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William Strickland

William Strickland, Architect [1788-1854]

William Strickland [†] was born in November, 1788 in Navesink, New Jersey to Elizabeth and John Strickland, a well-respected carpenter. The elder Strickland worked on the Bank of Pennsylvania (1798-1801), designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. As a result, at the age of 14 William Strickland was apprenticed to Latrobe to learn "the fundamentals of engineering and architectural practices." According to biographer Agness Addison Gilchrist "Latrobe had a high opinion of the quickness and ability of his pupil, but also found Strickland to be undependable, independent and difficult." In 1805 after only a brief period of training Strickland left Latrobe's office without notice.

Despite its short duration, Strickland's apprenticeship with Latrobe proved undisputedly valuable for his professional, if not personal, development. During this time, Strickland received formal as well as hands-on training and absorbed a great deal of information. After all, Latrobe was a well-respected architect and one of the first architects to design in the neoclassical idiom in the United States. Latrobe developed his own highly successful, hybrid Greco-Roman approach. According to Kenneth Hafertepe and James F. O'Gorman, co-editors of American Architects and Their Books to 1848 (2001), "in some respects Latrobe's work was more Roman than Greek." Nevertheless, Strickland seems early on to have developed an interest in an archaeologically derived "pure" Greek mode. In an autobiographical sketch penned in 1825 Strickland recalled his days in Latrobe's office. He reminisced, "At night I copied the Engraved plates and read the letter press of Stuarts Athens, Ionian Antiquities &c; and was soon enabled, by contrasting these works with Batty Langley, Swan & my father's bench mate, to discover the graceful forms of Grecian Architecture."

In 1807 Strickland joined his father in New York City where he was helping to rebuild the Park Theatre, and painting scenery for productions at the playhouse. A year later, he returned to Philadelphia, calling himself a landscape painter. Strickland was, in truth, an accomplished painter and even exhibited a large oil painting of Christ Church in Philadelphia at an 1811 exhibition sponsored by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Columbia Society of Artists. Despite his obvious talent for painting, Strickland's ultimate trajectory became architecture; before his twenty-first year, he won the architectural competition for Masonic Hall (1809-1811) using a Gothic design proposal. This was the first of many important commissions he eventually would receive, although at this time he was still engaged primarily in surveying, map-making, engraving, and theatrical scene painting. During the War of 1812, Strickland helped to supervise defenses for Philadelphia. After the war ceased, Strickland's architectural career flourished.

Between 1815 and 1818 several of Strickland's designs were under construction in Philadelphia, including: The Friends' Asylum for the Insane (1815-1817), the Temple of the New Jerusalem (1816), St. John's Episcopal Church (1817), the Medical Museum at the University of Pennsylvania (1818), and the Philadelphia Custom House (1818-1819). In 1818 Strickland won first premium, while his mentor Latrobe received the second, for the design of the Second Bank of the United States (1819-1824), employing a Greek scheme based on the Parthenon in Athens. Strickland not only designed this monumental classical edifice, but also superintended its construction, an opportunity that no doubt afforded him valuable experience for his subsequent work on the Naval Asylum. This commission was, perhaps, the most important of his career and immediately established Strickland as one of the foremost American architects of the day.

Strickland was also recognized as one of the nation's leading engineers and, in 1825, was sent to Great Britain for eight months as a special agent for the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvement to study the advantages and disadvantages of shipping goods via railroads versus canals. He was also charged with learning "the construction of breakwaters, roads, gas plants, iron smelting, printing of calico" and so forth. Upon his return, Strickland was appointed head engineer of the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Mixed System of railroads and canals. He resigned this post in 1827, but continued his engineering activities as a consultant for the Columbia and Philadelphia Railway, as author of a report in 1828 on the Fair Mount Dam, and as the supervising engineer for the Delaware Breakwater between 1828 and 1841.

During the 1820s and 1830s, Strickland also received several significant architectural commissions, most of which were for institutional buildings, as well as a few church structures. Perhaps his best known commission during this prolific period was his design for the Merchant's Exchange in Philadelphia (1832-1834). According to Joseph Jackson, author of Prints, Documents and Maps Illustrative of Philadelphia Real Estate in the Office of Mastbaum Bros. & Fleisher (l926), "for a quarter of a century, it [the Merchant's Exchange] was the most frequently pictured structure in Philadelphia." As the depression of the late 1830s and early 1840s worsened, Strickland received fewer and fewer commissions. When asked in 1845 to design the Tennessee State Capitol (1845-1859) in Nashville, Tennessee, he eagerly accepted the position and moved south. This structure proved to be his last commission of note, although he also designed several substantial country houses and two churches in and around Nashville during his later years. After 1850 Strickland's health began to fail and in April 1854 he passed away and was interred in a niche in the north portico of the Tennessee State Capitol. Over the course of a long and busy career, he proved himself a capable architect, engineer, surveyor, and painter. According to historian E. Leslie Gilliams, during his most active decades William Strickland "was very generally recognized as the leading native architect in America."

U. S. Naval Asylum, Biddle Hall, Historic American Building Survey [HABS PA-1622-A], memory.loc.gov, accessed October, 2013.