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Robert Van Nice, Jr.

Oral History Interview with Robert Van Nice, Jr., undertaken by Shalimar Fojas White on October 5, 2012, in the Dumbarton Oaks Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. Robert Van Nice, Jr., was the son of Robert L. Van Nice who, at Dumbarton Oaks, was Visiting Research Associate in Byzantine Architecture (1949–1955), Research Associate in Byzantine Architecture (1955–1965), Senior Research Associate in Byzantine Architecture (1966–1978), Honorary Research Associate (Byzantine Studies) (1978–1981); Honorary Research Associate, Saint Sophia Project (1981–1986); and Honorary Research Associate (Byzantine) (1986–1994).

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


SW: Okay. My name is Shalimar White. The date is October 5, 2012, and today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Robert Van Nice, Jr., son of Robert Van Nice, who conducted an architectural survey of Hagia Sophia from 1937 to 1986. This interview is being conducted for the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives and the Dumbarton Oaks Archives located in Washington, D.C. Before we begin, do I have your permission to record this interview?

RVN: Absolutely.

SW: And for the record, could you please state your full name?

RVN: Robert Lawrence Van Nice, Junior.

SW: Wonderful. Okay, so we’re going to start with some biographical questions. Where and when were you born?

RVN: I was born 13 February 1942 in Boston.

SW: And where did you go to school?

RVN: Well, I started in school in Boston. I went to school in Istanbul, the Robert College Community School. We moved back to Boston, then I moved back to Istanbul, back to the Robert College Community School, and then we moved to Bethesda, Maryland, and I went to North Bethesda Junior High School, Walter Johnson High School, and then eventually, I went to Annapolis.

SW: And what is your profession?

RVN: Retired. What I was ­– I am a retired navy captain, and a retired aerospace executive.

SW: Where was Robert Van Nice born, and where did he grow up?

RVN: He was born 9 March 1910 in Portland, Oregon, and he grew up there.

SW: Where did he go to college, and what did he study as an undergraduate?

RVN: He went to the University of Oregon, and ended up with two degrees: in 1934, an A.B. in art and architecture, and in 1935, a bachelor’s in architecture. And then in 1935–36, he completed a master’s degree in architecture at MIT.

SW: And what prompted him to study architecture? Did he want to be a practicing architect, or was he always drawn to archaeological research?

RVN: Well, he always told us that one of the transforming moments in his life was hearing a talk by Howard Carter, the man who discovered King Tut’s tomb. And I think that crystallized the direction he wanted to go in. I don’t think he – to my knowledge, he didn’t ever really want to practice as an architect.

SW: And how did – sorry – how did Robert Van Nice meet Elizabeth Rebec? Where and when did they marry?

RVN: Well, I don’t know when they met. They were an item at the University of Oregon. They may have met – but it’s speculation ­– he was working – he had fairly straightened economic circumstances – he was working as a busboy in a sorority, of which she was a member. And it could be that that’s where they met. I know that they carry on a relationship, and then they were married in January 1936. January 25th, I believe. My mother has never forgiven me, because throughout my life, I’ve never gotten that date correct. My response was, of course, I was badly brought up.

SW: Why did Van Nice decide to pursue graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

RVN: I could only speculate. There were really several parts of that. First, I think he knew, for the direction which he wished to go, he needed education beyond the bachelor’s level. Also, even if he’d wished to be an architect; there wasn’t a lot of work for architects in 1935–36. And you may wish to speak to my sister about this, because I think she knows more – I have recently come to understand that he may have been accepted both at Princeton and at MIT, and because he – and those he talked to, I guess, in Oregon, perceived MIT as a more hard-edged engineering technical school for architecture – that’s why he went there. But that’s speculative, and again, I urge you to ask Molly about that.

SW: Who was William Emerson, and what was his relationship to your father?

