Books

Book review: ‘The Architecture of William Nichols’

Paul Hardin Kapp, former campus historic preservation manager at UNC-Chapel Hill, writes about the lasting impact of architect William Nichols, whose antebellum work can be seen in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.
Paul Hardin Kapp, former campus historic preservation manager at UNC-Chapel Hill, writes about the lasting impact of architect William Nichols, whose antebellum work can be seen in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. UNIVERSITY PRESS OF MISSISSIPPI

Paul Hardin Kapp’s new book on architect William Nichols shines a much-needed spotlight on a forgotten designer whose antebellum work still sparkles across the South.

Kapp possesses an intimate knowledge of Nichols’ work. From 2002-08, the former historical architect and campus historic preservation manager at UNC-Chapel Hill spent much of his time studying Nichols’ designs.

“The Architecture of William Nichols: Building the Antebellum South in North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi,” is a must-read for neoclassical architecture fans in North Carolina and points farther south.

Among the projects Nichols worked on were the campuses of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi, as well as capitol buildings for all three states.

At UNC, Nichols would contribute mightily to the school’s early structures and master plan. His work includes Gerrard Hall, begun in 1822 but not completed until 1837. Heroic in the Greco-Roman tradition, it features a colossal portico. He faced it south to create a new quadrangle on campus, an idea that was ignored for almost a century, until 1921.

As Kapp points out, Nichols also established the historical and spiritual center of campus when he removed a cupola from the roof of the South Building and placed it on a spot of land between that structure and Steward’s Hall, now demolished. A focal point for the campus, it was later burned by students as a prank, but it stood roughly where the Old Well is now.

In Raleigh, Nichols designed North Carolina’s second Statehouse, between 1822 and 1824. Though it burned in 1831, the architects for its successor incorporated Nichols’ Greek cruciform plan, as well as his rotunda atop. As Kapp notes, Nichols understood how a state capitol should work, with two distinct wings – one for the Senate and one for the House of Representatives – and a uniting dome, entered through a portico.

In 1826, Nichols would enlarge and redesign the Mordecai House, the oldest house in Raleigh still on its original foundation, in the Grecian style. That house features a precise fanlight entry, with detailing inside that clearly reflects the young architect’s English upbringing.

Kapp emphasizes the importance of Nichols’ early life in Bath, N.C., a city dominated by the Palladian and Georgian styles that would strongly influence the young carpenter-turned-architect. By the time he arrived in New Bern, N.C., in 1800, architects like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Latrobe and Robert Mills were championing those styles – as well as Greek Revival – for the new nation’s public buildings.

Nichols’ timing could not have been better. He would soon turn a finely tuned eye to designs for buildings in New Bern, Guilford, Edenton, Fayetteville, Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. By 1827, he’d moved on to Alabama, to Louisiana and then to Mississippi in 1836, cutting a wide swath in Tuscaloosa and Jackson as he designed Greek Revival campuses and statehouses for both, and in New Orleans, where he redesigned Charity Hospital.

A prolific architect, Nichols designed and built at least 72 structures, Kapp estimates. Two-thirds of them have since been lost to fire, decay or urban renewal. Those that remain are true American gems, and this book – with its excellent photography and precise reproductions of Nichols’ drawings – effectively communicates a young nation’s new and optimistic spirit, as seen through the eyes of a gifted and discerning architect.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design and edits and publishes a digital design magazine at architectsandartisans.com. His book, “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand,” is due in the spring from Routledge Press.

Nonfiction

The Architecture of William Nichols: Building the Antebellum South in North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi

Paul Hardin Kapp

University Press of Mississippi, 336 pages

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