Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: MS.BZ.012

Robert L. Van Nice fieldwork records and papers

Scope and Contents

This collection documents the architectural survey of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, conducted by Robert L. Van Nice from the late 1930s to the 1980s. The project was sponsored by William Emerson, Dean of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), from 1937 until Emerson’s death in 1957. The project was then sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks until Van Nice’s retirement in 1989.

Materials in the collection include administrative records, correspondence, research notes, drafts, publications, architectural drawings, rubbings, photographs, slides, and negatives. The bulk of the material in the collection dates from the early 1940s through the late 1960s, when most of the intensive fieldwork took place at Hagia Sophia. The records represent all aspects of the project: administrative, intellectual, social, and personal. The collection also contains additional materials related to Van Nice, including research notes, offprints, and photographs, acquired from Van Nice’s colleague, George Majeska, in July 2012.

There is an Addendum of research materials compiled by ICFA staff.


  • Creation: circa 1936-1989


Language of Materials

Collection materials are predominantly in English, but also includes French, German, Italian, and Turkish materials.

Conditions governing access

Materials created by Rowland J. Mainstone are restricted for users.

An appointment is required for access to these papers. To request an appointment, fill out the online form:

For research queries, contact the staff of Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (

Conditions governing reproduction

Duplication of materials in the collection may be governed by copyright and other restrictions.


1 collection

Biographical Note

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.

Biographical Note

William Emerson was an American architect and Dean of the school of architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson was involved in the Byzantine Institute and sponsored Robert Van Nice's survey of Hagia Sophia.


The collection is divided into two (2) main subgroups: Subgroup 1: Correspondence and Administrative Records; and Subgroup 2: Fieldwork Papers. Subgroup 1 is roughly arranged chronologically, while Subgroup 2 is arranged by topic, reflecting Van Nice’s original organization of his research materials. These subgroups are divided into multiple series and subseries.

Subgroup 1 contains the correspondence of both Robert Van Nice and William Emerson. Emerson’s correspondence spans the years 1936-1957, and was given to Van Nice by Emerson’s estate after his death in 1957. Van Nice’s correspondence also begins in 1936, but continues until 1986. Subgroup 1 also contains correspondence and draft material relating to Van Nice’s published works.

Subgroup 2 contains Van Nice’s fieldwork papers and research materials, as well as drawings, measurements, and photographs produced during research and for plate production. The research and drawing phases continued over the course of the whole project, from the late 1930s until the early 1980s. Every item in the second subgroup may be considered the products of fieldwork, so the current arrangement makes a clear delineation between the communication about the project and the results of the project.

Archival history

In 1985, Lawrence Butler submitted a confidential report to Robert W. Thomson, then Director of Dumbarton Oaks, on “holdings at Dumbarton Oaks of material pertaining to the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,” including a cursory inventory of Van Nice’s collection. According to this report, the collection was kept in the Saint Sophia Project Office, located in the basement of Dumbarton Oaks, in vertical and flat files.

The exact location of the collection between Van Nice’s retirement in 1989 and 1993 is unknown, but boxes may have been stored in an office in the Main House and oversize drawings in flat files located in the Research Library’s compact stacks and also in the Photo Lab. There is a note in the Curator’s Office Files implying that part of the collection was stored in the office of the former Director of Byzantine Studies Alice-Mary Talbot.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

In 1993, the collection was transferred to the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (then called Byzantine Visual Resources) from the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library.

Physical specimens from Hagia Sophia collected by Van Nice are stored in the Byzantine Collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. The museum inventoried the specimens in 1992 and accessioned them in 2003. Two lists of these specimens exist: one created by the museum, and one created by Van Nice at an earlier date. A copy of the Museum’s specimen list may be found in the Addendum; Van Nice’s specimen list can be found in Subgroup 2, Series 1, Subseries 1, Folder 56.

Photostat copies of materials from the Fossati archive in the Archivio di Stato del Cantone Ticino in Bellinzona, Switzerland were acquired by Van Nice following a research trip in 1958. The photostats were added to ICFA’s backlog in August 1985, and kept there until they were integrated into the collection in 2013.

In July 2012, Van Nice’s colleague George Majeska contributed additional related materials, including research notes, offprints, and photographs, which he had received from Betty Van Nice. Additional materials were contributed for inclusion in the collection by Van Nice’s children, Molly and Robert, Jr., in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

Existence and location of copies

Digital copies of selected photographs from the Van Nice collection may be accessed through Havard University's HOLLIS Images.