RVN: Well, he was the Dean of the School of Architecture at MIT. They obviously were acquainted. I don't know to what extent; they were also friends beyond bring professional acquaintances. But Dean Emerson played a formative role in dad’s life, and may have helped arrange dad’s first employment after MIT in Persia, and certainly then did himself in 1937 take dad on as a researcher doing, you know, to start the architectural analysis of Saint Sophia.

SW: How did Van Nice come to work for Myron Bement Smith in Iran, and did he ever describe that trip to you?

RVN: Well, we speculate that Dean Emerson helped arrange dad’s being contacted by Myron Smith, and set up that employment. It was a year, because dad had a job, he and mother got married. And they went and spent a year in Persia. I think the work was very interesting. It was formative. I think the – I’m not sure the outcome was exactly as dad had wished. There were clearly some tensions. On the other hand, life in Persia was absolutely, absolutely fascinating. They lived in a mud house with carpets on the floor. They got to experience Persia before any of the perturbations over the last eighty years that we have seen. And it was a remarkable experience which they thoroughly enjoyed.

SW: Great. So, now we’re going to move on to some questions about Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. So, you’ve spoken a bit to this, but if you could please elucidate some more, how did Van Nice come to work for William Emerson on the architectural survey of the Hagia Sophia in 1937?

RVN: Well, as far as I know, it was a follow-on to the expiration of his one-year contact in Persia. To what extent had it been planned or talked about before the end of that contract in Persia, I simply don’t know.

SW: Mmm. Did he ever describe the working conditions in Hagia Sophia? What was –

RVN: Well, we knew the working conditions. [Chuckle] They were below crude. He had a drafting table set up on the – in the gallery. There was some natural light, but the ceilings were thirty or forty feet high. There was a single light bulb dangling at the end of a wire over them, so even in the best of light, even in the brightest of days with the light on, there wasn’t very good light on the – on the tables. There was no heating, which is for four or five months a year in Istanbul really brutal. There was no cooling in the summer, but that was probably less of an issue. During the winter, the natural daylight is – hours are very short. So, the lighting was just appalling for these things he was doing. He had a constant good-natured battle going on with the birds and wildlife that inhabited Saint Sophia, because the birds used to come and examine his drawings. They would sometimes leave comments. They would sometimes disappear with bits of his equipment, and it was always amusing to him, although frustrating, when his erasing shields or his pencils or his erasers were either pecked or just taken away, and he would sometimes find them as he poked around in odd places in pigeons’ nests. And we always knew when pigeons, who aren’t – not necessarily the brightest of birds, would lay eggs in places where round objects don’t stay, and the eggs would, you know, smash on the floor, and he’d always report them. And there were other bits of wildlife there. It was a very basic, crude setup. But he worked through it. He had ladders. And one of the great steps up in his life, I – life there in Saint Sophia – I recall, was in 1954, when he was authorized to get a Wild T4 theodolite, which just – he admired it because it was a wonderful piece of engineering, great design. It was a magnificent tool, and it really improved his ability to work. But I had helped, occasionally, holding plumb bobs and things like that, doing a little bit. I was only a child, so I, you know – it was more a sop to me than I think a real help to my dad. But he and his helpers worked with these very fundamental basic tools, tape measurers and things like that, to do this incredible work, but the conditions were very difficult.

SW: Did Van Nice ever speak about Thomas Whittemore and the work of the Byzantine Institute at Hagia Sophia, which was going on the same time as he was there?

RVN: I know the name. I think there were some tensions in that relationship. I don’t know what the details were or are.

SW: There is an entire section of notes in the archive related to wildlife in Hagia Sophia. [Laughter] Did he ever tell stories of the animals that he encountered during his fieldwork?

RVN: Oh, it was sort of a running tally of what the birds did today, or what he had found, or what he was missing. And it amused us all.

SW: Van Nice was often asked by colleagues and friends to give tours of Hagia Sophia. Did he ever mention any famous visitors?

