Reflections by Sammy Way: Robert Mills 'A man of versatile genius'

By SAMMY WAY
Posted 3/31/19

Reflections remembers Robert Mills, described as an "architect, engineer and historian, a man of most versatile genius." Born in Charles Town, Mills advanced rapidly through the ranks of men whose accomplishments did much to create this nation. …

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Reflections by Sammy Way: Robert Mills 'A man of versatile genius'

The Sumter courthouse, completed in 1821, with its curved staircases can be seen at far right. The courthouse was designed by Robert Mills. This is a view from around the 1890s looking south along Main Street.
The Sumter courthouse, completed in 1821, with its curved staircases can be seen at far right. The courthouse was designed by Robert Mills. This is a view from around the 1890s looking south along Main Street.
SUMTER ITEM FILE PHOTO
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Reflections remembers Robert Mills, described as an "architect, engineer and historian, a man of most versatile genius." Born in Charles Town, Mills advanced rapidly through the ranks of men whose accomplishments did much to create this nation. Information and photos used in preparing this brief history were taken from The Sumter Item archives. Special consideration was given to an article presented to the Historical Society by Phelps Bultman in 1952 concerning a biographical sketch of Robert Mills.

According to Bultman, "Mills was born in 1781 and began his practice of architecture when our republic was born." Charleston was under the control of the British at that time. His Scottish father, William Mills, and mother, Ann Taylor Mills, had five children. Robert attended the College of Charleston in 1800 and soon after graduation began his study of architecture. "Mills is generally thought to be the first professionally trained American architect. It is said he started his training with the idea that a successful building must have three qualities: beauty, order and convenience." He died just before the Civil War in 1855, a period that also brought tremendous changes to our nation.

Research relates that Mills was heavily influenced by James Hoban, the celebrated architect of Charleston who leaned toward the British designs. He also admired Thomas Jefferson, who favored heavy Roman lines and the lighter Italian Renaissance. Mills was also influenced by Henri Latrobe; however, his partiality to Greek purism was probably his favorite architectural style. It should be noted that Mills developed a "definite flair of his own which could easily be traced and identified in his well-known works." During his stay at Jefferson's Monticello, he met Eliza Barnwell Smith, who came from a very prominent Virginia family. Mills was obviously intimidated by her social standing, made evident by his requesting the president of the United States and the governor of South Carolina to recommend him as a prospective husband for Miss Smith. The ploy proved successful, and Mills, in his later life, referred to his marriage to Miss Smith as his "greatest fortune."

"Robert Mills is recognized as South Carolina's first native-born architect and the first federal architect regularly trained in this profession." He was a tireless worker made evident by the scope of work he accomplished during his career, which spanned over 50 years. A few of his more recognized works include the Wickham House in Richmond, Virginia, 1811-14; Hampton-Preston House, Columbia; a textile mill near Philadelphia; a prison at Burlington, Vermont; his design of the wings for Independence Hall, the circular stairs of Sampson Street Church in Philadelphia; The First Baptist Church, Baltimore, Maryland, 1818; the Bethesda Presbyterian Church, Camden, which is recognized as the first church in this country to embody a sloping floor to the pulpit, and the unusual feature of the steeple being placed at the back of the building; and the Washington Monument in Baltimore, Maryland, in the form of a single Doric column 116 feet above the ground, with a standing figure of George Washington weighing over 30 tons placed at the top, a tribute to the engineering genius of Mills. Many consider this to be the crowning glory of Mills' career. Probably the most unusual of Mills' buildings is the Fireproof Building, Charleston, 1822-23. In 1821, he began work on the Insane Asylum in Columbia, which was built according to new and more humane ideas for handling patients with mental diseases."

In 1820, Mills moved to Charleston at a time when courthouses were in demand in several districts, and he began designing several of these facilities for numerous sections of the state. These included Winnsboro, Chester, Bennettsville, Marion, Camden and Georgetown. "It is generally accepted that Mills designed the old Sumter Courthouse constructed about 1820-21 on the original site of the first wooden structure, which was moved and later became a hotel." The building exhibited the Mills trademark of "his architecture which at times was heavy and at times graceful and light. His treatment of these buildings included graceful curved stairways, for which he had a penchant."

"The building of the Washington Monument in 1836 is considered the crowning achievement of Mills' career. However, it was not until 1848 before the cornerstone was laid. "At this ceremony, Mills rode in a carriage with Daniel Webster, Dolly Madison and the wife of Alexander Hamilton. His original plan called for a grand circular building which had columns in the front, and from this would come an obelisk, a square, pointed-topped column 500 feet high. This monument does not have the circular building or the columns but is rated as one of the finest monuments in the world." Portia Myers made the observation that " when you view this world-famous monument, remember that South Carolina native, Robert Mills, was its designer."