Sarah Underwood (ICFA Interview)

Oral History Interview with Sarah Underwood, undertaken by Fani Gargova on December 19, 2014 in the Oval Room at Dumbarton Oaks. Sarah Underwood is the daughter of Paul Atkins Underwood (1902–1968). At Dumbarton Oaks, Paul Underwood was a Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies (1943–1946), a resident Assistant Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1946–1951), Associate Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1951–1960), and Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1960–1968). Paul Underwood was the Field Director of the Byzantine Institute (1951–1961).

This interview was undertaken as part of the ICFA Oral History Initiative.

Sarah Underwood was previously interviewed by the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA) on July 23, 2014.


FG: Good morning. The date is Friday, December 19, 2014. My name is Fani Gargova. I have the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Underwood, daughter of Paul Atkins Underwood, who was a Junior Fellow, Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor at Dumbarton Oaks, and fieldwork director for the Byzantine Institute. Rona Razon, ICFA archivist, is filming this interview. This interview is being recorded for the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives and the Dumbarton Oaks Archives of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, located in Washington, D.C. Before we begin, do I have your permission to record this interview?

SU: You do.

FG: For the record, please state your full name.

SU: Sarah Todd Underwood.

FG: When and where were you born?

SU: In Washington, D.C., November 1947.

FG: While we know this is before your time, do you remember any stories from your mother, Irène, or your father, Paul, about his work in Dumbarton Oaks in the early to mid 1940s?

SU: My recollections are more about his day-to-day life and the goings on at Dumbarton Oaks than really about the substance of his work.

FG: Okay. So, do you know anything about the people that he worked with, specifically Albert Friend or Glanville Downey?

SU: Well, I don’t remember Albert Friend. I certainly remember my parents speaking about him, but I don’t remember anything about the substance. I knew Glanville Downey. His daughters were about my age, and we would play together at the swimming pool or I would go to their house. They lived quite near us. So, I do know Glanville.

FG: Around what time was he around in Dumbarton Oaks?

SU: Well, let me think. This would have been – we came back from Turkey in 1955. So, it would have been the late fifties? Probably into the early sixties. I don’t remember when exactly they left Washington.

FG: And do you remember whether your father and Glanville Downey at the time collaborated?

SU: I guess I assumed so, but I don’t really know anything about the extent to which they worked together.

FG: Okay. Though this might be obvious because you already mentioned this in your previous oral history, do you have any photographs or documents from that period that relate to Downey, Friend, or your father’s work?

SU: I have a few which I’ve brought with me today which include — I think Glanville’s in one of them, and Dr. Friend is in one or two of the others. So, yes, I do.

FG: Your mother mentioned in her oral history that was conducted in 2008 that she had a temporary job with the Byzantinische Zeitschrift when your father was a Junior Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Is that correct? Do you remember?

SU: I really don’t know. That was either before I was born or before I can remember.

FG: So, and — we think also that she also worked with the photograph collection. Again, do you happen —

SU: [shakes head] No, no. I do remember her doing a little bit of editing, but that was when I was older. So, at that point, I don’t know what she was doing.

FG: Editing of photographs or of text?

SU: Of text. But I don’t know whose or how much.

FG: Your mother, Irène, also mentioned Sirarpie der Nersessian in her interview a few times. And you also mentioned in your previous oral history that you went to the same school that Sirarpie had attended in Istanbul. What are your recollections of Sirarpie der Nersessian, and — again, although this might be obvious, do you have any photographs or documents relating to her?

SU: Well, I did bring with me today a few photographs that include her, photographs taken here at Dumbarton Oaks. My recollect — well she was a college professor of my mother’s, at Wellesley, and she and her sister lived here in the house right by the driveway down the — we used to go down to the pool. So, I do remember visiting with them. They came to our house; my parents socialized with them. Both of them were very warm toward me, so I remember them fondly. But again, substantively, I don’t have any recollections of discussions of Byzantine art with them. [Laughter] Because I was just too young.

FG: You mentioned when you visited a month ago that your mother also was an art historian, and she went to Princeton after Wellesley, right?

SU: Well, she had a bachelor’s degree in art history from Wellesley in — she graduated in 1934. And then she got a job at the Princeton Index of Christian Art, so she wasn’t a student at Princeton, but she was working in the Index of Christian Art, which was a huge photographic collection that you, I guess, have the catalogue of here, so — that you kindly showed me last month. [Chuckles]

FG: And you also mentioned that this is where your mother and your father met?