RVN: Actually, there were a fair number, all of whose names I’ve forgotten. On the one hand, he was happy to expand knowledge among influential people of Saint Sophia and its importance and its beauty. But each tour was, frankly, an interruption of his limited time in difficult circumstances, and of course the tours always came during the best light, and when the weather was good and dad and his team could be the most productive. He was happy to do it, but there was a downside to it, too.

SW: So, it wasn’t his favorite thing to do.

RVN: It was certainly not. [Chuckle]

SW: So in the prelude to World War II, Van Nice and his wife, Betty, lived and worked in Istanbul. They had to leave abruptly in 1941. Did they ever tell stories about that time?

RVN: Well, it’s not clear to me whether they left because the Turkish government expelled – or – the Americans or reduced the number of Americans there, or because the American government called them home. But they left in late 1941. My mother was really quite pregnant with me. And they went on a rusty British tramp steamer, left Istanbul, went to Beirut, down through the Suez Canal, down the east coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the South Atlantic to Brazil, and then ended up – [clears throat] pardon me – arrived in Boston late, very late in 1941. It was actually a very risky trip, because that was in what was called “The Silent War,” but British ships were being torpedoed at will by German submarines, and so this was a rusty British old tramp. The ship wasn’t very comfortable; the voyage was risky. And my mother always said she was concerned about keeping her knees together, because otherwise, had she not done so, I probably would have been born on this British tramp steamer. But as it was, they got back just at the – very late in 1941, and I was born in February ’42.

SW: [Laughter] So, later during World War II, Van Nice served in the Office of Strategic Services, based in Switzerland. Did he ever mention his experiences?

RVN: Not really. We knew where he served, and knew generally he was in counterintelligence. Precisely what he did, I have no idea. He was very proud of his service, and he worked hard. It was ­– it was very interesting. He met some really interesting people, both on our side and apparently the other side. But I have no details.

SW: So, your family lived in Turkey for two years, in 1953 to 1955. What do you remember of this time?

RVN: Well, I actually remember when we were there in ’46 and ’47, and then also in ’53 to ’55. It was a – Turkey was and remains a wonderful place. Turkish people are very hospitable. We had a modest but very comfortable house in which we lived. We had a good school to go to. And for us as a family, it was a really good place to be, and a very good time.  For me, as my wife will attest, until many years later – I lived in Belgium for a long time, and now in California – my emotional home, not necessarily my physical home, but my emotional home was Istanbul, coming out of that. And I think Molly feels much the same way. But it was a wonderful place for us to grow up. Dad was working; the conditions were difficult, but it was simply the way it was. And mother was teaching at the Robert College Community School, where Molly and I went. It was just a very good time. And a great place. Robert College was very hospitable to us.

SW: So, in – did you live at Robert College, actually?

RVN: Well, we lived in houses associated with Robert College, which – we actually lived across the street, and at a lower level – it was a steep hill – from the house of the president of Robert College. But we were right outside the gate to Robert College. I don’t know how we got into that housing. It was a wonderful place to live, right beside the castle the Byzantines built to – on the European side – to match a castle on the Asian side, across which they stretched chains to prevent the hordes from sailing right into the heart of Istanbul. So, it’s outside, outside the downtown Istanbul itself, about half, halfway up the Bosphorus towards Black Sea.

SW: Did any of you children ever help your dad with his fieldwork? Did you ever visit him at Hagia Sophia?

RVN: Oh, we – yes, we all did. I occasionally went around and held plumb bobs or moved ladders, a few things like that. Molly, who is much more artistic than I, also helped more later, and Barbara worked there also, including – Barbara spent one summer tracing all, each graffito and maker’s mark that dad and his henchmen had found, to record them formally for posterity. So, each of us – we all had a connection with the building. Scholars refer to it as Hagia Sophia; the Turks call it Ayasofya, and in the family, she was “Sophie.”

SW: And did Van Nice ever describe the time he spent at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, in 1958 and 1960?

