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Robert A. Mills

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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

JULY 4th's A-COMIN'!
6/15/2009 11:56:15 AM
Our subdivision in Marietta—Chatsworth, the gem of Cobb County—is hosting Georgia’s social event of the season: a July 4th day-long pool party and Bar-B-Q with a Parade, Food, Games, Prizes, Music (no Fireworks? Yeah, right!) It made me think . . .

That night, while you’re watching PBS’s July 4th Concert on the Mall, you’ll see the Washington Monument from various vantage points. When you do, think of my namesake: Robert Mills.

People often Google “Robert Mills” and find that he was arguably the first native American architect of international renown. An Indian and a Southerner, he ran hot and cold on the issue of slavery; though plantations were not his forte, one of the few manors he designed is in Columbia, South Carolina. A framed poster of it adorns the vestibule of my home in Marietta, Georgia. It hangs there for obvious reasons.

He, sadly, never lived in the Robert Mills House in Columbia’s Blanding Street. Nor did Ansley Hall, the fellow who commissioned Mills to build the mansion for his bride and him—another story for another time.

As a student of James Hoban, designer of the White House, my namesake designed and built many national landmarks in Washington, D.C. such as the Treasury Building and the U.S. Patent Office. He designed numerous edifices in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charleston—not to mention the entire campus of the University of South Carolina.

He is, however, best known for having designed the Washington Monument, the result of winning a competition for the assignment when he was a wisp of a lad of 55.

The nation’s capital was the product of the genius of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, laid out as a cross with the White House to the north, the Jefferson Memorial on the south, the Capitol to the east, and the Lincoln Memorial on the west. Though construction of the Washington Monument began in 1848, when James Polk was President, it was not until 1888 that the obelisk was inaugurated and opened to the public (Mills died in 1855 and, presumably, watched the event from atop his own monument in the Congressional Cemetery, where he is buried alongside Mathew Brady, John Phillip Sousa, and “Tip” O’Neil.)

The reason I bring this up as we approach July 4, is that I recently became aware that at the very top of Mills’ creation on the Mall is an aluminum cap no one can see, on which the old designer had engraved the words “Laus Deo.” In Latin, it means, simply, “Praise be to God.” (Actually, the phrase also appears along the east side.)

Interesting. But it gets better. Within the monument, there are 897 steps to the top, with 50 broad landings. At the 12th, 20th, and 24th landings there are plaques given by the city of Baltimore, some Chinese Christians, and Sunday School children of New York and Philadelphia. When the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848, aging Mr. Mills placed a copy of the Bible inside and cemented it over, along with George Washington’s immortal prayer for America: “ . . . that Thou wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government . . . ”

Outside, the monument is 555 feet, 5.125 inches tall. From the apex one can see all 69 square miles of the City of Washington. Combine that with its 897 steps and 50 landings, and what do you have? The sum of 1,577.125. What does it mean? I haven’t a clue.

Except that it honors our most predominant and recognizable Founding Father (the other Four Horsemen of the American Dream were James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.) They endorsed the oldest but shortest Constitution in world history, with one Preamble, 8 Articles, and 27 Amendments; the original was signed by 39 patriots (these digits total 74. Divide 1,577.125 by 74 and you get 21.3129. What does THAT mean? I have no idea.)

So, with July 4th just around corner, be careful when you Google “Robert Mills.” You may learn a great deal about one of my noble ancestors, but nothing about me. For that data, Google “Robert A. Mills”—and be sure to include the middle initial “A.”

Oh . . . are we related? I’m not sure, but a few years ago I was asked by the docent on duty at the Robert Mills House if I would honor them by conducting the next guided tour. A busload of senior citizens was about to arrive, and since I’d be leaving South Carolina the next day, anyway, I said, “Sure, why not? Bring ‘em on!”

For over an hour I faked my way from room to room with stories I’d squirreled away from things I’d read about ol’ Bobby, a well-known inebriate and ladies’ man, a bon vivant with a love ‘em and leave ‘em reputation, that left my senior citizen distaffers blushing and their men-folk hanging on every word.

When they finally made their way back to their tour bus (I declined all tips,) the docent said, “I heard most of your spiel. But how did you know Robert Mills was one of the few designers of his day that always insisted on a ‘Jeffersonian’ staircase, rather than the broad circular kind, a la Tara?”

I didn’t answer. I just shrugged and walked away. . . . Hav-a-Happy 4th!


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