Architect Pics: William Nichols (1780-1853)

Well ok, this isn’t a traditional architect picture post. In fact, I don’t know that a picture exists of our own esteemed William Nichols–I don’t have Ford Peatross’ William Nichols’ Architect handy in front of me. Nichols was one of the first professional architects to reside in Mississippi (after Levi Weeks in Natchez). He certainly was the most experienced architect, having served as State Architect in both North Carolina and Alabama, and Assistant State Engineer for Louisiana before coming to Mississippi in 1835 to rescue our Old Capitol (well, it was just The Capitol then) from falling down before it even got completed.

Anyway, I’ve been inspired for a while by my Flickr pal (and Fondren neighbor) Natalie Maynor, who always posts interesting pictures from her “graving” expeditions all over the state. I wasn’t familiar with “graving” as a hobby, but Natalie goes on her journeys of discovery as a public service to people who live far away but would like a picture or two of their ancestor’s grave back in the backwoods of Mississippi. In fact, a good number of the photos in Find a Grave’s Mississippi section (and maybe other states too) are a result of Natalie’s hard work and willingness to tromp through the weeds at the drop of a hat.

So today, in lieu of an actual picture of Nichols, I thought we’d do the next best thing and post his tombstone, found in the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Lexington, where he died in 1853 (click on the pictures to make them bigger).

In case you can’t read the writing:

WILLIAM NICHOLS, ARCHT.
A native of Bath England
Died
Dec 12, 1853
Aged 73 years

Haply thy Spirit in some higher sphere
Soars with the motions which it measured here
While thy worn frame enjoys its long repose
Freed from the cares of Life and all its woes.

To read what I think is the most extensive biography available online, check out the entry for Nichols on the North Carolina Architects and Builders site, co-authored by Ford Peatross and Catherine Bishir. And of course, Nichols is one of the few Mississippi architects with an entry on wikipedia. As for his work after North Carolina, I can see why his Alabama and Louisiana sojourns have gotten relatively short shrift (one of the many buildings I wish I had been alive to see was his Forks of Cypress in Alabama), but he spent the last 17 years of his life in Mississippi, designing buildings until the end, and yet we still don’t have a good scholarly account of his work here. I was happy to see that the newly re-opened Old Capitol Museum gives Nichols pride of place and even has a nice write-up about his work on the building on its website.

We do know that as State Architect from 1836 through 1848, he was responsible for the Old Capitol, Governor’s Mansion, the State Penitentiary (on the site of our New Capitol *snickering allowed*), and the beginnings of the University of Mississippi campus, including the Lyceum and the building that I think is called the Croft Institute now (much altered). That’s four National Historic Landmarks right there, which ain’t bad for a guy who started out in Bath, England and ended up in Yazoo County, Mississippi.

He also found time for a variety of private projects, including a church building for the Presbyterians in Jackson (demolished) and possibly (this is conjectural) for the Methodists in Jackson and the Baptists in Columbus (both demolished). After his retirement as State Architect, he moved to rural Yazoo County, where he shows up in the 1850 census. He was still working though: we know that he designed the first Yazoo County Courthouse in 1850 (gone), and was in the process of designing the Lexington Male and Female Academy (burned 1904) in Lexington when he died there. He’s also credited with the Porterfield House in Vicksburg (c.1850).

Undoubtedly, Nichols was responsible for a good deal of other important buildings of central Mississippi in addition to his public projects, but we just don’t know enough to be sure what exactly he was doing in his free time. Somebody out there needs to start reading through newspapers beginning around 1836 and get back to us with some details. An obituary would be especially helpful.

And if you enjoy wandering around taking pictures of gravestones, and you come across one of our Mississippi architects or builders, snap a shot and send it in. We may not be able to find portraits of each of the men who built our state, but we can at least find where they lie in (hopefully) sweet repose.



Categories: Architectural Research, Courthouses, Jackson, Lexington, Oxford, Universities/Colleges

9 replies

  1. I may be getting confused here, but was he also responsible for Charity Hospital in Natchez?

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  2. I have always heard that Robert Mills was the architect (from afar of course) of the Charity Hospital, originally the Marine Hospital and therefore a project of the federal govt. I’ve never heard Nichols associated with the hospital, but then again, I don’t know alot about that building.

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  3. I think you are right about that. Losing Charity Hospital was a tragedy.

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  4. The Yazoo Democrat Aug. 22, 1850 has an article describing the new Yazoo County courthouse built by William Nichols. From this description, it would appear this was architecturally the most imposing and significant building ever erected in Yazoo. Unfortunately, the William Nichols courthouse was burned by Union forces in 1864 (the court records having been safely removed beforehand). The building which replaced it in 1872, while beautiful in its own right, just doesn’t seem to compare with what was lost.

    My question is this: would there exist anywhere a drawing or engraving of the Yazoo County Courthouse by William Nichols? I have searched the Yazoo newspapers for this period and have found none.

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  5. Despite the lack of historical information, i have suggested that (when the time is right) our Mississippi Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA) name our annual presentation the “William Nichols Award” as he is a fine representative of classicism coming (in his case literally) to the new USA from across the “pond”.

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  1. Old Capitol’s Mystery Architect Revealed! (somewhat) « Preservation in Mississippi

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