Architect Robert Mills and His Influence on Criminal Justice Structural Design

By Toth, Reid C. | Judicature, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

Architect Robert Mills and His Influence on Criminal Justice Structural Design


Toth, Reid C., Judicature


Robert Mills (1781-1855), a South Carolinian, was the first native born American architect. Although he is best remembered for his design of the Washington Monument, his contribution to criminal justice architecture in South Carolina was phenomenal, including over 28 courthouses and jails. Mills is largely responsible for the stereotype of the American courthouse as one of strength and integrity, qualities reflected in his buildings.

From 1820 toi 829 Mills dedicated his professional life to the improvement of public buildings in his home state of South Carolina. Upon his return to Columbia from Baltimore in 1820, he was appointed to the Board of Public Works as Acting Commissioner, responsible for designing buildings statewide from 1820 to 1822. In 1823 he became superintendent of public buildings, but he increasingly became associated with the most expensive public projects and in December of that same year the legislature removed him from office. He spent the remainder of his time in South Carolina in Charleston as a consultant in private practice.1

Mills' official appointment to the Board of Public Works was a result of the state legislature's authorization for construction of several jails and courthouses across the state. The results were 14 courthouses, 13 jails, the insane asylum in Columbia, and the public records building and powder magazine in Charleston.2 His works during this decade reflect the Greek Revival style incorporated with Latrobean and Palladian influences. The courthouses share common features such as prominent entrances leading to vaulted fireproof offices and storage on a ground floor, and lateral staircases leading to a porticoed entrance for the courtrooms above. The county jails reflected Mills' concern for correctional reform and social utility. Standard features were large rectangular blocks and structures that were largely self-contained by including service areas such as kitchens and living quarters for jail keepers.3

The public works of Mills during his tenure in South Carolina can be divided into four distinct periods: the Jay period (1821), the Acting Commissioner period (18211822), the Superintendent of Public Works period (1823), and the Private Practice period (1824-1829)."

jay period

Upon his return to South Carolina, Mills inherited a situation in which architect William Jay had been commissioned by the state legislature to design several courthouses. Jay's intention had been to create standard plans that would be economical. These plans were being implemented by the Board of Public Works when Mills was hired to replace Jay, and Mills spent the major part of 1821 redesigning the Jay plans.

Mills took particular issue with Jay's courthouse plan, which he considered to be impractical in its arrangement and deficient in not being fireproof. He suggested that construction of the courthouses for Colleton and Fairfield counties be halted pending redesign. He moved the courtrooms on both from ground level to the second floor, and in doing so created what would become a standard design feature. On the Colleton Courthouse, Mills essentially reversed the first and second stories, so that the ground level was much lower than the upper level. He placed the courtroom above offices thereby eradicating the frequent complaint that the court was often overexposed to noise at the street level.5

In addition to redesigning much of Jay's work, Mills took notice of the poor quality of jails and courthouses built in the previous 20 years. He felt they were constructed with poor materials and poor workmanship, which rendered them insecure. He submitted new designs for the Marlboro County Courthouse, which would become a prototype, as well as new designs for the Greenville (see Figure 1), Newberry, Williamsburg (see Figure 2), and York county courthouses, and new jail designs for Charleston, Lancaster, Spartanburg, and Union counties.6

Acting Commissioner period

During his tenure as acting commissioner of the Board of Public Works, Mills oversaw the implementation and construction of his design for the Marlboro County courthouse, which he described as "a handsome court-house and jail. …

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