A Conversation about The Architecture of William Nichols

The Architecture of William Nichols: Building the Antebellum South in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi is the first comprehensive biography and monograph of a significant yet overlooked architect in the American South. William Nichols designed three major university campuses--the University of North Carolina, the University of Alabama, and the University of Mississippi. He also designed the first state capitols of North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Nichols's architecture profoundly influenced the built landscape of the South but due to fire, neglect, and demolition, much of his work was lost and history has nearly forgotten his tremendous legacy. The Charlotte Observer called Paul Hardin Kapp's book "a must-read for neoclassical architecture fans in North Carolina and points farther south."

Tomorrow, Wednesday, May 27, Kapp and contributor to the volume, Todd Sanders, will be the featured speakers at History is Lunch at noon at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson.

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/books/article17298098.html#storylinkA conversation with Paul Hardin Kapp, author, and Todd Sanders, contributor, of The Architecure
Below Kapp and Sanders speak about their interest in Nichols, favorite buildings, and things they discovered during the on-site research.

How did you learn about William Nichols and his architecture?

Paul Hardin Kapp: Having grown up in Jackson, Mississippi, I knew about William Nichols long before I actually learned who William Nichols was. Like so many people who live and work in Jackson or Oxford or Chapel Hill or Tuscaloosa, I walked around and gazed at his buildings and then I took his buildings for granted. As a teenager, I always liked them but I never actually thought about who built them and the reasons why they were built in a particular style. Much later on, when I was a practicing architect, during my interview to be the campus historic preservation manager, then Chancellor, James Moeser, took me to a rather plain building on the campus of the University of North Carolina and told me that it had once had an impressive portico on it. He then suggested that it should be reconstructed. Wanting the job, I heartily agreed. The building was Gerrard Hall. When I researched it, I learned that William Nichols had designed it and that he had also designed the Old Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson and the Lyceum at Ole Miss. I was floored.   

Todd SandersI’m not sure when I first learned about Nichols and his architecture.  I've always been interested in architectural history, especially Mississippi’s, so I've known about the Old Capitol and the Governor’s mansion for a long time.  Not sure when I began to wonder about Nichols and his other work.  The Old Capitol has long been one of my favorite buildings and being an employee of the Department of Archives and History I've been fortunate to spend a lot of time there, and at the Governor’s mansion as well.  Just being interested in and curious about historic architecture, I slowly learned more about Nichols and what else he did.   His is an amazing story that has finally been told in a way he deserves.

What was it about William Nichols that convinced you he’d be a good subject for a biography and a monograph?

PHK: In 2003, I was back in Jackson, visiting an old friend and his family, and I toured the Old Capitol. Upon admiring it from across State Street, I decided that I wanted to write about William Nichols. The fact that he was a native of Bath, England who went on to design three state capitols, three university campuses, and was buried in Lexington, Mississippi convinced me that he had a compelling story that needed to be told.

TS: Great buildings like the Old Capitol and the Governor’s mansion don’t just appear.  They are great monuments designed and built by very talented men.  The designer of these buildings had to have a very interesting story.  And indeed he does.

What’s your favorite building that Nichols designed?

PHK: I have to say that the house he designed for James Johnston at Hayes Plantation outside of Edenton, North Carolina is my favorite Nichols’s work. I have never experienced a building quite like Hayes. Approaching the house is memorable enough; you are only a few hundred yards from the Colonial Avenue and the center of Edenton, yet, when you cross a simple wooden bridge, spanning across Queen Anne’s Creek, you are immediately placed in another world that is both rural and orderly. The house itself has a commanding presence over Edenton Bay and the Gothic Library that he designed is one of the most beautiful rooms in the South. I would not be surprised if Johnston was distracted by the beautiful architecture of the library and breathtaking views of the Albemarle Sound. I was when I visited it.

TS: It’s hard to choose between the Old Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion.  However, I would have to say that my favorite Nichols building is the Governor’s Mansion.  Not only is it a grand example of the Greek Revival style, my favorite, it is also tells so much of the history of the state of Mississippi and of Jackson.  It also shows how Nichols, late in life in his 60s, transformed from a decent, competent designer working in the somewhat dated Federal style, to an architect producing buildings that were on a par with contemporary buildings in New York or Philadelphia.  And this in the small, frontier capital city of Jackson.  The Governor’s mansion was one of the largest houses in the entire state when it was completed.  Architecturally it was more sophisticated than anything contemporary with it in Natchez or Vicksburg, two of the state’s largest towns at the time.  His transformation occurred during his brief sojourn in New Orleans where he was exposed to some of the greatest architecture in the United States at the time.  While there he also acquired a new book by Minard Lafever, a prominent New York architect, showcasing the grandeur of the Greek Revival style as it was built in New York.  Nichols incorporated these details in the Governor’s Mansion in the same ten year span that these details were being used in New York. 

Were there things you learned about Nichols that surprised you? Do you consider him a great architect?

PHK: First, I was surprised how audacious he was. Soon after he arrived in North Carolina from England, he was calling himself an “architect.” Then I was surprised about his attitude; he was a brash and daring architect. He was undaunted in designing very sophisticated buildings in very rural places where skilled tradesmen and expensive materials were scarce. He was also unapologetic in building beyond his clients’ budgets. This did get him in a lot of trouble. I am also surprised that he was a nearly forgotten architect. He had made such an impact in his lifetime and his contemporaries recognized it. But due to fire, demolition and remodeling of his buildings, his legacy was diminished somewhat. I do consider him a great architect. His work helped define the Antebellum South in North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Nichols's architecture profoundly influenced the built landscape of the South but due to fire, neglect, and demolition, much of his work was lost and history has nearly forgotten his tremendous legacy.

In his research onsite and through archives in North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Paul Hardin Kapp has produced a narrative of the life and times of William Nichols that weaves together the elegant work of this architect with the aspirations and challenges of the antebellum South. It is richly illustrated with over two hundred archival photographs and drawings from the Historic American Building Survey.

TS:  I have to say that nothing really surprised me.  He behaved like most “architects” or “master builders” of the time did.  In the United States at the time there were no architecture schools or professional organizations like the AIA, so it was fairly common for people involved in this profession to call themselves “architect”.  It was also very hard to make a living at this time as just an architect.  Most individuals who called themselves “architect” also had other means of income in order to survive.  So, the fact that Nichols was able to survive as an architect for over fifty years is a testament to his skill not only as an architect but also to his political acumen. 
Yes; I do consider him a great architect.  He managed to produce some fantastic buildings working under very difficult circumstances.

What is that you want the readers to learn about The Architecture of William Nichols?  

PHK: I hope that readers will learn from the book that you don’t have to go to Europe or other parts of the world to appreciate impressive monuments; great and important architecture is all around us. Nichols’s buildings have played an important role in our history long after they were built and will continue to do so. The Architecture of William Nichols is as much a book about historic preservation as it is a history or an architectural history one. Thanks to people, like Todd, who work in state historic preservation offices in North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, Nichols’s story and his buildings were saved. I hope that after readers finish the book they will become more aware of historic buildings where they live and ponder the story behind them like Todd and I did with all of Nichols’s surviving buildings.

TS:  I want readers to learn to not take these great buildings for granted.  We are fortunate to have several of his buildings with us but we have lost so many more.  Some were lost to fire but so many of them were lost due to carelessness or ignorance.   I want readers to learn to appreciate all historic buildings.  I want readers to see their value and find ways to save them.  Often historic buildings outlive their original purpose, such as the Old Capitol, but with a little imagination new uses can be found for them.  That could have easily happened to both the Old Capitol and the Governor’s mansion.