John Nichols isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
The 75-year-old architect, founder of Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe & Associates in Coral Gables, was taught early on by a mentor that the best way to learn how to do something is to get out there and do it.
That know-how seems to have come in handy as today, Nichols’ firm boasts a project portfolio that has helped shape South Florida’s aesthetic.
Notable works of his include the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, which Nichols worked on alongside famed architect Morris Lapidus in the 1950s, and, most recently, the $230 million beachfront Miami Beach Edition Hotel.
Throughout it all, Nichols has taken a hands-on approach to transforming ideas on paper into grand three-dimensional structures.
When did you first become interested in architecture? I loved to draw from a young age. I’d sit outside and draw trees, houses, buildings. Then, in my junior year of high school, I took a mechanical engineering course. At the same time, I developed a relationship with Alfred Browning Parker, a pretty famous residential architect who lived down the street from us in Coconut Grove. My dad, who was an attorney, met him someplace, and introduced him to me. He became my mentor.
What were your early years as an aspiring architect like? After getting out of high school, I’d work with Al each summer, and pick up construction jobs. He always told me, “You have to get out in the field. If you want to design buildings, I want you see what it takes to construct those buildings.” He influenced me to study architecture at the University of Florida, which had one of the best programs out there. From there, I taught at the University of Manchester and later the University of Miami.
Did you always plan to own your own firm? No, but one thing led to another and suddenly I couldn’t do everything all at once and had to focus on one thing. I was teaching, and gradually got to design a couple of homes, including one for my parents on the West Coast of Florida. Architecture is time-consuming, so I found I had to make a choice.
What was the hardest part of going from architect to business owner? The shock. Once you go out on your own, it’s the same release as being a kid and going to college: “Oh my God, I’m on my own, I’m on my own.” And it’s also that realization of: “Oh my God. I’m on my own.” Architecture is so much more than drawing, and running a firm and paying rent and insurance …. It was a real eye-opening experience. But I just made sure to bring in really good employees who I could trust and [who could] handle responsibility.
Was it daunting, taking on your first project? I was ready for it. I was excited to get out there and get something under construction.
What was that building like? It was an Al Parker-style home. Al loved nature, much like Frank Lloyd Wright, and I love nature, so I worked with the topography and incorporated the project into the surroundings. That’s something I do to this day. This place had a lot of glass. Shingles on the roof. Kind of low and spread out, nestled in the oak trees around it.
What’s your favorite part of running an architecture firm in Miami? It’s really gratifying to go through that process of trying to interpret what a client is going for and meeting that client’s needs and wishes, but also enlightening them and giving them more than they expected. When you’re done, you’ve taken ideas and turned them into an edifice. Good or bad, it’s there and that’s satisfying.
What project are you most proud of? Projects are like kids – you love all of them, despite their differences. And you learn from each one. But the Edition [Hotel, in Miami Beach] was special. It started off as a historic restoration project …. It was really run down. But it had a couple specialty rooms, like the Matador Room [now a high-end restaurant]. We kept that circle in the middle of the room. And we kept one of the pools. But mainly we made good use of all the oceanfront side. So many old hotels didn’t do that because so many people thought sand was a nuisance. It took about three and a half years from when we started until we opened it.
Where is your favorite place to meet clients? Their construction site. I want to be able to look at that site, and learn from them what they’re trying to achieve and create a vision for the project.