RVN: Oh, he did. He talked about it a lot. It was – modest circumstances. He was very interested to spend the time with the – monks, I think is the right word. And he climbed Mount Sinai, and he actually was up there at the top of Mount Sinai, and he saw dust storms way off in the distance, and wondered what they were. And then some weeks later, some men drove up in a green jeep with light blue hats, and they were the Danish UN Peacekeepers. And what he’d seen, [Chuckle] what he’d seen was then – was a bit of the Arab-Israeli tensions. But he loved the work there. It, on the one hand, took him away from Sophie. I don’t know that he was terribly disturbed by that. He was very interested in the monastery of Saint Catherine and liked the people he was working with. So, he spoke about it favorably, warmly, and was very pleased to have been able to do it.

SW: So, now we’ll move on to some questions about Dumbarton Oaks. In 1949, Van Nice was appointed a visiting research associate in Byzantine architecture at Dumbarton Oaks. What were your father’s first impressions of Dumbarton Oaks?

RVN: Well, he thought he’d landed in clover. He sort of had to pinch himself. He came down in 1949. Mother and we three children were still in Boston, and he was staying at the Fellows Building. And it was just – he came to recognize that a) my god, this was real, and b) it was a set of circumstances really ideally organized to facilitate academic endeavor. He was – he met with – he was living with and chatting with really able, learned people studying things that related to or complemented what he was interested in, and they had wonderful discussions. He ate well. He was very close to work, so he could come and work in excellent conditions here. Temperature control, good light, space where he could actually set out all of his working drawings and complete the finished plates. He had access to his files, and then he could walk close by to his meals and to his quarters, so he worked many hours each day. He’d put in a full day’s work, go get dinner, and then come back to work here, simply because that’s the way he was, and then go back and retire. And over the years, he simply – he, to the best of my knowledge, he found this to be a wonderful place for him to do his work. He had good support, good facilities, and it was a terrific opportunity. I think without Dumbarton Oaks or something very close to it, I think he probably could not have finished, could not otherwise have finished his work.

SW: Did he ever talk about Robert Woods Bliss or Mildred Bliss?

RVN: Not that I recall. I know them by name; I know that this had been their estate. I don’t know – I don’t know for sure that he knew them. He may well have. Molly may have more on that. I simply don’t know.

SW: When did your family relocate to the D.C. area? Where did you live, and where did you go to school?

RVN: We moved down here in 1950. I remember the train trip. Dad had come down here in 1949. Don’t ask me the month, because I don’t know. [Chuckle] We came down, well, in 1950. We came down – we must have come down here in March or April, because I remember going into the third grade at Alta Vista School. And I was asked every day to read aloud – because I apparently amused people to no end with my Boston accent – and by 1 September of the following school year, I had no accent. But I completed Alta Vista School, and then went to a new – what was then a new junior high school in north Bethesda. And then went and opened a new high school, Walter Johnson. I was the second graduating class at Walter Johnson. I was – when we opened the school, we had only juniors and sophomores. I was a sophomore, and I was one of the sophomores who was on the cow-catching team, because they hadn’t built the fences yet, and we had to keep – there was no Montgomery Mall or anything like that out there. They had cows wandering around loose, and occasionally we had to get them out of the school property.

SW: And did you ever visit Dumbarton Oaks? What were your impressions of the institution, the grounds, and the people?

RVN: Well, the people were always very kind, very nice to us, both the staff and the academics who were here. I don’t know much better to say about them. I remember Mr. Kearney, the head groundskeeper, just a wonderful man. I remember Ernst Kitzinger, Paul Underwood, Cyril Mango, and a number of other people whose names escape me, and I will be embarrassed to recall them later. And we saw dad’s working space. We knew how happy he was. And it was – even to us, as young children, they were impressive. The grounds we always thought were lovely, and occasionally, we could walk through. We were always very careful to be respectful. I mean it was just obviously a place where one should be. Wonderful buildings. And we loved the pool. And we were allowed to use the pool, and so we’d trek in from Bethesda and used the pool. And sometimes dad would join us, sometimes not, then we’d go and have dinner. But it was a wonderful, wonderful place for us. We knew dad was happy and working, working productively here. But it was a very nice place for us. One of the most striking things about Dumbarton Oaks – this is where I learned to appreciate fuchsias, because under the colonnade beside the pool, every column had a fuchsia on each side of the column. And they were just – I thought they were just stunning. And Mr. Kearney used to talk to us about them, and I’ve kept that with me. [Chuckle]

SW: So, Van Nice worked at Dumbarton Oaks from the fifties through the 1980s. How did it change during those years?

