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Robert Mills’ trail in Camden

Posted: January 16, 2014 10:45 a.m.
Updated: January 17, 2014 5:00 a.m.

When I was a pre-teen, I absolutely devoured every Nancy Drew mystery book I could check out of the Charleston County Library or borrow from a friend. Oh, the adventures Nancy took me on as she snooped out the trail of a mystery. Each little clue she found led to another and another and they all eventually solved the mystery. The exotic situations in which she became involved were fascinating. She always solved the mystery, through each one’s twisting, turning plot. Clue by clue.

Maybe Nancy Drew’s mysteries helped guide me towards my career as a public historian. Every new research project is a mystery that has to be solved clue by clue. When teaching my Hands-On History students in Sumter, I started out by telling them that finding the real stories in our history is like being a detective. My philosophy on conducting research is that one cannot always just accept what has been written before (and repeated and repeated) if clues point you in another direction. Following the clues through the archival record reveals new and very interesting information almost every time I start a new project. In every instance, the new information that comes to light makes the research topic more interesting and more relevant to us.

So, I invite you along with me on a research adventure as we prepare for a Robert Mills exhibit which will open at the Camden Archives and Museum on January 25. First, you must know who Robert Mills (1781-1855) was, if you don’t already. He was a South Carolina boy, through and through. Reared in Charleston by his Scottish immigrant father and old South Carolina stock mother, he grew up amidst grand architecture by the American standard of his times. He enjoyed sailing among the Charleston barrier islands and undoubtedly soaked in the experience of growing up in a busy international seaport. He apparently was exposed to architectural training in Charleston during his adolescence, for he produced decent architectural drawings prior to working in Washington under James Hoban (1758-1831), the Irish born architect of the White House, in 1799 or 1800. Mills was befriended by Gentleman Architect President Thomas Jefferson and was given access to his library at Monticello, which contained many architectural books of the day. He later worked under Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Surveyor of Public Buildings for Washington. Robert Mills was on the way to becoming the first American formally trained architect and, ultimately, the designer of the Washington Monument.

By 1820, when Mills and his family (beautiful wife Eliza and four daughters at that time) moved back to Charleston to seek employment, he had several impressive achievements under his professional belt: the first Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, the South Carolina Penitentiary, Philadelphia’s Franklin Row, Richmond’s Monumental Church, and the Washington Monument in Baltimore, among many others. In South Carolina, he was hired as Acting Commissioner for Public Buildings and later became Superintendent of Public Buildings. He also worked as a private architect often employed by the state. He worked in tandem with Camden’s Abram Blanding, Superintendent of Public Works. In those capacities, he and Blanding developed waterways allowing navigation to the interior of the state, such as the Columbia Canal. They developed systems of roads and bridges and dreamed of vast railroad lines across America. Mills designed 18 courthouses and 11 jails for the various districts of the state during his time as Superintendent of Public Buildings. In their private capacities, Blanding was a Camden attorney and Mills designed buildings for private clients.

Here comes the first clue that something extraordinary occurred for Mills in Camden, South Carolina. In a draft of his hoped-for autobiography, Mills wrote, “The professional labours of the author are distributed in various parts of the Union. The principal parts of the designs found in his work were executed in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, Columbia, Camden and other towns of South Carolina …” Hmmm, so we were up there with Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the big guys!! Let’s think about this.

In 1825, Mills wrote an exhaustive account of each district in South Carolina to accompany his newly produced Atlas of the State of South Carolina. Each essay minutely described the flora and fauna, geographical and mineral characteristics and more of each district. Each also carried a description of the district’s principal town, as well. As would be expected, Kershaw District’s included an account of Camden in 1825, like a little snapshot of our past. But if you know Mills’ writing style in this book, you find that he gives glowing and detailed descriptions of those buildings which he designed in those various South Carolina towns. “Handsome” is a term he reserves for his own courthouses though he never states that he designed them in his text!

Mills’ description of Camden goes on for pages, unlike the brief descriptions he provides for other towns of our size. The courthouse at Camden was beyond “handsome!” He wrote, “An elegant courthouse is now building here which will be superior in its design to any in the state, both for convenience of accommodation, beauty, and permanency. Its façade presents a grand portico of six Ionic columns …” Of course we know that Mills designed this courthouse in 1825.

Then he writes, “A handsome church has been erected in the upper part of the town, with a portico of four Doric columns in front, and a neat spire in the rear, containing a bell …” Again, we know that Mills designed Bethesda Presbyterian Church, built between 1821 and 1823. In front of this church he continues to describe the DeKalb Monument (1824-7, which we know he designed), “The monument erected here is simply elegant in its design …”

Then he moves next door to the male and female academies, built in 1822. “Near the Presbyterian Church, on the same hill, are two neat brick buildings, appropriated to the male and female academies …” These academy buildings appear in Mills’ own drawing of Bethesda Church which was engraved and published in 1827. Their design and scale are strikingly complimentary to Bethesda’s architecture and scale. These engravings were published and distributed by Mills as publicity for his church design. He wasn’t one to publicize other people’s architecture. It makes you wonder -- the academies look like Mills’ work to me.

Lastly, he completes his description of Camden with a glowing account of the town hall which stood across Broad Street from the courthouse. “The town council have built a large and substantial town hall … Adjoining to the town hall is a handsome subscription library … In front of this building rises a high tower, containing a staircase, crowned by a cupola, ornamented with a clock, and surmounted by a spire.” In a circa 1836 engraving of old Camden, the high tower is remarkably similar in massing and features to the Bethesda steeple. On top of that tower, built from 1822 to 1825, was placed the King Hagler weathervane (1826). The clock in the tower was the Lukens town clock (1824). Mills said, “This spire is a very conspicuous object, enlivens the town, and gives an air of importance to the place.” Hmm …

And then we found the drawing and plans for the Kershaw County jail -- in Mills’ typical jail architectural style and in Mills’ hand writing at the State Archives. Last week, the specs for the jail turned up -- in a hand like Mills’ formal writing. The specs reference detail work at the Richland County jail -- which Mills modified in 1823. Our “new” Kershaw jail was built around 1833, according to the state documents. Make that 12 jails that Mills designed!

Well, I am far over my word limit for January. We’ll explore all of this further in February!

 

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