SU: Yes. Yeah, my father at that point had come, had — he’d started out with an architectural degree, and his architectural practice was disrupted by the Great Depression, so he went to Greece for a while, and that’s what kindled his interest in Byzantine art history, and he came back to get a further degree at Princeton, and that’s where my parents met.

FG: To go back a little bit to the Der Nersessians, we know a lot about Sirarpie der Nersessian’s work. We have a few photographs that Arax Der Nersessian took. Do you have any recollections of what she did here, what she worked on?

SU: [Shakes her head] No, I — in fact, I didn't know that she did any work here, so I can’t help with that. I’m sorry.

FG: Okay. You brought a few documents and letters today. Can you describe briefly what the contents of those are?

SU: Well these were materials that my mother had left me when she died — that related to my father’s work here. Some of them have to do with some kind of a plagiarism issue affecting my father’s book about the Kariye Camii. There was one original manuscript, I guess of a lecture for a symposium. And then there are a variety of reviews of his book when it was published, some letters from colleagues congratulating him on its publication. I think that was — that’s about it. It’s kind of a mish-mash. [Laughter]

FG: That’s great. Thank you. So, we’re going to move on to the 1950s and Istanbul and fieldwork. Again, some of the questions might not be something that you can answer, but just for the record. [SU nods] So, you mentioned in your first oral history interview this past summer that you knew Carroll Wales and Larry Majewski and Ercüment Atabay. [SU nods] What can you tell us about them or any of the other fieldworkers? Specifically, do you remember what work they did, and especially how they collaborated with your father?

SU: I can’t really give you any specifics. I know that my father was very fond of all three of them and respected them tremendously, and they were a great help to him. I really just remember them from social occasions. They came to our apartment; we went to theirs. I — they were always very warm towards me. My — the school I went to, we didn’t have classes on Wednesday afternoons, so we — and we had them on Saturday morning. So, Wednesday afternoons, I would often go with my father back to work after lunch. And so I remember just, as a little kid, you know, running around in the Kariye Camii and seeing — I considered them friends, Larry and Carroll and Ercüment. Whoever was there. So.

FG: Actually, can you tell us something about your impression of the building of the Kariye Camii when you were a kid?

SU: It was dark and cold, [Laughter] usually. And aside from the specific areas where work was going on, it was usually pretty deserted. I do remember there was one very small room, not much bigger than a closet, where they deposited all the mosaic cubes that they found that had fallen out of the mosaic, so that they had a — it was their stockpile. So, if in the course of doing repairs, if they needed a blue cube, they could go in there and find it. And I actually have two or three that my father gave me years ago from that stockpile.

FG: Were you able to go into every room, or were some closed?

SU: I – I don’t remember. I don’t remember it being a terribly big building. So either the access was limited or it really was pretty small. So, I don’t remember areas that I couldn’t go into.

FG: So, while your father worked in the Kariye Camii, do you remember whether it was open for the public or whether people came through?

SU: My s — not, not — I don’t remember remember. My sense is that it wasn’t open to the public. Now whether, if somebody very interested in the field came and knocked on the door, they would let them in, probably. There was no security, certainly. But — and I do remember my father giving tours to visiting scholars or government officials. Sometimes people from the consulate would call up and say, “So-and-so’s coming through. Could you possibly give them a tour?” So, he certainly did that.

FG: Do you remember any people in specific?

SU: No.

FG: Do you remember any other buildings, or is the main memory the Kariye Camii?

SU: The main memory is the Kariye Camii. I certainly remember Hagia Sophia, having been taken there and Dolmabahçe Palace, not related to my father’s work. [Laughter] And Robert College, because we used to spend our summers in Robert College. So.

FG: What was your impression of the Hagia Sophia?

SU: Of that it was huge. [Laughter] And much brighter than the Kariye Camii was, because it was better lit and — I guess the — I guess my sense is the restoration work was further along there than it was in the Kariye Camii.

FG: You — going back to the fact that you just mentioned the Robert College, you also mentioned A. V. Walker in your previous oral history, that your parents socialized with him a few times. We understand that you were very young when you met him, but do you have any photographs of him with your parents? Do you remember any stories that your mother or father might — may have shared with you about him?

SU: No, I really don’t. I just — I remember them mentioning his name, but I don’t remember meeting him, and I don’t remember any specific stories.

FG: Oh. We also ask because, in our records, we have some mentions that — it is mentioned that your father might have stored the Byzantine Institute film equipment in his house, and they may have used his house for storage in general, also.

