Over a prolific career that spanned more than five decades, architect William Nichols designed major public and institutional buildings in four southern states, becoming among the most accomplished architects of his generation and a leading figure of the Greek Revival. He produced his most mature work while serving as state architect of Mississippi in the late 1830s and 1840s. The State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, the State Penitentiary, and the Lyceum at the University of Mississippi rank among his finest accomplishments. Nichols was a versatile stylist who stayed abreast of changing tastes by moving adeptly from Federal- and Palladian-inspired designs in the early stages of his career to the Greek Revival by the late antebellum period.
Nichols was born in 1777 in Bath, England. He arrived in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1800 and began working as an architect and surveyor. The elegant Federal-style Hayes Plantation House near Edenton (1814–17) was the most important of his early designs. He remodeled the State House in Raleigh between 1820 and 1824 and then sought new opportunities in Alabama, where he was appointed state architect. In 1827 he began drafting plans for a new capitol at Tuscaloosa. Completed in 1831, the capitol was built on a cruciform plan and featured a projecting central pavilion with engaged Ionic columns. Nichols also designed the University of Alabama, where he created a broad quadrangle and built along its periphery a temple-like Lyceum, a three-story Rotunda, and professors’ houses and dormitories. Construction began in 1828; the university opened three years later. In December 1833, when the fiscal conservatism of the Alabama legislature led to his dismissal, Nichols accepted an appointment as assistant state engineer of Louisiana and moved to Baton Rouge, where he oversaw the completion of the state penitentiary and remodeled and enlarged Benjamin H. Latrobe’s Charity Hospital of 1815 for temporary use by state legislature. In New Orleans, Nichols saw the Greek Revival designs of James Gallier and James Dakin, which significantly influenced his later work.
Nichols was appointed state architect of Mississippi in December 1835. Upon arriving in Jackson, he immediately set to work on the new state capitol, which had been plagued by problems since construction began in 1834. Nichols prepared new plans and oversaw the project through to its completion in 1839. The exterior was loosely modeled on the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.; the interior, brilliant in its ornamentation and rationally ordered plan, was uniquely Nichols. During the same era Nichols also designed the Gothic-style State Penitentiary (1836–40) and the Governor’s Mansion (1839–42), which is today considered a Greek Revival masterpiece. In the mid-1840s Nichols prepared a master plan for the University of Mississippi at Oxford and built the Lyceum (1846–48), a three-story structure that housed lecture halls, a library, and a laboratory. He on died 12 December 1853 in Lexington while supervising construction of a building for the Lexington Female Academy.
- Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Historical Review (October 1991)
- Mills Lane, Architecture of the Old South: Mississippi and Alabama (1989)
- C. Ford Peatross and Robert O. Mellown, William Nichols, Architect (1979)