Robert Mills, Architect

by Fiske Kimball

As our first native-born architect regularly trained for the profession, Robert Mills is worthy of the interest of his colleagues today, and of the long and loving years of study which H. M. Pierce Gallagher has given to his career in an article in the Architectural Record of April, 1929. Harrison, Hoban, Thornton, Hadfield and Latrobe were English born; L'Enfant, Hallet, Mangin and Godefroi were Frenchmen; Jefferson and Bulfinch were gentlemen self-trained in architecture.

Born in Charleston [South Carolina] in 1781, Mills placed himself successively under the best masters then in this country: Hoban, architect of the White House, who had learned buildings and drawings in the Dublin Society of Arts; Jefferson, with his great architectural library and five years of observation in Paris; Latrobe, surveyor of the public buildings of the United States, the pupil of Cockerell and Smeaton. They represented three phases of architectural progession in style: the Palladian, the Roman, and the Greek; in practice, the builder-architect, the amateur, and the professional.

From honest Hoban, who on occasion contracted for buildings as well as designed them, he acquired the rudiments of construction and of draughtmanship and rendering. From Jefferson, who took him into his family in 1803, he derived a compelling impulse of the classic and a recommendation to Latrobe whom Jefferson had encouraged and placed in a position of authority. It was Latrobe, the first man to succeed in establishing himself in the United States in architectural practice as we understand it today, who placed on Mills the deepest impress. To him Mills owned not only his knowledge of Greek forms but his principles of professional practice and his scientific engineering skill.

From his first youthful competitive design for South Carolina College, in 1802, until his death on Capitol Hill, in 1855, Mills was engaged in constant and varied practice of his profession in Carolina, in Philadelphia, in Baltimore and in Washington. More than fifty important works were of his design, a great number still surviving. They included houses, churches, college buildings, prisons, hospitals, bridges, monuments and government buildings of all sorts. The old State Capitol at Harrisburg, the Patent Office, and old Post Office in Washington, the Treasury with its superb collonade, were among them. Mills created in America the auditorium type of evangelical church in the Congregational Church in Charleston, the Monumental Church in Richmond, the First Baptist - Round Top - in Philadelphia. It is by his monuments, however, that Mills chiefly lives. The great Washington column in Baltimore, first of the colossal greek Doric type, preceded the Wellington columns in London and Dublin, and inaugurated a line which reaches to our own day in the monument to the prison ship Matyre, and the Perry Memorial on Lake Erie. The vast obelisk in Washington, long the hightest of human structures, was his conception, in which the simplicity and gradeur of the forms are matched with the character of the subject.

In a day when Greece was to the modern world a new discovery there was no questioning of the validity of its forms which furnished the language of Robert Mills. We find his words a little stereotyped, a litle arid but very sober, very competent, very dignified — contributing to that austere tradition that forms the basis of the simplicity even of our modern style.

Though Robert Mills was born and reared in Charleston, South Carolina, it is a noticeable fact that the French influence there was not shown in the houses he designed in Richmond, and which are described in this book.

This article was published in Frances Archer Christian and Susanne Massie, editors, Homes and Gardens in Old Virginia, Garrett and Massie, Incorporated, Richmond, VA, 1931.
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