Robert Mills was born in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 12, 1781. He studied at Charleston College. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1800, he became an apprentice of the builder-architect James Hoban. Shortly thereafter Mills met Thomas Jefferson, who brought him to Monticello to study architecture and in 1804 sent him on a tour of the eastern states to visit new construction.
Mills worked for Benjamin H. Latrobe, architect of the Capitol, from 1804 to 1808. Concurrently, Mills began his own practice, designing Sansom Street Church in Philadelphia (1804) with a circular auditorium and covering dome, the first church dome in America. In 1808 he established his own practice as an architect and engineer in Philadelphia. Here he built row houses (1809), a Unitarian church (1811-1813), wings on Independence Hall (1812), and the Upper Ferry Bridge (1812; destroyed), whose single arch spanning 360 feet was the longest in the world. His designs for the prison at Burlington, N.J. (1808), several fine houses in Richmond, Va., and courthouses in many southern cities spread his fame and the Greek revival style. His best-known early work is the Washington Monument in Baltimore (1814-1829).
In 1817 Mills moved to Baltimore. He designed churches and became chief engineer for the city waterworks. His Treatise on Inland Navigation (1820) demonstrated his competence in the important field of transportation. He returned to Charleston in 1820 and worked for a decade on public buildings. He designed the State Hospital for the Insane in Columbia (1822) and the fireproof Record Building in Charleston (1822). He also wrote three important treatises: Internal Improvement of South Carolina (1822), The Atlas of the State of South Carolina (1825), and Statistics of South Carolina (1826).
Mills was back in Washington, D.C., in 1830. He published two more useful books: The American Pharos, or Lighthouse Guide (1832) and A Guide to the Capitol of the United States (1834). From 1836 until 1851 he was the official "architect of public buildings." He erected the new Treasury Building (1836-1839), the Patent Office (1836-1840), and the Post Office (1839), monumental works featuring classical colonnades, porticoes, and decorations. The Patent Office is Greek Doric, like the Parthenon in Athens, and the Treasury colonnade is lonic, copying the Erechtheum in Athens. In 1836 Mills won the competition for the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., but construction did not begin until 1848 and was not completed until 1884.
One work on Mills is H. M. Pierce Gallagher, Robert Mills: Architect of the Washington Monument, 1781-1855 (1935), which offers new information but is not definitive. Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America (1944), devotes half a chapter to Mills, postulating that Mills and William Strickland, both pupils of Latrobe, brought the Greek revival style to maturity.
Mills is best known for his monumental architecture in Washington, DC. These include the vast obelisk of the Washington National Monument (1833–84), the great stoa-fronted Ionic Treasury Building (1836–42), the Doric Patent Office Building (1836–40—now the National Portrait Gallery), and the Corinthian Old Post Office (1839–42). It is clear he was a competent Greek Revivalist. One of his best buildings was the Lunatic Asylum, Columbia, SC (1821–7), in the Greek Doric style with south-facing wards and a complete absence of the forbidding severity usually associated with such institutions. He designed several customs-houses and was a pioneer of fire-resistant construction.
Pierson & and Jordy (1970–86);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Jane Turner (1996);
Whiffen & and Koeper (1983);
Windsor-Liscombe (1985, 1994)
Robert Mills, 1781–1855, American architect of the classic revival period, b. Charleston, S.C. From 1800 to 1820 he worked as an architect in Washington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, being associated at different times with Thomas Jefferson, James Hoban, and B. H. Latrobe. He then returned to Charleston as state engineer and architect. In 1836, President Jackson appointed Mills architect of public buildings in Washington. In this post he was responsible for designing and supervising the construction of the Treasury Building in 1836 and the Patent Office and the Post Office (now the International Trade Commission), both begun in 1839. His design (1833) for the Washington Monument was executed (1848–84) without the base originally intended for it. Mills had planned to have the great obelisk superimposed upon a large Greek Doric Pantheon. He also designed the Washington Monument in Baltimore, the Bunker Hill Monument, and the Monumental Church in Richmond, Va. Seeking to create a truly American architecture, Mills devised plans for public buildings that were highly practical. His buildings give the effect of great dignity and massiveness, corresponding to their solidity of construction.
See biography by H. M. P. Gallagher (1935).