Born in Bath, England in 1780 to a family of builders, Nichols grew up among the English Palladian and classical style architecture of that period. In 1800, he emigrated to North Carolina and settled in the New Bern area. It is unclear what structures he designed and built during this period, although there are several structures still in existence that have been attributed to him.
In 1818, Nichols was employed as state architect of North Carolina. This made him responsible for new state buildings and for repairs and improvements to existing ones. His most important commission during this time, however, was a complete remodeling of the old North Carolina State House, which he completed in 1822. Another of his jobs was the 1825 remodeling of the North Carolina Governor’s “Palace” in Raleigh, which was destroyed in the aftermath of the Civil War. Nichols was also involved in numerous private projects during this time, as well as important projects at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, some of which are still in existence.
Nichols relocated to Alabama in 1827 after receiving a commission from the legislature there to become the state architect and to build a new state capital in the capital, then in Tuscaloosa. While there, Nichols also designed the original campus for the newly-established University of Alabama. The plan there was heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia. Sadly, most of those buildings were destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War.
Nichols next applied for the position of architect for the state of Mississippi. Although at first he did not receive the job, he was later summoned to Jackson to fill the post and to assume construction of the new – now the “old” -- capitol. The new building in Jackson reflected his earlier statehouses in North Carolina dn Alabama, but on a grander scale.
Nichols went on to design the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, which was completed in 1842, and the Lyceum at the University of Mississippi, which was completed in time for the opening of the school in 1848, as well as several other buildings there.
He was working on a home – or homes – in Lexington, Mississippi when, in 1853, he found himself in a yellow fever epidemic, which claimed his life. He is buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery there.