William Bell Dinsmoor Biography

William Bell Dinsmoor Papers (1886-1973)

Biographical Note

“Long recognized throughout the world as a leading authority on Greek architecture of the classical period, William Bell Dinsmoor was associated through almost the whole of his professional career with three institutions: the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Columbia University and the Archaeological Institute of America.” [YEAR BOOK OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, 1974, p. 156] 

William Bell Dinsmoor was born in July 1886, at Windham, New Hampshire, son of a Boston architect. On completion of his studies at the Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the States, he attended the Harvard School of Architecture from 1902 to 1906. Dinsmoor received his degree in 1906 and over the next two years he was employed by a New York based architectural firm. During the summer of 1906 he made his first crossing across the Atlantic visiting Europe. It was also his first visit to Greece.  In 1904, a grant from the Carnegie Institution allowed the American School to start a series of appointments of Fellows in Architecture. Dinsmoor was the first holder of the Fellowship in Architecture (1908), thus beginning a long and successful association with the American School. His fellowship was extended for a further year. In September 1910 Dinsmoor returned from the States with his wife Zillah Frances (née Pierce). His appointment was continued for a further two years, “in view of the desires of the Carnegie Institution.”  In 1912 he was appointed Architect of the School, a position he held up until 1919. His work was interrupted for his service in the United States Army.

His association with Columbia University began in 1920. From 1920 to 1926 Dinsmoor presided over Columbia’s Avery Library.  There he “established the separate Fine Arts Library. He discovered and acquired some of Avery’s most important architectural drawings, including Sebastiano Serlio’s unpublished manuscript on domestic architecture, dating from the 1540s, illustrated with Serlio’s own drawings. Serlio planned this to be the sixth book of his seven volume treatise on architecture. The manuscript was finally published in 1978 by the Architectural History Foundation.”  In 1924 Dinsmoor returned to the American School as professor of architecture for half of each year until 1928. From 1933 until his retirement in 1955 he served as executive officer of the Department of Fine Arts at Columbia. In 1935 Dinsmoor was appointed professor of archaeology at Columbia.

A great part of his professional career was also connected with the Archaeological Institute of America. In 1936 he was elected president of the organization, a post which he held up until 1945. It was from this position that Dinsmoor was initially involved in organizing measures for the protection of the historical monuments and works of art. In 1943 the American Council of Learned Societies appointed a Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas with Dinsmoor as chairman. Later in the same year was formed the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. Thereafter all the activities of the ACLS Committee were channeled through the more broadly based Commission to which Dinsmoor was appointed by President Roosevelt. The first great need was to produce plans of the cities in which American military forces were likely to be operating—plans on which historic monuments were prominently marked so as to facilitate their preservation whether in land operations or bombing attacks. In addition to the production of maps, the Commission saw to the preparation of handbooks on the care and preservation of monuments and works of art and to the giving of lectures on these subjects to members of the armed forces. As territory was recovered from the enemy, reports were made on the condition of monuments, and, finally an active part was taken by the staff of the Commission in tracking down and restoring to their rightful owners great numbers of “displaced works of art.”

Gratified though he was by the accomplishments of the three strenuous years of the Commission’s existence, Dinsmoor was happy to be able to return to active scholarship in 1946. Throughout his long career Dinsmoor’s interests were focused chiefly on the buildings on and around the Athenian Acropolis. His earliest articles are devoted to a re-editing and re-interpretation of the so-called “Building Accounts.” These remarkable documents are publications in marble of the proceedings, including the receipt and expenditure of money, of the commissions that supervised various building operations, like the Parthenon, Erechtheum, Propylaia, Temple of Athena Nike, and the colossal statue of Athena Promachos.

Another series of Dinsmoor’s early articles has to do with the entrance to the Acropolis and the monuments that bordered the approach.  Already in 1910 in an article on the gables of the Propylaia he brilliantly solved the principal outstanding problems regarding the design of that remarkable building. The article of 1910 was presented as only the first step in a comprehensive publication of the Propylaia, a theme to which he returned repeatedly in later life; but his book, like the building itself, was to remain a splendid, unfinished torso.

On the Acropolis Dinsmoor devoted himself to the study of two shrines (Erechtheum, Parthenon) of the goddess Athena. In a series of massive articles (1932, 1934, 1935, 1937, 1947) he reviewed all the relevant archaeological and literary evidence to arrive at conclusions that are as clear and plausible as the available evidence now permits. Another Doric temple beloved by Dinsmoor was that of Apollo at Bassae. Early in his study of the building Dinsmoor became fascinated by the problem of recovering the original arrangement of the twenty-three slabs of sculpted frieze which were found in the ruins of the temple. Dinsmoor published his first results in 1933.

The best known and most influential of all Dinsmoor’s writings is The Architecture of Ancient Greece (1950).  The book traces the development of architecture in Greek lands from the Bronze Age through the Hellenistic period.Other publications include The Archons of Athens in the Hellenistic Age (1931) in which Dinsmoor attempted to place in their correct sequence the annual chief magistrates of Athens. Soon after his retirement from Columbia University, Dinsmoor took up residence in Athens, and there passed the last 12 years of his life. In 1969 he received the gold medal for distinguished archaeological achievement from the Archaeological Institute of America. On July 2, 1973 he quietly passed away and was laid to rest in the First Cemetery of Athens.

The ASCSA Archives received the William Bell Dinsmoor Family Papers in 1978 by his son William Bell Dinsmoor, Jr. in five boxes along with two boxes filled with off-prints.

[The biographical essay is based on the necrology written by Homer A. Thompson and published in the Year Book of the American Philosophical Society, 1974, pp. 156-163.]

For more information, please contact the Archivist:
Dr. Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan
The American School of Classical Studies at Athens
54 Souidias Street, Athens 106 76, Greece,
phone: 210 72 36 313 (ext. 106) Fax: 210 72 50 584
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