SU: Huh. Nope, I can’t help you with that either. But I — our apartment was not very big, so we certainly didn’t have any storage facilities there. So, I don’t — I never recall my father talking about storage issues.

FG: How big was your apartment?

SU: Two bedrooms and a little, a very small kitchen, and a maid’s room, and a decent sized living room, and quite a big bathroom, because I remember we had our washing machine in the bathroom. But the refrigerator — we had bought an American refrigerator from a Foreign Service family, and our kitchen was so small that the refrigerator was in our front hall. [Laughter]

FG: So, it was pretty modern for the time.

SU: Yes, it was — it was quite a new building when we moved in. Oh, and the equipment — yeah, it was.

FG: Again, this might be obvious — do you have any other photographs or documents that relate to your father’s work in Istanbul?

SU: Not other than the materials I brought with me today, which I’m leaving with you.

FG: How about Ernest Hawkins? Do you remember him?

SU: I do. Not really much of specifics, but again, that he was a close friend of my parents. I remember his wife, Jill, who was — no, that was — Ercüment’s wife was Jill. Ernest’s wife, I don’t – I don’t recall. So, I have a dim recollection of Ernest, but not any specifics.

FG: Did he come through Dumbarton Oaks at one point, maybe?

SU: You know, I don’t remember him being here.

FG: So, he was mainly –

SU: In Istanbul, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

FG: And in Cyprus.

SU: Yeah. Yes, I think — yes, I remember my father talking about him in Cyprus, but.

FG: Do you remember what his responsibilities were?

SU: No. [SU shakes her head]

FG: Any other people that I haven’t mentioned so far that were around in Istanbul, that were important?

SU: Huh. In Istanbul  [SU shakes her head] No. No, I really don’t.

FG: You also mentioned in your previous oral history a photograph of your father in the Sinai desert, which you showed us today again. Do you remember which year, specifically, they went to consult on the restorations there, and do you remember who else went with him?

SU: Well, I only remember because my mother wrote underneath the photograph that it was Kurt Weitzmann who was with him. I wouldn't have recognized him from the photograph. And she wrote what year it was. I think she wrote ’58, but I’m — it’s written underneath the photograph.

FG: Do you know how long he stayed?

SU: No. I don’t think terribly long. I mean I’m — I would — my sense is it’s in the week to two weeks, maybe. [SU shrugs]

FG: So, Kurt Weitzmann — we have other documents — worked on manuscripts in Sinai. [SU nods] Do you know what your father was involved with, which part of the restoration?

SU: I — I think he went to look at the church that was located on that site to consult about the condition of the mosaics, but I really don't know any specifics.

FG: So, that was the late eightie — ah, fifties. Sorry.

SU: Mmm hmm.

FG: So, after that, your father came back to Washington?

SU: Right.

FG: And did he stay here during the entire sixties? Or did he go back?

SU: Well, he was certainly based here, but he would go once or twice a year to Istanbul, mostly to start the work in the spring and end the season in the fall, because they couldn’t — they didn’t work through the winter. Now whether he went twice a year every year from that point on, I’m not — I don’t remember, but I do remember him going frequently.

FG: Do you remember if he worked on something else during that time or was it mainly the fieldwork?

SU: I think I remember him speaking about other work that was going on in Istanbul, but how much time he was directly involved or whether he just knew in passing of other projects, I really don’t remember.

FG: And a few other important people for Dumbarton Oaks were involved in Istanbul in the work, but also probably here too. So, do you remember when your father and Cyril Mango met, and how Cyril went to or was involved in the work in Istanbul?

SU: Nope, I don’t. I remember seeing Cyril here. I don’t — I very well may have seen him in Istanbul, but I just don’t remember.

FG: And what years did you see him?

SU: Well, it would have been after we came back, which would have been after 1955 at some point, but I really can’t be more specific.

FG: And how was the dynamic like between your father and him?

SU: My sense is there were some tensions between them, but I — I really — I don’t know any of the substance. I don’t know whether they were just academic disagreements or personality clashes or what. [Laughter]

FG: Cyril Mango must have been much younger.

SU: Yes. Yes he was. Yeah.

FG: Do you have any recollections of Peter Megaw?

SU: Yes. Not from Istanbul. Peter, I know, worked in Cyprus, extensively. But I remember he and his wife, Electra, from here at Dumbarton Oaks. They were good friends of my parents when they were here. And I think my mother, actually, after she was widowed, did actually see them. I don’t even know where they were at that point, but — so I do remember them being here, but again, not substantively, just socially.

