TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - In the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library on Friday, a professor of architecture and historian discussed the building’s antebellum predecessor that stood at the site on the University of Alabama’s campus 150 years ago and the influence of its designer on the architecture of the Southeast.
“What he did here, I believe, truly defined what Alabama would become, especially in the north of the state,” lecturer Paul Kapp said of William Nichols, the designer of the original UA campus, which was burned by Union cavalry on April 4, 1865.
Kapp, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, discussed the work of Nichols, the architect who designed the old state capitol in Tuscaloosa. Kapp reviewed Nichols’ professional life in the U.S. after the architect emigrated from England, including his residential work in Tuscaloosa, Greene and Lauderdale counties.
Kapp’s lecture is among a series of talks on campus marking the sesquicentennial of the burning of the campus. There is a lecture series titled “Confederate Voices,” scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today in the Grand Gallery of the Alabama Museum of Natural History. UA’s Gorgas House Museum will also display a new exhibit on the family of Josiah Gorgas and their experiences during the Civil War until Oct. 23.
Kapp wrote about Nichols’ work across the antebellum Southeast in his book, “The Architecture of William Nichols.”
Nichols designed three campuses and three state capitols in the South. His legacy is his influence on the architecture in the Southeast, Kapp said. Nichols designed the campuses at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi as well as the capitol buildings in those states. Nichols, at different times, served as the state architect in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.
“All three of these states carried on the ideas that Nichols first expressed (in his work on the campuses and capitols),” Kapp said.
Kapp argued that Alabama was a blank slate in 1827 when Nichols arrived. Nichols helped define the early architectural style of the state in the six years he was in Alabama, Kapp said.
Nichols presented plans for the state’s “seminary of learning” to UA’s board of trustees in March of 1828.
Nichols’ design was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s work at the University of Virginia. Jefferson’s political vision of the country as an agrarian democracy influenced Alabama’s leaders, including Gov. Israel Pickens, who worked to establish the University of Alabama, according to Kapp.
Nichols designed 11 buildings on the campus, including residences for professors, dormitories and academic buildings. The campus was designed and built for $56,000, Kapp said.
“Here you can start to see the aspirational ideals the founders of the University of Alabama wanted for the campus, and it was based on Jeffersonian ideals,” Kapp said.
Where Jefferson’s layout of Virginia’s early campus was directed by his philosophy about higher education, Nichols’ plan for Alabama was more pragmatic about how the campus would be used, Kapp argued.
Nichols anchored the campus, his academic village of classrooms and residential buildings, with the rotunda, which served as the library, Kapp said. Gorgas Library now sits above the former site of the Rotunda. To the north, where Clark Hall now sits, was the Lyceum, the campus’ first academic building where classes were taught.
The Gorgas House was the only building designed by Nichols on campus to survive the raid by Union forces.
In the Pearce Foyer of Gorgas Library, debris from the buildings destroyed in the cavalry raid and original books from the antebellum library were on display in glass cases Friday.
After Kapp’s presentation, a scale model of the Rotunda and the Lyceum were unveiled in the Pearce Foyer exhibition space.
The models by artist Creighton C. “Peco” Forsman were created as part of a project to document the original campus. Artist and historian Dean Mosher said he is using the models as visual references for paintings recreating the original campus.
Mosher began talking with university officials about the project in August 2014. From the beginning, Mosher said he planned to produce museum-quality models and present them to the university.
“When I do a painting, it is not to just do a painting, it is to re-create everything,” Mosher said.
The model of the rotunda was donated in honor of UA President Judy Bonner, who plans to step down as the top administrator in the fall and return to teaching in 2016.
“This is a beautiful and wonderful way to honor Dr. Bonner,” Libraries Dean Louis Pitschmann said.
Bonner was on hand to unveil the models.
“The people of Alabama must have been enormously proud of this new seminary of learning,” Bonner said, reviewing the model of the Rotunda.
She asked students in the library to help with the unveiling of the model of the Lyceum, which was donated in honor of the university’s students.
“Isn’t that a wonderful way of honoring our students,” Bonner said.
Mosher’s painting is scheduled to be finished by August or September, according to libraries staff. Initially the painting and models will be displayed in the Pearce Foyer, but eventually they will be moved to the historic Bryce Hospital main building, which is being renovated for uses that include museums.
“When Dean finishes the painting, we will have an extraordinary opportunity to know what the campus was like,” Bonner said.
Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com
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