A Designing Life: A Conversation with Bill Nixon


A Designing Life:

A Conversation with Bill Nixon
By Sandi Butler Hughes
Photography by McKendree Walker

Architects design the places we live, work, and play, and the spaces they create are where we spend much of our time. William “Bill” Nixon is a retired architect who helped shape Memphis, working with everyone from Kemmons Wilson to Elvis Presley.

Bill Nixon was not born in Memphis, or the USA for that matter, but he created contributions to the businesses and people that Memphis is known for. Born in England, Bill moved to the Bluff City in 1970 to open an office for the  architecture and engineering firm he was working for in the UK, and he has been a Memphian ever since.

In his first assignment in Memphis, he was working with Kemmons Wilson and Wallace Johnson. He was not working on Holiday Inn business, but another venture with the federal government to build affordable housing. It was during this time that he met Dr. George Nichopoulos. Dr. Nic’s wife Edna was looking for an architect to design their home on what was then the eastern edge of Memphis. She wanted something unique, and not a traditionally Southern design. She had already hired other architects without success. An architect from Europe might be just the one to create the home of their dreams. It turns out, Bill Nixon was up to the task.

He listened carefully to what the Nichopoulos’ wanted, and he created a contemporary design focused on privacy for the doctor and his family. As the Nichopoulos’ were finalizing the design, they struggled to visualize the space from the blueprints. One of Bill’s strengths is sketching and model-making, so he built a 3D model of the home. It was exactly the home they wanted, and Bill Nixon had the job. The home he designed is U-shaped, with doors and windows facing the backyard, terraces, and swimming pool, providing privacy from the street as well as neighbors.

For privacy reasons, there were not many windows on the front of the house and a lack of natural light in the home. To solve the problem, Bill added one of the most distinctive and creative features of the home: a two story, glass atrium in the center of the house. The Nichopoulos' were devout Greek Orthodox so the home was built with a dedicated prayer nook, complete with a stained glass window. Another design challenge, and impressive asset, of the home is the indoor racquetball court. Racquetball was very popular in the 1970s, and Dr. Nic and his son Dean were avid players. A wing for the court was included in the design, accessible from an iron spiral staircase. A weight and exercise
space was adjacent to the court, as well as a viewing area from the main level of the home.

In the early 1980s, Bill joined forces with Lee Askew to establish Askew, Nixon, Ferguson, Wolfe Architects along with other founding partners William Ferguson and Butch Wolfe. Most anyone of a certain age in the 1980s probably remembers the fabulous “architect parties” at their office location on Union Avenue in Midtown. Today, the firm is known as ANF Architects, and the tradition continues as the group opens their doors and welcomes the public to regular art openings.

The Nichopoulos home, and specifically the racquetball court, led to Bill designing the famed racquetball court at Graceland. Elvis was playing on public courts at the local Y or Memphis State University in the middle of night, so it was suggested that he build his own court. Since Dr. Nic had built one, Elvis’ team reached out to Bill. As the elements for the Graceland court were being designed and selected, Bill had the experience of a lifetime with Elvis and the entourage when they flew in Elvis’ Lockheed Jetstar to Texas to review the latest in racquetball court designs. Construction on Elvis’ court started in September 1975, and was completed just a few months before his death. Today, the court is preserved in all of the glitzy ‘70s style and is part of the Graceland tour.

During his career with ANFA, Bill was the architect as well as project director for several buildings where thousands of people have been employed over the decades. The projects included the IRS Service Center here in Memphis and the FedEx Pacific-Rim Hub in Anchorage, Alaska, plus the first stages of design for the FedEx Hub at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. A smaller but very visible design project was the added top floor of the Memphis City Hall during Mayor W.W. Herenton’s administration. This involved the relocation of departments within City Hall plus adding the Mayor's administrative offices to the roof level overlooking the Mississippi River.

His final project before retiring from ANF Architects was the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law building. This project has been awarded "The No. 1 Law School Facility in the Country" by the National Law Review Magazine for multiple years. He was responsible for converting an iconic building in Downtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places into a state-of-the-art University of Memphis facility. When Bill first arrived in Memphis in the early 1970s, Downtown was in decline. When the law school opened in 2010, the new law school was credited with aiding the revitalization of the Downtown core. “This was my swan song, and the School, ANFA and I are very proud of it,” Bill said. In 2021, Nixon received the "Pillar of Excellence Award - Friend of the Law School" from the U of M Law School for his contribution to the School and University.

The Law School was an impactful project to conclude his career, and he is very proud to have been involved in these projects and is very aware that they are not the sole responsibility of one person. “Most projects involve numerous, sometimes hundreds of participants without whom the project would fail,” Bill stated. “Clients, faculty, city and state officials, contractors and subcontractors as well as all of the members of the design team and so many more all contributed immensely to a successful project. I thank the support team that I had at Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects and the rest of our design teams for making these projects a success.”

Bill Nixon