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Lucy Der Manuelian, pioneering US scholar of Armenian architecture and art, dies at 93

Lucy Der Manuelian sorted slides from her research in Armenia at her desk in her Belmont home in the 1990s.

Nearly 50 and pursuing a doctorate after raising two sons, Lucy Der Manuelian took a four-hour climb up a mountain in Soviet Armenia one day in 1977 to study and photograph a 13th-century monastery.

“I had spent the first part of my life as a Belmont housewife chauffeuring my two sons around town, and then I found myself on this mountain peak,” she recalled a few years later in a Globe interview.

Through determination and a willingness to shoulder camera equipment to remote places — not to mention going toe-to-toe with the KGB — she brought the first images of that monastery and other churches back to Western academics.

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A pioneering US scholar of Armenian art and architecture, Dr. Der Manuelian died Sept. 20 at home of complications from dementia. She was 93 and had lived in her Belmont house since 1965.

Dr. Der Manuelian was the first to hold the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara T. Oztemel chair of Armenian art in Tufts University’s department of the history of art and architecture, and she had been the force behind securing endowment funding for the position.

Focusing academically on the architecture and art of Armenia was all but unheard of in the United States when she began her doctoral work nearly 50 years ago.

“Her dissertation is also widely considered to be the first American dissertation dedicated to Armenian art,” wrote Christina Maranci, who chairs the history of art and architecture department at Tufts, in a tribute.

In an interview posted on YouTube, Dr. Der Manuelian said she had come to think of Armenian art and architecture “as a kind of lost treasure.”

When she spoke to audiences about her work, “everyone became enthralled and I felt very happy because many of them said that, you know, the lectures opened their eyes to a different part of the world — a part of the world they hadn’t known anything about — and to different periods of history that were important for Western civilization.”

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Dr. Der Manuelian was drawn to her academic focus almost by happenstance.

“I was sitting in on courses at Harvard, and I kept running across these footnotes about Armenian art and architecture,” she said in the video interview.

“And it was very surprising to me because I had never run across any mention of Armenian art and architecture in any of the textbooks on the history of art,” she added. “And I began to realize that — on the basis of what the footnotes said — some more research in the field of Armenian art and architecture might answer some of the most important unanswered and haunting questions in the history of medieval art.”

Among those questions, Dr. Der Manuelian said, was how did “the medieval architects of Western Europe learn the building techniques that made it possible for them to build those towering Gothic cathedrals?”

Though some scholars believed there was a connection between European cathedrals and Armenian architecture techniques that were developed centuries earlier, there was no documentation in the art history books she studied.

“I thought,” she said, “why not pursue this field?”

Born on June 7, 1928, Lucy Der Manuelian grew up in Boston and Arlington, the youngest of three siblings.

Her mother, Armenouhy Altiparmakian Der Manuelian, had fled the Istanbul area in 1915 at the outset of the genocide that decimated the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. In later years, she wrote an autobiography and stories about her family.

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Dr. Der Manuelian’s father, Manuel Der Manuelian, was a successful realtor.

She graduated from Girls’ Latin School in 1946 and received a bachelor’s degree in 1950 from Radcliffe College, where she majored in English.

A few months after graduating, she married Dr. Richard L. Sidman, a neuropathologist.

Their marriage ended in 1972 after she had raised her sons David Sidman, now of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Peter Der Manuelian, now of Boston, and had settled in Belmont.

“She was totally devoted to us,” Peter said, “but she was also feeding her insatiable curiosity.”

When her sons were young, she was auditing courses at Harvard University. And in a written tribute, they both noted that she also was “perfecting her gourmet cooking skills.”

Befriending Julia Child and her husband, Paul, Dr. Der Manuelian invited them over for dinner at a time when most people would have been too intimidated to prepare a meal for the famous chef.

“It was an evening full of pleasure and satisfaction,” Child and her husband said afterward in a July 1968 handwritten thank-you note.

“She was an inspiration,” David said of his mother, who he said passed along traits such as “optimism, entrepreneurship, persistence, and caring about other people.”

Her curiosity, he added, was not confined to academic pursuits.

“She would never be able to go to a restaurant without asking the waiter where she or he was from,” David said. “She would strike up conversations with everybody. She was very interested in their stories.”

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Once Dr. Der Manuelian’s marriage was over, she enrolled for doctoral work in Boston University and a Harvard professor, Oleg Grabar, helped supervise her dissertation on Geghard, an Armenian monastery whose cathedral was finished in the 13th century. She graduated in 1980.

Her research was partly inspired by her godfather, Arshag Fetvadjian, an Armenian artist, designer, and painter known for his paintings of architectural monuments in the ancient city of Ani, which was the region’s capital before modern-day Armenia.

Dr. Der Manuelian used photography to record her explorations in Armenia, and was awarded a fellowship by what was then the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe to study Armenian churches.

“I had taken something like 60 rolls of film with me,” she recalled with a chuckle in the video interview. “I had two cameras, four lenses, and no experience in taking pictures.”

Maranci, who now holds the Dadian and Oztemel chair at Tufts, said in her tribute that “Lucy was fearless, physically and psychologically. Before the era of drones, she hung out of helicopters to take good aerial shots of monasteries and churches.”

During tense times between the United States and the Soviet Union, “the KGB suspected that she was a spy because of all her travel and photography,” Maranci added, and that led to an encounter in Armenia’s capital city.

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“One night they visited her in Yerevan and, to avoid handing over the film, Lucy hid it inside her dress, daring them to manhandle her,” Maranci wrote. “Art history won and we have the photographs.”

In addition to her two sons, Dr. Der Manuelian leaves two grandsons and a great-granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 23 in Story Chapel in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Dr. Der Manuelian “was always just doing a hundred things at once,” Peter said, mixing fund-raising for her academic work with attending the Boston Ballet and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“As everyone who knew her can attest, Lucy was unconventional and indomitable,” Maranci wrote. “An avid tennis player, she had boundless energy. She believed in using every minute: She kept a stack of books in the car and read at every stoplight (often to the consternation of drivers behind her).”

Whether she was teaching or hanging out of a helicopter to shoot photos, Dr. Der Manuelian could improvise her way through any challenge.

If no parking spots were available at Tufts, Maranci wrote, “Lucy sometimes held office hours in her car.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.