FG: When you mention ‘socially,’ how was that? Was it just tea in the afternoon or dinners…?

SU: It would be dinner — my parents entertained quite often with dinner parties, and then other members of the faculty did the same, so they would see each other in their respective homes. I remember we also did go to Williamsburg one weekend with the Megaws, and — because they were interested in seeing some American history, so we had a very nice long weekend with them there. And I remember we took them to a baseball game, [Laughter] and trying to explain to them the rules for baseball, because Peter would — I guess was a cricket fan, so he was trying to understand the differences between baseball and cricket.

FG: That’s great. So, socially, people met mostly outside of Dumbarton Oaks, although they worked here?

SU: Well, of course, in those days, there was tea every afternoon, and there was lunch. So, the actual — the faculty met frequently during the day. And then there were the concerts, there was the concert series, which they all had tickets to, so they would see each other at those events. But there was quite a lot of socializing away from Dumbarton Oaks, too.

FG: So, everyone, more or less, lived in the area so that this was possible?

SU: Yes. Yeah. At least the people that my parents socialized with were mostly in upper northwest Washington or in Georgetown.

FG: So, which people were those, specifically? Which came very often?

SU: Well, we lived next door to the Kitzingers, so they were very, very close friends of my parents. And Rachel Kitzinger and I are still very close friends. But, again, the Downeys, Julia Warner, Fanny Bonajuto — I think a couple of the other library staff who lived in Georgetown. Merlin Packard, Joan Aston was the secretary to the director, I believe. I’m trying to think if there were – the Ševčenkos. I used to babysit for their daughter. Some of the Fellows – oh, the Nordhagens, they lived very near us. They lived in an apartment on the corner of Fulton and Wisconsin. Those are the only names that come to mind easily.

FG: What can you — can you tell us more about Fanny Bonajuto?

SU: She was a close friend of my parents. I don’t even really substantively know — I think she was involved in editing the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, but I don’t really know substantively much about her work. Again, I remember her socially. She was very chic and elegant. We used to go to her apartment. She lived down — she lived at Calvert and Wisconsin, for years. And my — she and my mother and Julia Warner did a lot of socializing together after my father died. They would go to concerts and plays and things together. So.

FG: And Julia Warner?

SU: Again, a very close friend of my parents. We vacationed with her one year in Vermont at her brother’s house. My mother — she and my mother traveled a number of times together. And they stayed in very close touch, and — as my mother did with Fanny until they both predeceased her. So.

FG: You also just mentioned Ihor Ševčenko, so what was the dynamic between him and your father, aside from the social part? Do you remember?

SU: I think in later years, they had some tensions between them, but the part I remember — when I was babysitting for their daughter, I think everybody was on very good terms. [Laughter] And I do remember at one — I think it was my sixteenth birthday — my parents took me to New York — that’s what I wanted for a birthday present — and at that point, Ihor was, I think, at Columbia, or he was on the facul — somewhere in New York. And I remember him joining us for dinner. I guess his wife did too, Margie, although I don’t really remem — I can’t remember that, but I remember us getting together in New York, just when we happened to be there. But they did socialize with my parents often, here, as well.

FG: So, when you babysat for their daughter, when — what time was that? Years?

SU: She was about three. That would have been probably in the early sixties? And they lived — they had a house right across the street from Montrose Park on R Street. So, they were very close by here.

FG: You also mentioned in your last interview, the Van Nices? Specifically their children, which were — which are roughly the same age. Can you tell us anything more about Robert Van Nice and his children and –?

SU: Not other than we — I socialized primarily with them at the pool, because we did all swim avidly in the summers here. It was a wonderful perk. They lived in Bethesda, actually, out by the National Institutes of Health, so it was more of a trip to get out to see them. But I do remember going to their house several times, and I – I can’t remember their kids at our house, particularly. I remember the Van Nices coming to dinner at my parents’ house, and just that, as far as I know, everybody was very cordial and got along well.

FG: Do you remember seeing Van Nice in Istanbul, when you were a kid?

SU: No, I don’t. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t — you know, that my parents didn’t entertain him. I just don’t specifically remember.

FG: Again, do you have any photographs or documents that relate to those people that we just talked about?

SU: I think I brought one or two that have Bob Van Nice and that have Ernst Kitzinger, and maybe a few of the others are in some of the pictures from the various symposiums.

