The images in this section of the Tennessee Virtual Archive are the watercolor drawings and sketches of famed architect William Strickland (1788-1854). While traveling in Europe in 1838, William Strickland produced a series of elegantly rendered watercolor sketches. In their detail, the sketches chronicle the deep appreciation Strickland had for the classical forms of architecture.
The sketchbook was originally purchased by the Tennessee State Library from Jesse Hartley Strickland in 1859. The sketchbook was transferred to the archives holdings in 2004. Interested researchers should also consult the portfolio of Strickland’s architectural drawings in the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Of these drawings very few are signed, none are dated, and only one can be identified with a definite structure, although they all seem to relate to projects of Strickland’s office.
About the Sketchbook
While traveling in Europe in 1838, William Strickland produced a series of elegantly rendered watercolor sketches. It was an opportune time to travel, since after completing a series of lucrative commissions, there were few prospects of obtaining new work. Because of a financial panic and accompanying labor unrest, no one had the inclination or funds for civic building. In fact, Strickland did not complete any building projects for the next seven years.
Strickland was away from Philadelphia for about six months. The family sailed in January for Liverpool where they visited Jesse Hartley, the famed engineer, with whom Strickland had kept up a friendship. After a few weeks in Liverpool, Strickland went to London, where he did a number of watercolor sketches, including two of Crosby Hall. One engineering development that especially intrigued Strickland was the creation of the Great Western Railway. In minute detail, he sketched the steam engine, as well as the dimensions of the railroad tracks. In the “Great Western” sketches, Strickland clearly showed his engineering skills.
After London, the family traveled south and visited Paris and Lyons in France. At Lyons, Strickland made a sketch of a suspension bridge. At Nimes, where he made an expedition to the Pont du Gard, he made a sketch that he annotated, “Drawn on the Spot.”
On the way through Italy to Rome, Strickland made some sketches, but the majority of drawings he made on the trip were completed in Rome. He drew ancient Roman architecture, medieval towers, and St. Peter’s, the famous church of the Italian Renaissance. His reminiscences of this visit to Rome appeared in a series of eleven articles that were published in the Nashville Daily Orthopolitan in 1846. His first four articles are attached to the sketchbook. Although there was much that he admired in Rome, Strickland was critical of the Popes as architects and was wary of archaeological legends based on mythology. In each of the “Roman” sketches, Strickland viewed the ancient monuments with a fresh, keen eye that clearly influenced his later work, especially the Tennessee State Capitol building. He admired the engineering skill displayed in the construction of the Coliseum and the Roman Baths.
Strickland left Rome about the middle of April, traveling north through Italy and Germany, down the Rhine, and back to England. They returned home early in July on the ship, Philadelphia.
William Strickland: A Brief Biographical Sketch
William Strickland holds an important place in the history of Greek Revival architecture in America. Talbot Hamlin refers to “that extraordinary man, William Strickland, engineer and architect, painter and engraver, one of the most interesting personalities, as he was one of the most brilliant and original designers of the entire Greek Revival movement.”
Strickland was a pupil of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and two of his own pupils, Gideon Shryock (architect of the Kentucky State Capitol) and Thomas Ustick Walter, became leaders of the architectural profession. During his career as an architect, from 1810 until his death in 1854, Strickland designed a substantial number of important public buildings, many in Philadelphia, upon which his reputation rests.
Strickland was an engineer as well as an architect, and he was always interested in structural as well as aesthetic problems, as can be seen in his sketchbook. His style ran the gamut of the various revival styles popular during his time, from the Gothic to the Egyptian, but he always held to the basic principle of neo-classical design which he learned from Latrobe.
Strickland was born in 1788 at Navesink, New Jersey, the son of John and Elizabeth Strickland. In 1801, he entered Latrobe’s office as a draftsman. Hamlin describes the young student at this time: “William Strickland was the youngest and the most brilliant, the one for whom Latrobe had the most admiration, but he was also the most ebullient, and the most intractable, so finally he had to be discharged.” During his apprenticeship, Strickland worked on plans for the United States Capitol.
