Robert Mills, 1781-1855


                              A Monumental Building in a "City of Magnificent Intentions" 

An exhibition by the Office of the Curator, Department of the Treasury.
September 2002

�The author [has] the honor of being the first native [born] American who directed his studies to architecture as a profession.�

~Robert Mills

Describing the spirit of architect Robert Mills evokes characteristics that in many ways reflects the character of a promising nation seeking its place in the world. Like the burgeoning new America, Mills was persistent, resourceful, inventive, ambitious, enthusiastic, industrious, flexible, competitive, and shrewd. These qualities formed a foundation that propelled his career from humble beginnings to national prominence, designing architecture from Massachusetts to Louisiana, culminating in his projects in Washington, DC while serving in the prestigious position of Architect of Public Buildings.

Robert Mills was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1781, to William and Ann Mills, eleven years after William, a successful tailor, arrived in Charleston from Scotland in 1770. From the beginning, Mills was fortunate to receive ongoing training under some of the most prominent architects in the country at the time. His early years in Washington benefited from the tutelage of architect, James Hoban, an Irish-born fellow Charlestonian and the designer of the new President�s Palace we call the White House. Hoban also served as the overseer of the construction for the Capital Building, providing Mills a valuable empirical education in construction and project management. By observing Hoban and other prominent Washington architects realize their designs, Mills also grew familiar with Pierre L�Enfant�s plan for the city and the role of architecture in his vision. This experience was advantageous to Mills, affording him a uniquely intimate view of Washington�s early urban development when the city was pastoral with only a few buildings of note.

Mills formed a cordial relationship with Thomas Jefferson after his apprenticeship under Hoban, perhaps while he was serving as President, and on several occasions visited Jefferson at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson encouraged Mills� drive to pursue architecture, a discipline the Gentleman Architect considered the noblest of all the arts. In return Mills drafted several drawings of Jefferson�s ongoing project, his home, Monticello. This exercise likely helped broaden Mills� concept of Neoclassical interpretation beyond the early stages of American neoclassicism that came filtered through British fashion. In addition, Mills had the singularly valuable experience of looking through Jefferson�s vast collection of books on architecture in his famous library, the most thorough collection of books on architecture in America at the time. Mills rounded out his education by traveling throughout the East Coast to survey American architecture, witnessing the state of American Architecture during beginning of the nineteenth century.

In 1803, Mills began work as an assistant for Benjamin Latrobe, a prominent British-born and-trained architect who ran a flourishing practice out of Philadelphia. Latrobe�s influence upon Mills was extensive, with training ranging from engineering principles to Latrobe�s stylistic and decorative favor. Latrobe was well versed in Neoclassicism and taught the Classical principles to Mills as well, but unlike other Americans at the time, Latrobe emphasized reviving the rational architecture of the ancient Greek civilization. Mills, following his lead, began developing his own interpretation of the Greek Revival.

The culmination of Mills� extensive training from architects busy with the most significant projects in America at the time, combined with his own aspirations prompted Mills to start his own practice. In 1808, at the age of 27, Mills opened his own office in Philadelphia, where he stayed until 1812. With his early projects, Mills built himself a reputation for sound engineering methods learned while working for Latrobe. Mills� early work ranged from circular churches, to a toll house at the Schuylkill Bridge, including continuing work for Latrobe on the Bank of Philadelphia, one of the earliest structures on the Greek Revival in America. Outside of Philadelphia, the Monumental Church in Richmond Virginia demonstrated Mills� fluency with stark but powerful classicism, exemplified by a flattened fa�ade stripped of ornament to re-create the primitive aesthetic of Greek architecture. The Monumental Church caught the public�s attention and Mills� career benefited with credibility and new commissions.

When work became too scarce, Mills returned to his hometown of Charleston accompanied by his family. From 1820-30, Mills perfected his technique of building in fireproof masonry. The two most significant buildings designed by Mills while residing in Charleston are the South Carolina Asylum, Columbia, 1822-1828, and the County Records Office, Charleston, 1822-27. The County Records Office, also called the Fireproof Building, was built for the intentions of its moniker, constructed using fire-resistant masonry vaulting.


For more information on the life and career of Robert Mills, see Robert Mills: America's First Architect, by John M. Bryan, Princeton Architectural Press, �2001.

Last Updated: 10/12/2010 12:03 AM