The Architect

… I could bring with me a fund of information which would result in producing an Edifice not surpassed for Elegance, Convenience, Stability, and Economy of Expenditure by any building of similar Character in the Union.

William Nichols, from his application
to be Mississippi state architect

William Nichols was born in 1780 in Bath, England. In 1800 he immigrated to the United States. Nichols worked in New Bern, North Carolina, as an architect and builder, and then in 1819 was appointed state architect of North Carolina. His Greek Revival renovation of their state house previewed his design for Mississippi's Old Capitol almost two decades later.

In 1827 Nichols became the state architect of Alabama. There he had the opportunity not only to build a state house but also to lay out a university, design the buildings, and see them built. The Alabama capitol was another architectural accomplishment and a step in Nichols's progression toward his supreme achievement in capitol building—the Mississippi State House. Features of Mississippi’s Old Capitol—the central rotunda, the grand portico without steps, the circle of columns in the senate chamber—were all present in Nichols's design for the Alabama State House.

Nichols worked for several years in Louisiana, gaining experience and making contacts that later proved profitable. He used the dome on the New Orleans Merchants Exchange, designed by New Orleans architect James Dakin, as a model for the dome on the Mississippi capitol, and called on New Orleans craftsmen to do much of the delicate ornamental work on the Old Capitol.

When Nichols came to Mississippi in the fall of 1835 as the new state architect, his first job was to tear down previous architect John Lawrence's false start on the building. Nichols overcame many obstacles in the construction of the Old Capitol; the shortage of skilled workers was so great that some owners hired out their skilled slaves. Nichols used local limestone, although it was of inferior quality. Blocks of stone were carried by wagon from the quarry to Jackson. Construction was repeatedly slowed by problems with the brick suppliers. Nevertheless, Nichols carried on.

Except for small interior details, work was finished by February 1840. A chandelier arrived in June 1840, and the final expenditure for building the state house was made October 13, 1840, for flagging the rotunda. The cost of building the Old Capitol was about $400,000, a huge amount for that time.

While Nichols was working on the state house, he also designed two other major projects: the Mississippi Governor's Mansion, completed in 1842, and the state's first penitentiary. The latter building was a large, castle-like structure in Gothic Revival style at the site of the current state capitol.

In 1848, Nichols designed the first building at the University of Mississippi, the Lyceum. Nichols died December 12, 1853, at the age of seventy-three and is buried in Lexington, Mississippi, in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.