Strickland’s first major commission came in 1818 when he won the competition for the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. This building is considered the first major example of the Greek Revival movement in the United States. After his success with the Bank of the United States, Strickland became one of the most successful and respected architects in that city. During the early years of his career he designed the United States Mint, the Naval Asylum in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Exchange built between 1832 and 1834. Because of diminishing commissions and a financial panic, Strickland and his family traveled to Europe in 1838.
In 1844, the committee in charge of building a capitol for Tennessee in Nashville approached Strickland asking if he might be interested in designing it. In 1845, as work began, Strickland identified the sources for his design: “The architecture of the building consists of a Doric basement, four Ionic porticos, surmounted by a Corinthian tower. The porticos are after the order of the Erechtheum, and the tower from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at Athens.” Because the elevated site suggested the Acropolis in Athens, Strickland chose the Ionic order of the Erechtheum, as Thomas Jefferson had done at Richmond. The nineteenth-century Neoclassical aesthetic maintained a subtle distinction among the orders, the Doric as signifying strength; the Ionic, wisdom; and the Corinthian, beauty. Whereas the conventional format at the time combined a pedimented facade, a central dome, and flanking wings, Strickland designed a simple rectangular structure with pedimented porticos at both ends, and colonnades with entablatures but no pediments along the sides.
The Tennessee State Capitol was the culmination of Strickland’s career, but during the time he was overseeing its construction, he was busy working on other projects in Nashville, including the design of the tomb of President James Knox Polk, and two downtown Nashville churches, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the First Presbyterian Church. The First Presbyterian Church (1848-1851) is considered to be the finest surviving example of Egyptian Revival architecture in the United States, although a Nashville newspaper admitted to bewilderment over a church “constructed (it is said) chiefly according to the Egyptian style of architecture.”
William Strickland became ill in 1851 because of the strain of overwork and pressure, and from then on he relied more and more on his son, Francis Strickland. In 1854, Strickland tried to have him appointed assistant architect. The legislature would not grant this and attempted to dismiss Strickland himself, or at least cut his salary.
These were but a few of the difficulties which beset Strickland during his tenure as state architect. He was criticized for the slowness of the work, but the legislature would not allot sufficient funds to continue more rapidly. The acoustics in the Senate chamber were found to be poor when the hall was first used in 1853. The design of the building was always admired, however, and Strickland’s ability as an architect was never questioned.
On April 6, 1854, William Strickland died in Nashville. He was interred in a niche in the north portico of the Capitol after the legislature had passed a resolution that he should be so honored.
During his long architectural career, Strickland enjoyed considerable success, although his career was occasionally interrupted by periods when work was scarce. In his designs, Strickland exemplified the best in American architecture, for he observed the three basic principles of architectural practice: the fitness of the plan, the solidity of the construction, and the proportion of the design. He is known today primarily as the architect of several great public buildings in the Greek Revival style. His Bank of the United States and Exchange in Philadelphia and the Tennessee State Capitol both stand as classic examples of antebellum architecture
Dekle, Clayton B. “The Tennessee State Capitol,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 25(Fall 1996), pp. 213-238.
Gilchrist, Agnes Addison William Strickland, Architect and Engineer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.
Gilchrist, Agnes Addison “Additions to William Strickland, Architect and Engineer,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 13(October 1954).
Hamlin, Talbot Greek Revival Architecture in America: Being an Account of Important Trends in American Architecture and America Life Prior to the War Between the States. New York: Dover, 1964.
McNabb, William Ross Another Look at William Strickland, Master of Arts Thesis, Nashville, Vanderbilt University, 1971.
Mahoney, Nell Savage “William Strickland and the Building of Tennessee’s Capitol, 1845-1854,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 4(1945), pp. 99-111.
Pierson, William Harvey American Buildings and Their Architects Garden City. New Jersey: Anchor Books, 1976.
Severens, Kenneth Southern Architecture: 350 Years of Distinctive American Buildings. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981.
“William Strickland,” Obituary, Nashville Daily Union and American, April 8, 1854.
“William Strickland,” Obituary, Republican Banner and Nashville Whig, April 8, 1854.
Wills, Jesse E. “An Echo from Egypt: A History of the Building Occupied by the First Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 11(1952), pp. 63-77.