Master architect and designer of the Tennessee State Capitol, William F. Strickland was born in 1788 in Navesink, New Jersey. When he was two years old, his parents, John and Elizabeth Strickland, moved the family to Philadelphia. In 1803 William Strickland was apprenticed to the British-American architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, under whose tutelage he learned the principles of architecture and engineering. After completing his training, Strickland supported himself through painting, engraving, and aquatinting, as well as by creating designs for plasterers and carpenters.
In 1808 Strickland prepared drawings for a new Masonic building in Philadelphia. He was awarded the contract and completed the Gothic style building in 1811. Primarily identified with the Classical style, he designed a number of familiar institutional buildings, including the Second Bank of the United States (1818-24); the tower of Independence Hall (1828) and the Merchants Exchange (1832-37) in Philadelphia; and the U.S. Mints in Charlotte, North Carolina (1835), and New Orleans (1835-36). In 1837 he designed a new sarcophagus to hold the remains of George Washington.
In addition to his architectural projects, Strickland also completed several engineering ventures. His Delaware Breakwater remains in operation 150 years later. As America entered the transportation revolution of the nineteenth century, Strickland’s expertise was sought by a number of entrepreneurs, and his work includes numerous reports on railroad and canal projects.
In 1843 Governor James C. Jones charged the Tennessee General Assembly with the responsibility of naming a permanent capital city. Nashville won the designation after the city purchased Campbell’s Hill and gave it to the state as the site for the capitol building. The legislature named William Strickland as the architect for the proposed capitol, and he arrived in Tennessee in April 1845. Construction proceeded at a slow pace. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1845, and more than eight years later, the Tennessee General Assembly met for the first time in the yet unfinished building. The final stone was set in place on March 19, 1859. The cost of construction and furnishing of the building reached a total of $879,981.48. Sadly, Strickland died five years before the completion of the capitol.
Nashville’s other surviving major Strickland-designed building is the Downtown Presbyterian Church. The Egyptian Revival style, which he also used in his design of Philadelphia’s Mikveh-Israel Synagogue, represents a marked departure from his usual Classicism. The twin towers of the Nashville church are reminiscent of the stepped octagonal twin tower of St. Stephen’s Church in Philadelphia. Strickland again toyed with the use of the Egyptian Revival style in an unaccepted proposal for the gateway of Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.
During his Nashville years, Strickland received three commissions to design grave monuments. The first, a monument to Sarah Ann Gray Walker, wife of Jonathan W. Walker, was erected in City Cemetery around 1846. An eternal torch, in stone, surmounts the monument, and a lachrymal vase sits, symbolically, in an archway at the center of it. In 1850 Strickland designed the monument for James Knox Polk which was erected next to Polk Place, the former president’s Nashville home. In that same year, he designed the John Kane monument, the most interesting of the three. Kane, a stonecutter, was employed in the construction of the State Capitol. Erected in City Cemetery by his fellow stonecutters, the top of the monument is covered with the tools of their trade.
Strickland also designed several area buildings which have not survived. From a drawing in his portfolio, it is possible to attribute the Second Presbyterian Church of Nashville (1846) to Strickland. His drawing, labeled “Second Presbyterian Church,” matched the interior of the building, which was leveled in 1979 for twelve parking spaces for the new Davidson County Criminal Justice Center. In 1848 Strickland designed the Wilson County Courthouse, which burned in 1881.
William Strickland died in Nashville on April 7, 1854. The Tennessee General Assembly honored the architect’s wish to be interred in a niche carved into the north portico of the State Capitol he designed.
Agnes E. Gilcrease, William Strickland, Architect and Engineer, 1788-1854 (1950)