Related units of description at Dumbarton Oaks

  1. Atabay, Ercüment. Oral history interview, May 19, 2011. Image Collections an Fieldwork Archives. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. Turkish transcript also available.
  2. Butler, Lawrence. “REPORT TO THE DIRECTOR On Holdings at Dumbarton Oaks of material pertaining to the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,” 1985 (ICFA Documentation #2013-093). Curatorial files, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
  3. The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, MS.BZ.004. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D. C.
  4. Cormack, Robin Sinclair. Oral history interview, April 18, 2011. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
  5. Nicholas V. Artamonoff Photographs of Istanbul and Turkey, 1935-1945, PH.BZ.010. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
  6. Robert Van Nice Study Materials, Acc. No. BZ.1992.19. Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
  7. Van Nice, Robert L., Jr. Oral history interview, October 5, 2011. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Related units of description at other institutions

  1. Anderson, Lawrence. Oral history interview, January and March 1992. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  2. Douglas Putnam Haskell Papers, 1915-1979, 1986.006. Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Drawings & Archives Department. Columbia University Library, New York, NY.
  3. Frederick Gardiner Fassett, Jr., 1901-1991, Correspondence 1928-1967, MC 162. Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
  4. Meriden Gravure Company records, 1895-1990, GEN MSS 606. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University, New Haven, CT.
  5. Muller, Herbert Mss, 1913-1976. Lilly Library. Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Bloomington, IN.
  6. Myron Bement Smith Collection, ca. 1910-1970, A.04. The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  7. Paul Blum Papers, MS 900, accession number 2007-M-060. Manuscripts and Archives. Yale University Library, New Haven, CT.
  8. Records of the Office of Strategic Services, RG 226, Entry 224, OSS Personnel Files, and Entry 199, Field Station Special Funds Records. National Archives and Records Administration, Archives II, College Park, MD.
  9. William Emerson Papers, MC335. Institute Archives and Special Collections. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.


  • Emerson, William, and Robert L. Van Nice. “Haghia Sophia, Istanbul: Preliminary Report of a Recent Examination of the Structure.” American Journal of Archaeology 47, no. 4 (October-December, 1943): 403-436.
  • Emerson, William, and Robert L. Van Nice. “Hagia Sophia and the First Minaret Erected After the Conquest of Constantinople.” American Journal of Archaeology 54, no. 1 (January 1950): 28-40.
  • Emerson, William, and Robert L. Van Nice. “Hagia Sophia: A Unique Architectural Achievement of the Sixth Century.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 4, no. 2 (November 1950): 2-3.
  • Emerson, William, and Robert L. Van Nice. “Hagia Sophia: The Collapse of the First Dome.” Archaeology 4, no. 2 (June 1951): 94-103.
  • Emerson, William, and Robert L. Van Nice. “Hagia Sophia: The Construction of the Second Dome and Its Later Repairs.” Archaeology 4, no. 3 (September 1951): 162-171.
  • Forsyth, George H. The Church of St. Martin at Angers: The Architectural History of the Site from the Roman Empire to the French Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Fossati, Gaspare, 1809-1883. Aya Sofia, Constantinople: as recently restored by order of H. M. the sultan Abdul-Medjid / from the original drawings by Chevalier Gaspard Fossati. Lithographs by Louis Haghe. London: R. & C. Colnaghi & Co., 1852.
  • Mainstone, Rowland J. “The Structure of the Church of St. Sophia, Istanbul.” Transactions of the Newcomen Society 38 (1965-1966): 23-49.
  • Mainstone, Rowland J. “Justinian’s Church of St. Sophia, Istanbul: Recent Studies of its Construction and First Partial Reconstruction.” Architectural History 12 (1969): 39-49.
  • Mainstone, Rowland J. “The Reconstruction of the Tympana of St. Sophia at Istanbul.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23/24 (1969-1970): 355-368.
  • Mainstone, Rowland J. Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1988.
  • Salzenberg, Wilhelm. Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert: auf Befehl seiner Majestät des Königs / aufgenommen und historisch erläutert von W. Salzenberg; im Anhange, des Silentiarius Paulus Beschreibung der heiligen Sophia und des Ambon, metrisch übersetzt und mit Anmerkungen versehen von Dr. C. W. Kortüm; herausgegeben von dem Königl. Ministerium für Handel, Gewerbe, und öffentliche Arbeiten. Berlin: Ernst & Korn, 1854.
  • Van Nice, Robert L. “Hagia Sophia: New Types of Structural Evidence.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 7, no. 3/4 (July-December 1948): 5-9.
  • Van Nice, Robert L. “The Structure of St. Sophia.” Architectural Forum 118, no. 5 (May 1963): 131-139.
  • Van Nice, Robert L. “St. Sophia’s Structure: A New Assessment of the Half-Domes.” Architectural Forum 121 (August-September 1964): 45-49.
  • Van Nice, Robert L. Saint Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 1965 and 1986. 2 installments.

General note

Before Emerson’s death in 1957, Van Nice filed his correspondence by correspondent and by year. All correspondence with Emerson was stored together, and letters from other individuals were often kept in folders under their own names. After 1957, it appears likely that Van Nice began to file his correspondence by year, but divided letters according to whether he was in Istanbul or the United States (with some exceptions). These folder divisions reflect separations made by Van Nice. With this in mind, ICFA has retained Van Nice’s original folder naming system. For example, folders titled “Hagia Sophia Project, 19xx” indicate correspondence conducted from the United States, while folders titled “Hagia Sophia Project, Istanbul, 19xx” indicate correspondence conducted from Istanbul. Also, in Subgroup 1, Correspondence and Administrative Records, some folders are separated by correspondent and others are arranged by year, but all are in chronological order to best show the progress of the project. Van Nice’s original folder titles are indicated in quotation marks, while all folder titles without quotation marks have been supplied by ICFA staff or changed from a previous processor’s title for clarity.

