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The delicate architecture of John Nichols

October 28, 2011

This mansion was built in 1904 for W. Edward Showers, the co-owner of the Showers Furniture Factory. This home cost $10,000 when it was new, an unheard-of amount.

John Nichols was the most prolific architect in Bloomington, Indiana between the 1890s and late 1920s. He learned the elements of construction under his father, H.J. Nichols, a late-1800s contractor-builder who during the course of his long career built countless private residences, at least one factory building, and the first two buildings on Indiana University’s current campus. But the designs of H.J.’s son John had a delicacy that his father’s lacked.  During his own career he built far more buildings than his father, the happy result of living during Bloomington’s great boom era when hundreds of new buildings were being built. His obituary claimed that during a single year of his career — 1908 — Nichols was responsible for constructing over 600 buildings. Even even if we assume that the reporter was misstating the facts, and that Nichols constructed 600 buildings during his career rather than in a single year, the number would still be impressive. [Click on any photo to enlarge.]

Imagine this home if it were painted a variety of rich colors as it deserves. White is for people with no imagination.

Although he built in a number of different styles, depending upon what the client wished for, the style that is frequently associated with him is “Free Classical”, a subcategory of Queen Anne architecture that featured pediments, decorative dentil moldings, Palladian windows and Tuscan columns. Another style he frequently used was Dutch Colonial, characterized by gambrel roofs and distinctive diamond-paned windows. (Many of the old houses along Restaurant Row on Fourth Street are Nichols designs.) He also designed many handsome California-style bungalows in the early years of the 20th century when such buildings were completely new and unique.

This home on East Second was built to a design featured in Nichols' album of home plans.

Little is known today about the details of Nichols’ life, so anyone interested in his career must search through microfilmed newspaper records of his period for tidbits. Nichols most likely never earned a formal architecture degree, but worked for several years at a Denver architectural office honing his skills. When he returned to Bloomington he swiftly took over dominance in the local building industry from his aging father. He became the city’s leading contractor-builder and was certainly responsible for building hundreds of structures during the first two decades of the 20th century. Not all of the buildings that he constructed were necessarily designed by him; some of the humbler homes built for workers were apparently built to generic house plans. Nichols published an album of his own handsome and upscale house plans and sold those plans to clients in Bloomington and elsewhere. The feasibility of constructing 600 buildings seems quite possible when one assumes that many of his houses were ordinary generic workers’ bungalows.

The Nichols Cottage on North College has a front porch built from local geodes. He lived here for a few short years until the Illinois Central railroad was routed next to his house, which probably destroyed his peace and quiet.

William Coulter has conducted close research into Bloomington’s architectural history. He has combed through national contractor records of the era and assembled an impressive list of Bloomington houses that were either built or designed by John Nichols. We have always known that Nichols was responsible for designing a handful of notable buildings around the city, including Indiana University’s Kirkwood Observatory, the western end of Fountain Square mall and the delicate geode-porched cottage called the Nichols House, but Coulter has identified dozens of additional buildings that were also built by Nichols’ studio. Unfortunately a large part of this architectural output has been lost over the years, due to the impermanent nature of Bloomington’s neighborhoods. Many noble family homes that Nichols designed have been degraded and have been cobbled up for student rentals, and others stood too near the university and have been torn down  for parking.

This is a Nichols house; compare the small pediment window with that of the white house in the other photo. The house next door to this on North Indiana is probably a Nichols, too.

We know almost nothing about his personal life but in addition to architectural draftsmanship he was also a photographer and had modest skill as a cartoonist (one of his advertisements featured a plump self-caricature showing him working at a draftsman’s table). Except for a period of five or so years, he lived in Bloomington for all of his life. Nichols married three times, the first time sitting in a buggy on a wooden bridge with his bride, a novelty at the time that the newspapers remarked upon. To commemorate the event, his firstborn son was named Bridge. Jenny, his wife, fell in love with a Denver man during their sojourn there and they divorced. His second marriage was embarrassed by a public lawsuit for slander between his wife Anna and his own mother; this union also ended in divorce. His final marriage was to Mabel Dunn, a grandniece of the Showers Brothers. She burned all his papers and photographs after his death, which is why we know so little about him. In his old age he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Bloomington on the Republican ticket. (Remember that Democrats and Republicans in those times were almost the polar opposites of their counterparts today; the Republicans were the progressives who had supported suffrage for black Americans and for women). Like his father, John Nichols worked as an architect up to the last year or so of his life.

This outstanding Oriental-style bungalow is attributed to John Nichols' brother Mort, who worked with him for a short time, but it's my belief that John designed it . Mort had far less design experience than John and I think it unlikely that he could have designed this.

A very partial list of his commissions includes the Allen Building on Kirkwood; the KP building on the east side of the Courthouse Square; Kirkwood Manor and the stone house behind it on Grant Street; the Princess Theater; the old McCalla School (which was originally built to be a marvel of hygiene, with sanitary indoor toilets and excellent ventilation and light); the Von Lee Theater; and many of the homes just south of Third and Rogers on the west side. Without these buildings, which we pass by daily, Bloomington would be far more drab.

For more information on the various incarnations of Nichols’ architectural office, see  http://www.bloomingpedia.org/wiki/J._L._Nichols%2C_Architect,

http://www.bloomingpedia.org/wiki/Nichols_%26_Son and

http://www.bloomingpedia.org/wiki/Nichols_%26_Nichols.

The McCalla School was a wonder of light, space and hygiene when built, but Indiana University has taken very poor care of it during several decades of use as art workshops.

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