Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice / William Emerson

The Influential Friendship of William Emerson

Written by Beth Bayley, Archivist Assistant

We have previously mentioned William Emerson, the man who sponsored Robert Van Nice’s survey of Hagia Sophia, but who was he, really?  Primarily, Emerson was an architect and the dean of the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1919 to 1939. He was also Van Nice’s boss for another twenty year span, from 1937 to 1957. Emerson was not only Van Nice’s supervisor and mentor, but also a personal friend, and their correspondence reflects their mutual respect and goodwill.

Born in New York in 1873, William Emerson attended Harvard and then Columbia to study architecture, before spending three years in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He opened an office in New York and focused on building houses, including model tenements for low-income workers. He spent 1917 to 1919 in Paris, as major and director of the Bureau of Construction of the American Red Cross (a position that would earn him the distinction of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor for his services), before returning to Cambridge as a professor, faculty chairman, and Dean at MIT.


William Emerson in 1942, from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks

Emerson was the great-nephew of Transcendentalist poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he co-wrote two books of his own: Old Bridges of France (1925, highlighted here on the MIT library blog), and The Use of Brick in French Architecture (1935). He and his wife Frances lived in a house in Cambridge that was a gift from her father, banker William Augustus White (who had supposedly given her the deed in her Christmas stocking). Frances also inherited her father’s extensive rare book collection – related correspondence, as well as some of her family’s papers are now at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. The Emerson house can be seen below:


The Emersons’ house, circa 1939. The verso reads “Hoping this door will open to welcome the Van Nices again and with best wishes for health and happiness, your friends The Emersons.” Card from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

During Emerson’s time as dean at MIT, the focus shifted away from a conservative, design-focused curriculum and more toward contemporary issues and trends. Emerson introduced classes in city planning and seminars to prepare students for issues they would actually face in the workplace.

Emerson’s deanship wasn’t all that kept him busy. An active committee member, he was chairman of the Unitarian Service Committee in the 1940s, then President and Honorary President. He chaired the New England division of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and was involved in the United Nations Association. He was also Vice President of the Byzantine Institute from 1941 to 1957, though it’s hard to say exactly what his role entailed. Emerson does not figure prominently in the letters in The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Collection, so it’s possible his position was merely symbolic. Nevertheless, the topic of Byzantine architecture and preservation interested him greatly. In 1937, with his retirement from MIT two years away, Emerson proposed a new project to his former student Van Nice. Van Nice had been surveying mosques in Iran and Emerson asked if he would consider going to Turkey to begin a survey of Hagia Sophia. Van Nice was eager to take on the challenge:


Acceptance telegram from Robert Van Nice to William Emerson, April 1937, from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Emerson’s initial goal for the survey was to create a detailed structural study of the dome of Hagia Sophia. He was especially interested in the history of its construction and the multiple phases in which it was built and repaired. As Emerson and Van Nice planned the project in their letters, you can sense their growing excitement.  On May 18, 1937, Van Nice wrote to Emerson:

 “The prospect of carrying through the project you outlined pleases me immensely, not only because it is the thing I like most to do, but also because I welcome the chance to undertake it on my own initiative.”

Emerson and Van Nice met up at Hagia Sophia in July 1937 to work out the details of the project in situ. Emerson paid Van Nice a starting salary of $180/month, and soon raised it to $200. Emerson also introduced Van Nice to acquaintances there and helped him round up the supplies he would need, like a typewriter and drawing materials. In ICFA, we have 20 years worth of correspondence between the two men, ranging from very detailed architectural information to descriptions of travel and daily life. It can be strange to read the early letters, knowing more about eventually what happens than they do. Neither man dreamed that the project would turn into Van Nice’s life work, spanning 50 years and resulting in the publication of a two-installment, double elephant folio of architectural drawings and the creation of countless other drawings and photographs now housed in ICFA. Their letters, when not about details of the work, have a tone of kindness and mutual esteem, as can be seen in this letter from Emerson to Van Nice on October 11, 1937:

“Please do not feel that I am crowding you in any way. I do not want you to be hurried and I want you to be very careful not to work yourself too hard by filling your evenings as well as your days by work. Do all the pleasant things you can with your wife in the evenings. See the Shepards and other friends at every opportunity, and be sure that I am more than content with you and your accomplishment.”

The contentment was shared by Van Nice, who wrote on July 24, 1938, on the first anniversary of their arrival in Istanbul:

“It has been a memorable year of interesting travel, rare adventures, and hard work in a good cause, which, to my mind, comprise the good life. Information is piling up at such a rate that I can hardly keep ahead of it, and I am more than ever convinced that the work you have had me undertake will bear important results. I only wish I could keep you more fully informed of the discoveries at which these letters can barely hint, for these are exciting days for me.”

Emerson also appreciated the hard work of Van Nice’s wife Betty, as he noted in a letter from September 27, 1938:

“Before closing, let me again thank you for the superlatively good quality, not only of your information and analysis, but of your drawings and sketches, and please convey to your wife my full realization of how large a part she plays in all that you are doing and how essential to your peace of mind and happiness her co-operation constantly is, so that the thanks that I send to you for your intelligent and scholarly devotion to this work are to be shared with her….This letter will go by the very earliest steamer we can catch and each letter from you brings fresh conviction to me that every hour of work that has been performed has been well worth while!”

Emerson always expressed an interest in Van Nice’s three children, watching them grow from a distance and mentioning them in a letter from January 6, 1953:

“We had a nice note from Betty, enclosing letters from the children, both of which gave us great satisfaction, and showed how the children are maturing, a subject in which you and Betty must both take great pride.”


Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, October 1950, mentioning Van Nice and Emerson’s upcoming lecture. From the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

As seen above, Emerson and Van Nice gave talks and wrote papers together, all the while planning the book in which they would publish their findings. But the project would outlive Emerson himself. He and his wife died within six weeks of each other: Frances on March 10, 1957, and William on May 4. The house they lived in is now the Cambridge Historical Society.


Photograph of William Emerson, ca. 1950s, from the Robert L. Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. Image courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks.

Emerson left $50,000 for the completion of the project (which was taken over by Dumbarton Oaks), and additional gifts for the schooling of Van Nice’s children. Van Nice saved the text of Emerson’s memorial service, which included this passage about continuing unfinished work:

“Like the ancient bridge, Le Pont Coupe, it is called, at Avignon in France that only half spans the river, but that was obviously beautifully designed to reach the other side, the things that he did suggested the things that he desired or planned to do, but left incomplete. His life pointed toward perfection and fulfillment. May God grant that his earnest hopes be realized, both here and beyond. And may we, with our lives more than our lips, enlarge upon his pattern of beauty, and serve his dream of peace.”

4 thoughts on “The Influential Friendship of William Emerson

  1. Pingback: Leaving Hagia Sophia: Istanbul before World War II | icfa

  2. Pingback: Hagia Sophia Homecoming: Returning to Istanbul after World War II | icfa

  3. Pingback: The Hagia Sophia Lives Online | DO/Conversations

  4. Pingback: The Human in “Humanities” | Dumbarton Oaks Interns

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