Robert Mills (1781-1855) was born in Charleston, South Carolina to a well-established Scottish family that settled there in 1770. One of six children, Mills was singled out early to follow a professional career and completed his classical course of study at Charleston College in 1800. His interest in architecture was probably developed and influenced by his architect uncle, Thomas Mills of Dundee, Scotland and his contact with the noted Irish architect James Hoban, who lived in Charleston during Mills’ college years. In fact, Mills began his formal training as a draftsman under Hoban who was then working on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
In 1803 Mills drew the attention of President Thomas Jefferson who asked him to assist in the design of Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation home in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He resided there for two years during which he developed a very deep friendship with Jefferson. With letters of introduction from Hoban and Jefferson, Robert Mills began practice in 1805 under Benjamin Latrobe, the celebrated English-born architect responsible for, among other projects, the interiors of the U. S. Capitol. Mills continued under Latrobe until 1808 when he struck out on his own in private practice.
During this period (1808-1830), Mills married and moved to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston and finally settled in Washington, D.C. It was during his tenure in Philadelphia that Mills was awarded the commission to design the Burlington County Prison that was constructed in 1810-11. The building was one of Robert Mills’ first designs as an independent architect and is a fine example of his ability to identify and solve some of the most difficult structural, safety, and utilization issues of the day.
In 1836, President Andrew Jackson appointed Mills to the position of Federal Architect and Engineer. During his 16-year tenure, he played an essential role in this country’s early development, including directing the design and construction of the U.S. Treasury Building, U.S. Patent Office, and the U.S. Post Office. He also designed numerous churches, houses, and monuments along the eastern seaboard. Two of the most renowned are the Washington Monument in Baltimore and the National Monument in Washington, D.C. The latter was an engineering accomplishment of international acclaim and the tallest single edifice in the world at the time.