Assessment / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice / William Emerson

Raison d’etre

The first few boxes of the “General Correspondence Group” have been a bit of a mixed bag.   There has been an array of material types: newspaper clippings, research notes, correspondence, and published works, but the third box in this set has started to even out a little bit in terms of organization.  The folders are neat, labeled with “Correspondence” and the year, and tend to be fairly well managed and chronological.  (Except, that is, for a folder containing correspondence with Van Nice labeled “Byzantine Institute” which may or may not belong to the Byzantine Institute Collection also being processed at the ICFA right now, or possibly to the papers of William Emerson).

One big picture issue that remains for me to figure out how to justify, or understand, the separation of this “general” correspondence from the correspondence in all of the administrative files, and the folders marked “HS” or “ST. SOPHIA” (which we are considering moving to the correspondence section anyway).  To be sure, these “general” correspondence folders tend to have a few more Christmas cards, wedding invitations, and letters on general subjects, but there is nothing close to a clear cut difference in content from the St. Sophia/HS folders.  Most of the correspondents are familiar names, the subject is almost always at least tangentially related to Van Nice’s work at Hagia Sophia.  Conversely, the HS/ST. SOPHIA folders contain their fair share of general correspondence, Christmas cards, etc.  It’s not that there is no difference, I can definitely see what Van Nice was getting at in separating the papers that were more directly related to his professional life and the specific project at Hagia Sophia, but on the other hand, there is a large amount of material that overlaps, and that does not clearly belong in one category or the other.

So, in terms of researchers actually using this collection, it’s possible that the distinction isn’t useful at all.  There is still good reason to respect the divisions that Van Nice made, even if I don’t entirely understand them, for their own sake, but it will at the very least merit a clear warning in the finding aid that both series should be checked if one is interested in either a general picture of his life, or in the ins and outs of the Hagia Sophia survey.

This dilemma points to a particularly interesting aspect of Van Nice’s himself, as well as the nature of this collection, which I have hinted at before.  This is the fact that almost the entirety of Van Nice’s life, in terms of time, in terms of intellectual energy, in terms of personal and professional relationships, was shaped, sustained, and driven by his devotion to the Hagia Sophia project.  I am not aware of any other set of “personal” papers that Van Nice kept, but if his correspondence folders are any indication, Van Nice simply lived and breathed this one building for the vast majority of his life.  It’s difficult to relate to—spending one’s entirely life in a particular field of study is one thing (and even this is relatively rare), but on one particular building, and specifically the structural assessment of this particular building (impressive and rich though it was) is kind of astonishing.  I don’t think it would be too off the mark to say he was obsessed by his project.  There is a tone of desperation, urgency, and annoyance that permeates his letters during the period in which he must contend with Harvard University’s looming enforced retirement policy, dwindling funding and a lack of properly trained assistants at Dumbarton Oaks (or “Oakbarton Dumps” as one friend affectionately called it).  These letters are painful to read when one realizes that this project really was his life, and the possibility of leaving it incomplete after over five decades of work must have been crushing.

On a more positive note, this deep devotion is a large part of what drove him to be so incredibly meticulous and thorough in the records he kept as well as with the material he produced.  It makes the archival collection a special one, because it serves as an incredibly full documentation of his work and the important contributions that it made to architectural and historical knowledge.

A particularly interesting find from today was a large set of correspondence between Van Nice and William Emerson (the original supporter of the project, a professor of Van Nice’s at MIT) between 1939 and 1940, when the international situation was getting more and more precarious every day.  Dozens of telegrams and letters attest to the difficulties that Van Nice had in deciding when things had gotten too uncertain to stay in Turkey, and then once it was deemed prudent to return to the States, how exactly to get there, especially laden with his large drawings and other materials that were difficult to get through customs.  In a particularly brave letter to Emerson, Van Nice assured him that he had been told that he was in a relatively safe part of Istanbul, with a large pass cut into a mountain nearby that could be used as a bomb-shelter if necessary, and that he had been stocking up on gasoline and food just in case.  Just another in the long series of examples that proves that his job was not an easy one, in almost any sense.

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