy for us to look back on the endeavor as an individual one.  Shapin uses the example of Robert Boyle and his numerous assistants who, in some cases, did the majority of the work attributed to Boyle while remaining “invisible” to the public eye.  Similarly, it’s easy to picture Van Nice up on a ladder holding a measuring tape and jotting down notes.  This is not necessarily an inaccurate picture, but it is important to remember that Van Nice also employed many helpers and assistants who were responsible for a huge portion of the drafting, measuring, and analysis of the building.  His well-kept records of these people—their names, salaries, instructions for their work, hours, resumes, etc.—uniquely preserve their contributions to the project in a way that published papers cannot.

From the Robert L. Van Nice collection: Van Nice Working with one of his assistants at Hagia Sophia, undated.

They are also useful for getting to know Van Nice a little bit better.  All in all, Van Nice seems to have been a good boss.  He was scrupulous about making sure they were paid for each hour they worked, and  he frequently wrote enthusiastic letters of recommendation for them as they moved on to other jobs.  The workers, in turn, treated Van Nice with a tone of comfort and familiarity as well as respect.  In his files relating to time-keeping, there are dozens of polite and apologetic notes from assistants who couldn’t make it in to work for various reasons.

From the Robert L. Van Nice Collection: a group of Van Nice’s assistants at Hagia Sophia, undated.

Also included in this batch of folders was a small sketch, presumably by Van Nice because the title is in his hand, of a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house labeled “HOME IN THE FUTURE. BACHELOR HOUSE.”  Every once in a while I come across a sketch by Van Nice that does not have to do with his work on Hagia Sophia (another depicted a solar observatory).  It’s interesting to see the other directions that his interest in design and engineering took.  Had he not worked on Hagia Sophia, would Van Nice have been designing “homes of the future”?

The images in this post can be found at the Image Collection and Fieldwork Archive (ICFA) at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections in Washington, D.C.

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