FG: I want to move on, now, to another project, which is the Saint Sophia Cathedral here in Glover Park. A few weeks ago, I spoke to Father John, and he reported that your father acted as the main consultant for the mosaic decoration inside, including the specific iconographic program, and that your father visited the cathedral every day to monitor the progress of the mosaic artist. Did your father talk about his involvement in this project, and do you remember how he worked with the mosaicists there?

SU: I do remember him talking about it. At that point, I was in college, so I was away most of the time, but I do remember him talking about it. And at one point, he did take me, as the mosaics were approaching completion, to show me the work. And we went up on the scaffolding into the dome so I could have a closer look, and that was when I learned that I have vertigo, and became terrified to get down. [Laughter] But I think it was a very interesting — my father seemed to be very engaged in it. He — I think he enjoyed doing it. I think he liked the members of the church that he interacted with, and felt that it was a contribution to the community that he was happy to make.

FG: Do you remember seeing Father John?

SU: No, I don’t. I remember my father speaking about him, and I guess I’m surprised if he’s still alive. I have no idea how old a person he is now or was then.

FG: He’s over eighty.

SU: I — yes, I wouldn’t be surprised.

FG: So, what did he talk about him when he talked?

SU: I don’t really remember any detail, just that the work — I don’t remember him saying that the work was going badly. I just remember him talking about going over to check and seeming to enjoy doing it.

FG: Do you know if this work that he did there was volunta — voluntary’s the wrong word, but if he got paid for it, or if it was really out of — ?

SU: I’m pretty sure he didn’t get any pay for it. I think he did it as a volunteer, and again, because — of course, because it was in the Byzantine style, he was interested intellectually. But I think he just liked the people and wanted to do it.

FG: Do you remember the person who did the mosaics?

SU: No, I don’t think I – I don’t think I ever met him.

FG: Do you remember your father talking about him?

SU: Not in any — no. I remember that there was a competition, I think, to actually — whether it was both to design and execute or just to design the mosaics, I don’t remember. But I remember that my father was involved in the selection process, following the competition.

FG: Do you remember what years it was?

SU: Well, it would have been probably sixty five? Six? Somewhere in there.

FG: And for how many years did –

SU: I don’t know. I don’t think — I don’t remember it going on terribly long, so maybe a year or two, counting the competition time? I don't know.

FG: Do you remember any other people being involved in the Saint Sophia Cathedral decoration?

SU: No.

FG: Again, although it might be obvious, do you have any photographs or documents relating to this project, or know what happened to your father’s other papers or office files?

SU: Well, I did bring one photograph of him up in the dome with the mosaicist who is nameless in my mother’s annotations. But no, I haven’t come across any other papers relating to that work at all.

FG: So, we talked a lot about your parents, particularly your father. But we would also like to know about your life. Because of your father’s work, you were educated in Istanbul, and then here in Washington, D.C., is that correct?

SU: Yes. I just did my first three years of school in Istanbul, and then the rest of my schooling was all here in Washington.

FG: How old were you when your father passed away?

SU: I was twent — twenty.

FG: And where were you during that time?

SU: Well, I was attend — I was a student at Smith College, and he passed away quite early in my senior year in September. In fact, my parents had been vacationing in Tennessee with my father’s brother and his wife, and — when my father was taken ill, and I had actually gone back to co — I had gone to Tennessee to see him in the hospital, and then the doctors didn’t know what the prognosis was. So, I went off to school because school was starting, and then got the call from my mother that he’d passed away there. So.

FG: So, at Smith College, what did you study?

SU: Well, I started as an art historia — art history major, but Phyllis Lehmann, who was the Dean of Students, had been a college classmate of my mother’s and several people — Bill MacDonald and – I can’t remember his first name… Harris, had worked with my father. And the pressure got to me, and art history really is not my natural field. So, I ended up being a government major.

FG: And what did you do after college?

SU: I worked in the local and federal government in the fields of urban renewal and low-income housing, and then for a private real-estate company that owns and manages low-income housing.

FG: So, after all, you did something which relates to architecture and art.

SU: Yes. Yes, and maybe that’s what I got from my father. [Laughter] Yeah.

FG: Well, I think we asked more or less everything that we wanted to ask. Do you have anything that you would like to add?

SU: No, I really don’t. I’m just — I was very pleasantly surprised to hear that you were undertaking this project, and I just want to thank you for all of your diligent work.

FG: Thank you. Rona, do you want to add something? [Pause] Well, thank you very much.

SU: You’re very welcome.