Born in Navesink, NJ, to John and Elizabeth Strickland, William Strickland had the advantage of a master carpenter father who moved the family to Philadelphia in c. 1790 and became a charter member of the Practical House Carpenters' Society in 1811. From 1798 to 1801, John Strickland worked on the Bank of Pennsylvania; this employment allowed young William to encounter Benjamin Henry Latrobe
, who accepted him as an apprentice in 1803. It was this crucial contact which launched the young Strickland on his career path -- he remained in Latrobe's office for about two years, learning the art of architecture as well as engineering from the man many credit as the first professionally trained architect in the United States. After splitting with Latrobe in 1805, Strickland appears to have supported himself as an artist and draftsman until he was awarded his first major architectural commission -- the Masonic Hall in Philadelphia (1808). During the War of 1812, Strickland was primarily concerned with defense work, using the engineering skills that he had gained with Latrobe; but after the War he secured several more commissions, culminating in the structure that would be a turning point for both his career and for the course of American architecture.
In 1818 Strickland won the competition for the Second Bank of the United States with a design based on the Athenian Parthenon. Whether the idea for this design originated with Strickland himself or with his mentor Latrobe is perhaps less important than the impact of the Second Bank as a seminal work in the history of neoclassicism, and specifically the Greek Revival, in the United States. With this important commission Strickland was established in Philadelphia as a professional architect; a growing number of architectural and engineering commissions followed; and he was elected to the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, and the Musical Fund Society in Philadelphia. In 1820 he became a stockholder of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
In 1826 Strickland's design for the United States Naval Asylum in Philadlephia was accepted, and he was appointed supervising architect. Strickland held the Asylum position until 1829, the same year as his appointment as architect of the United States Mint (1829-1833; demolished, 1907). Together with the Second Bank, the Naval Asylum, and the Merchants Exchange (1832-1834) -- all of which survive -- the Mint was one of Strickland's most important Philadelphia buildings; it also brought the architect commissions for branch mints in Charlotte, NC, and New Orleans, LA.
In the mid-1830s Strickland began to feel the pressure of competition from other architects, several of whom had actually trained with him. While he may have benefitted from Latrobe's move to Washington and John Haviland's bankruptcy, Strickland began to lose major commissions to his former student Thomas Ustick Walter and to emigre architects such as John Notman; they took the Girard College and Laurel Hill Cemetery commissions over Strickland's submissions, for example. As the depression of the late 1830s and early 1840s deepened, the number and profitability of his commissions declined. An invitation in 1845 to become architect of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, TN, must have offered an attractive alternative to the architectural doldrums of Philadelphia.
The Tennessee State Capital proved to be William Strickland's last major commission although several substantial country houses in the Nashville area are attributed to him. The eight years in Tennessee also produced the first Roman Catholic cathedral in that state (St. Mary's, 1845-1847) and the Egyptianesque First Presbyterian Church in Nashville (1848-1851). As his health declined after 1850, Strickland was assisted by his son Francis; and many of the Italianate domestic structures traditionally attributed to the father may have indeed been designed by the son. In April, 1854, the elder Strickland suffered a fall and died. A few days later he was interred within the Capitol, a last honor bestowed by the Tennessee legislature.
During a career spanning over 45 years, William Strickland proved himself to be versatile and talented in several fields. As an architect he worked in nine different styles and produced what may be the first American example of historic restoration, the steeple of Independence Hall (1828). Together with Robert Mills, Strickland was a successor to Benjamin Henry Latrobe; he in turn helped to train Thomas Ustick Walter and Gideon Shryock (of Kentucky) who continued and spread the Greek Revival style throughout the United States, ultimately producing some of our greatest neoclassical monuments. However, Strickland was also a successful and prominent engineer. In 1826 he was appointed engineer in charge of the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Mixed System (a transportation system consisting of both railroad and canal). In 1828 he was a consultant for the Fair Mount Dam; in 1830 he worked on the Columbia and Philadlephia Railroad and in 1835 on the Wilmington and Susquehanna Railroad. In Philadelphia his engineering impact is still felt in the Delaware Breakwater for which he served as supervising engineer from 1828 to 1840.