Furthermore, please note that Van Nice consistently referred to the building he was surveying as St. Sophia or Santa Sophia. To reflect contemporary usage, the name has been changed to Hagia Sophia.

Original folder contents have not been disturbed in processing this collection, although folders that were too bulky have been split up into multiple folders.


Addendum of Research Materials Compiled by ICFA staff:

  1. Folder 1: “Van Nice Archive,” Old inventory lists
  2. Folder 2: “Van Nice: Boxes,” Old inventory lists
  3. Folder 3: “Van Nice Archive,” Old inventory lists
  4. Folder 4: Negative lists
  5. Folder 5: Van Nice Specimens List (from Dumbarton Oaks Museum)
  6. Folder 6: Photocopies of Office of Strategic Services records related to Van Nice from National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Processing Information

The collection was preliminarily processed by the former staff of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives in the 1990s. ICFA staff rehoused and relabeled the drawings and photographs in the collection, but it is unclear whether the folder labels they used matched Van Nice’s original labels. Additionally, architectural terms in the inventory may have derived from Robert Van Nice or from our predecessors’ interpretations. Former staff also extracted photographs from Van Nice’s folders of research notes and housed them in separate folders. It is not known whether the physical arrangement of the collection, with drawings, photographs, publication materials, and correspondence in various locations, had any relation to how Van Nice originally kept his files, or if the arrangement reflected the piecemeal way the collection came to ICFA.

In November 2010, ICFA Archivist Rona Razon updated the finding aid. The finding aid was again revised in May 2011 by ICFA Manager Shalimar Fojas White and Razon. From July 2011 to July 2012, the collection was re-processed and re-arranged by ICFA intern Clare Moran. Moran conducted a complete inventory of the collection and began to physically and intellectually reorganize it, reintegrating photographs with documents, while still respecting the way that Van Nice would likely have arranged his records. Moran organized the collection into three subgroups: Correspondence and Administrative Records, Fieldwork Papers and Research, and Publication Records. Moran also maintained a processing blog throughout the project, which can now be found on ICFA’s departmental blog (

The oversize drawings were accessioned and assigned accession numbers in 1993 (e.g., F###); they were digitized in the early 2000s and assigned catalog numbers (e.g., BF.F.1993.F###). Oversize drawings were previously housed in flat files in ICFA cold storage (Room 104), but were moved to ICFA’s reading room in July 2013. The 35 mm slides were accessioned and assigned accession numbers in 1996 and 1999 (e.g., 96-### and 99-###); some slides were digitized in the early 2000s and assigned catalog numbers (e.g., BF.S.1996.#### or BF.S.1999.####). The negatives and transparencies were processed and assigned catalog numbers in 2004 and 2005 (e.g., BF.N.2004.### or BF.T.2004.####). The negatives and transparencies have not been digitized. 35 mm slides, negatives, and transparencies are all stored in ICFA cold storage for preservation purposes; the boxes were labeled and wrapped by ICFA Departmental Assistant Jessica Cebra in 2013. One box of large format negatives includes a smaller box of microfilm connected with the investigation of Hagia Sophia, originally labeled “Temporary Loan, Mr. William Emerson.” Glass lantern slides and glass negatives were inventoried, rehoused, assigned re-accession numbers, and moved to ICFA cool storage by Shalimar White in 2012. Also in 2012, Moran and Marta Zlotnick, Museum Collections Manager and Assistant Registrar, digitized the specimens from Hagia Sophia housed in the Museum for documentation and reference purposes.

From October 2012 to February 2014, the organization was finalized and the finding aid was edited by ICFA Archival Assistant Beth Bayley. Bayley eliminated the third subgroup by integrating the publication correspondence as a series within the first subgroup, Administrative Records and Correspondence. The drawings related to plate production were integrated into the second subgroup, Fieldwork Papers and Research.

The Fossati Archive materials were found in ICFA’s backlog in 2011, and subsequently integrated into the collection in 2013. The photostats were tightly rolled and created a preservation concern, which was mitigated by flattening and rehousing the pages.

The finding aid was edited by Razon, White, and Fani Gargova, Byzantine Research Associate, and was finalized in August 2014.

Robert L. Van Nice fieldwork records and papers, circa 1936-1989 (MS.BZ.012): Finding Aid
Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives; Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard University.
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Dumbarton Oaks Repository

Dumbarton Oaks holds archival collections in its Rare Book Collection, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, and the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. The collections include: the papers of noteworthy scholars in the three fields that Dumbarton Oaks supports (Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape); image collections depicting objects or sites of topical interest to scholars in the three fields; Beatrix Farrand’s personal archive of letters and original drawings that document the development of the Dumbarton Oaks Garden; and institutional records and architectural plans and drawings documenting the history of Dumbarton Oaks. For more information about hours and to make an appointment to consult any of the collections listed here, please fill out the request form:

1703 32nd Street, NW
Washington DC 20007 USA