Robert Mills was born in Charleston, in 1781, of a strong Scottish family who had settled there in 1770. He was one of six children and early in his life was dedicated to the study of architecture. He may have been influenced by his uncle an architect living in Dundee, Scotland. He completed a classical study at Charleston College and also formed an acquaintance with the noted English architect James Hoban. Mills began training under Hoban who was then working on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Robert Mills married and lived in several cities: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, finally settling in Washington, D.C. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson asked Mills to assist in the design of Monticello. He spent two years with Jefferson and had access to Jefferson's large library on architecture. In Philadelphia, he was commissioned to design the Burlington County Prison that was constructed in 1810-1811.
President Andrew Jackson appointed Mills to be the Federal Architect and Engineer a position he held for 16 years. During this period, he directed the design and construction of the U.S. Treasury Building, U.S. Patent Office, and the U.S. Post Office. He also designed numerous houses, churches and monuments along the eastern coast. He also designed the Monumental Church in Richmond but that is a story in itself.
Mills greatest accomplishment was the Washington Monument. Work began in 1848 but political squabbling and a lack of money often hindered and the work was stopped in 1854. In 1880 work was resumed and it was completed in 1884 and opened to the public in 1888. The shaft is tapered, faced with white marble, with walls 15 ft. thick at the base. It was modeled after the obelisks of ancient Egypt. Standing at 555 ft., it is one of the largest masonry constructions in the world. The top can only be reached by elevator. Memorial stones from 50 states, foreign countries, and organizations line the interior walls. Millions visit the Washington Monument ever year, but probably few know who designed it.
Mills died in 1855 and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery, District of Columbia.