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The Mills Courthouse -- not!

Posted: February 20, 2014 8:35 a.m.
Updated: February 21, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Long before I came to work in Camden, my husband and I would drive up here from Sumter to have a lunch date some Saturdays. As we passed the Robert Mills Courthouse, the historic preservationist part of me would smile in satisfaction that the people of Camden preserved this landmark. Sumter’s oldest courthouse, which Mills modified, was torn down in the name of “progress” years ago -- and they built a Maxway in its place! Really!

So, as Rickie Good, our curator of collections, and I began the research for the Mills exhibit I thought, “Oh fun, I’ll get to work on that fabulous Mills courthouse I’ve always admired.” As I really began to scrutinize the Broad Street facade it struck me that the main entry stairway was odd for a Mills design, coming straight off the front of the upper porch and descending straight downward. Afraid of heights, I declined to climb it, preferring the inside elevator to the terrifying look of those high steps. Most often Mills courthouses would have double curving or L-shaped stairways on the fronts of the buildings.

Then we read Mills’ own description of the Kershaw Courthouse. Uh-oh, everything is wrong here! Mills wrote in his 1826 Statistics, “An elegant courthouse is now building here, which will be superior in its design to any in the state … Its façade presents a grand portico of six Ionic columns, spreading the whole extent of the building …” I’m standing in front of the Mills Courthouse looking at four -- not six -- Doric -- not Ionic -- columns. Big clue that something is off here.

He continues to write of the main entry, “…a double flight of stairs rises within the vestibule to the courtroom story…” Inside stairs? Vestibule? There is a flight of stairs down the central hallway at the rear of the first floor. The main flight of stairs to the courtroom are those terrifying steps on the outside front façade of the building. We have looked at the 1836 image of old Camden which was supposedly taken off of a Bank of Camden note a million times here at the Archives. I suddenly realized that the courthouse on that engraving is the courthouse Mills was describing. It’s our only extant image of the original courthouse Mills designed. So, what happened here?

Off we go to the State Archives in Columbia to find out. There we find a petition of the Grand Jury dated December 5, 1845, which begins to tell the story. It states, “…the Court House under their charge was originally ill-constructed for the convenience of Judge, Juries, Bar & people, and has constantly been a cause of complaint…” I think, “Poor Robert Mills, I hope that he was very, very busy in Washington, D.C., with the Washington Monument and did not hear of this issue in South Carolina.”

Attached to the petition were the changes recommended for the courthouse. The alterations were outlined:

1. “…a floor, on the level with that of the courtroom, be constructed in the Portico … the middle window be converted into a doorway or entrance into the Courtroom, with a flight of steps, to the floor be constructed in the Portico … that the stairways inside be removed …

“2. That the Gallery and Jury Rooms … be removed.

“3. That Petit-Jury Rooms be constructed by an additional structure in the rear of the Judge’s seat to be entered by a door in place of the windows now there.” On and on it reads.

6. “That plank be substituted for Brick as the floor of the Court Room.” Brick floors in the courtroom? Mills had tried to make this courthouse as fireproof has he could -- a favorite topic of his.

The changes passed unanimously. But more changes were made. In 1826, Mills described the interior of the courtroom, “Four columns rise in this court-room, carrying their imposts, between which springs a grand arched ceiling, the whole width of the room, and extending its entire length.” In 1978, Architect Henry Boykin inspected the attic, formerly inaccessible until a central air conditioning system was installed there, necessitating a new staircase to the attic. There he found that the roof of the building had been raised during the 1845 remodeling, leaving marks on the chimney as to just how much. Also in the attic are the arches which supported the original arched ceiling described by Mills. Mr. Boykin also observed the remains of the original white entablature in the Ionic style.

So, as we stand on the Broad Street sidewalk and gaze at the lovely frieze containing triglyphs and admire the massive Doric columns supporting the portico, we are not really looking at Robert Mills’ Kershaw Courthouse. When we admire the handsome courtroom we are looking at a total alteration of the original design. When we climb the interior stairs, we arrive in the 1845 addition to the rear of the original courthouse and when we walk into the courtroom, we pass through what used to be a window in the original building. But we love and admire this building anyway. Through its incarnations, it has become a beloved landmark in Camden. It has a long history with us. Robert Mills designed those walls and the arched ground floor to be strong and last through the generations -- and they have. He left his mark on this structure, and through time, so have we.

Robert Mills left not one word on paper about an 1845 remodeling of his Kershaw Courthouse. I hope he never found out!

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