RVN: Well, I know that – I know the management changed. I mean the actual Directors changed persons. And I think there were some financial issues, but you know, I really don’t know. After high school, I went to Annapolis, and then I went on active duty with the navy, and I was – I was gone, literally, in other parts of the world, and I came home seldom enough, not for very long, and so a lot of these things I just don’t know about. Molly may know more than I.

SW: What were your father’s significant work relationships over the course of his time at Dumbarton Oaks?

RVN: Oh my god, they were innumerable. And I couldn’t – I mentioned some of the names of people he interacted with, but precisely what their interactions were, I – I know they were a source of strength and interest and also friendship to him. Kitzinger, Underwood, Mango. There were others as well. And of course, many people in sort of this, the Saint Sophia circle, outside, just D.O. – but he had a wide range of relations; he knew many people. He was, of course – he knew many people in the Turkish embassy, Turkish consulate, and the cultural attaches and others, just lots of people. He was very active, very interested, and this was a good city for him to be in.

SW: Do you remember any of his assistants, whether Turkish students or staff here at Dumbarton Oaks?

RVN: Oh, many of them. Some of the earlier ones, after the war, were Mahmut Ötüş, and Yavuz Birtürk, and Bülent, and Kaya. Particularly, Mahmut and Yavuz were young, and they were older than we, but we thought of them as sort of older brothers. I’m not – I think we were probably just – [Laughter] We weren’t [inaudible] and we were just young kids. But they really were part of an extended family, very close, very close relationship. Dad kept in touch with them, and they with dad, throughout their respective lives. Dad, I know, was a great influence on them. But they were immensely valuable to him. They were really superb young men. Dad had chosen them carefully and – with one or two exceptions which I have not mentioned – they all worked out extremely well and went on to have very rich and productive lives themselves. And dad had several draftsmen here. The longest one was John – last name?

SW: Wilson.

RVN: Wilson. I have no idea. But he had others as well. And he and John Wilson worked together for a long time, and John was a terrific help to dad in converting the fieldwork from Istanbul into finished plates that now reside in the – have now been published.

SW: And so Dumbarton Oaks published two installments of drawings of Hagia Sophia in 1962 and 1986. Did your father ever talk about the product of his decades of work on the building?

RVN: Actually, I know he was very pleased that they had been done. And he was pleased at how they had come out, because he had spent years not only working on preparing the plates, but working through the processes of getting them reproduced successfully at a standard that met his expectations. And I think he was very pleased that that had been done. Beyond that, you know, we just didn’t talk about it much. But I’m very pleased to have a copy.

SW: And actually, that brings me to the end of my list of questions. Was there anything that you wanted to add?

RVN: There are all sorts of things that come to me since you’ve been asking these questions.  Off the top of my head at this point, I think we – not much, not much more. Is there anything else you would like me to touch on? Other, it gave us a unique life growing up, and dad was a very happy, productive man doing something truly unique in the world. And he was privileged to do it, and he had good circumstances here, in particular, under which to do it, and it made for something unique, and a treasure for us. And I’m really excited, as is Molly, that you – you personally, Shalimar, and your staff – that the – that Dumbarton Oaks is preparing this archive, so perhaps others can benefit, beyond those who look at the plates or study the plates. How to do things, what these projects entail, how to do them, and perhaps other aspects that haven’t yet been exploited and pursued by scholars.

SW: Well, thank you very much.

RVN: It was my pleasure. Thank you.