Mills defined both his personal and public ambition in an 1808 letter to Jefferson, in which he declared his desire to pursue “the honour and benefit of my country.”
Architect, engineer, author. Mills was born on August 12, 1781, in Charleston, the son of William Mills, a successful Scots immigrant tailor, and Ann Taylor, descendant of the first landgrave of the Carolinas. Little is known about his early education, which took place in Charleston possibly under the tutelage of his older brother, Thomas, or at the College of Charleston. During his formative years in South Carolina, Mills was beguiled by the state’s topography and proud of its cultivated, yet revolutionary heritage; but he was anxious for its improvement. The source of his interest in architecture is speculative but reflects his admiration of the quality of building in Charleston, especially in the Palladian taste. In 1800 Mills moved to Washington, D.C., to study under the tutelage of James Hoban, designer of the White House. Mills would subsequently study architecture with Thomas Jefferson (who gave Mills access to his extensive collection of architectural books) and with Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the foremost practitioner of architecture and engineering in the young republic. Not without difficulty Latrobe trained Mills to understand the integral relationships between facade plan and volume and between structure, context, and symbolism. Latrobe also imparted surveying techniques, basic engineering principles, and most usefully, masonry (brick) vault construction.
Mills defined both his personal and public ambition in an 1808 letter to Jefferson, in which he declared his desire to pursue “the honour and benefit of my country.” His architectural design and engineering projects would reform architecture through the application of new construction techniques with the rationalist thought espoused by Jefferson. Mills conceived not only a technically modern built environment, but also a progressive nation structured around expanded commerce and communication. He primarily fabricated this order from a blend of colonial Georgian and rational antiquarian styles.
The patronage of Latrobe helped launch Mills’s career in Philadelphia and enabled him to marry Eliza Barnwell Smith on October 15, 1808. She came from a landed family in upstate Virginia (now West Virginia). They would have six children. At Philadelphia he worked for religious and professional groups such as the Sansom Street Baptist congregation and Washington Benevolent Society. For the Baptist Church (1811), Mills further simplified and classicized his earlier design for the Congregational Church he had already built in Charleston (1804–1806). The scheme would reappear in his equally inventive reconfiguring of central plan space for the Monumental Church in Richmond (1812–1814) and Baptist Church in Baltimore (1816–1818). Mills’s other major Philadelphia work was Washington Hall (1813–1816), for which he again appropriated the Palladian and neoclassical motifs of recessed columnar porticoes and windows to create an effective, if modest, urban monumentality. Other successful commissions from this period include a Presbyterian church in Augusta, Georgia (1807); Burlington County Jail, New Jersey (1808); and refurbishing the Old State House (Independence Hall), Philadelphia (1809). Relocating to Baltimore in 1814, Mills won a commission to design that city’s Washington Monument (1814, 1816–1842), which devolved into a narrative of funding cuts and compromise. The completed monument, scaled back but still impressive, incorporated a single column topped with a statue and supported by a simple plinth.
Mills also participated in the modern organization of architectural work and social affairs. He joined efforts to promote professional standards and higher education as well as novel applications of classical styles to contemporary usage. He drafted a manual on architecture intended for builders and amateurs. An advocate of internal improvements, Mills’s enthusiasm initially focused on canals but later evolved into railroad proposals, including a scheme for a transcontinental railroad in the early 1850s.
In 1820 he returned to his native South Carolina to accept appointment as acting commissioner of the Board of Public Works to superintend a program of construction across the state. He thereafter was engaged as superintendent of public buildings (1823) and then was hired on a commission basis for the remainder of his residence in the state. His first major commission was the Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Camden (1820–1821), but his time in South Carolina would be best remembered for a series of public buildings. Using standard designs, Mills completed twelve jails, sixteen courthouses, and the County Record Building (Fireproof Building) in Charleston (1821–1827). In the Fireproof Building he adeptly updated colonial Palladian external and internal organization, rendering them more durable through the use of masonry-vaulted construction. Those components were repeated on diminished scale in the main courthouse type, which was distinguished by a raised portico, supported on a secondary arcaded entrance, and flanked by curving staircases. The arrangement was aggrandized in his design for the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum in Columbia (1822) and in the nearby Ainsley Hall House (1823–1825). While resident in Columbia, Mills published a comprehensive plan for a statewide transportation network, Internal Improvement of South Carolina (1822), an Atlas of South Carolina (1825), and his encyclopedic Statistics of South Carolina (1826), a comprehensive overview of the state’s history, economy, topography, natural resources, and potential for future development.
In 1830 Mills won a commission to renovate the federal House of Representatives and relocated to the nation’s capital. Beginning in 1831, he received a series of official appointments, most notably for designing customhouses for the U.S. Treasury. In 1836 President Andrew Jackson (a fellow South Carolinian) confirmed Mills as architect of the new multistory office complexes for the Treasury (1836–1842) and the Patent Office (1839–1842). In these works Mills intensified the classic revivalism of Latrobe and the sophisticated planning and construction method of his earlier public buildings to create two edifices that established the enduring pattern of federal government architecture. He also raised the standard and sophistication of federal building programs, including the reduction of cost overrun. These major federal commissions gave him the advantage in the Washington Monument competition (1846) and a series of commissions for other public structures, including the Washington Jail (1839–1841), further improvements to the Capitol (especially 1844 and 1850), the General Post Office (1839–1842), and the Winder Building (1847). For the Washington Monument, Mills imagined a spectacular peripheral colonnaded museum of American culture containing a spiral roadway to a viewing platform encircling the massive masonry obelisk. As was the case with his Baltimore monument, however, financial concerns greatly reduced the scale of Mills’s original conception. After much difficulty and expenditure, only the obelisk was erected on the Mall (1848–1854, 1880–1884). Financial security and steady employment continued to prove elusive in his later years, however, and he failed to win commissions for the Mall (1841), the Smithsonian Institution (1841), the War and Navy Department (1843–1844), and the Capitol Extension (1850 and 1853). Apart from some financial success with the reprinting of his Guide to the Capitol of the United States (1834), he had the consolation of completing a major addition to Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (1851–1852).
Mills justly claimed to originate an architectural profession in the United States but was overtaken by aesthetic and political change, particularly the development of architectural scholarship and structural science. He died in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1855, and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.
Bryan, John M., ed. Robert Mills: America’s First Architect. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.
–––. Robert Mills, Architect. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1989.
Liscombe, Rhodri Windsor. Altogether American: Robert Mills, Architect and Engineer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
–––. The Church Architecture of Robert Mills. Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1985.
Waddell, Gene. “Robert Mills’s Fireproof Building.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (April 1979): 105–35.
Waddell, Gene, and Rhodri Windsor Liscombe. Robert Mills’s Courthouses and Jails. Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1981.