According to local lore, renowned architect Robert Mills (1781–1855) was a graduate of the College, or at least studied here during his formative years in Charleston. In former president Harry Lightsey Jr.’s pictorial book about the College, Gems in a Crown (1993), he writes that Mills earned his degree at the College. But historian John Morrill Bryan questions the CofC connection in his biography Robert Mills: America’s First Architect (2001). Because there’s no actual record of his attendance at the College, Bryan theorizes that Mills most likely attended evening classes in Charleston to learn drawing and design before moving to Washington, D.C., where he studied under architect James Hoban (famous for his design of the White House).
This spring, the Washington Monument, Mills’ best-known work, was reopened to the public after a 33-month restoration to fix more than 150 cracks caused by a 2011 earthquake. The 555-foot monument – for which Mills won the open competition in 1836, though it wasn’t completed until 1884 – was once the tallest structure in the world. Like the Washington Monument, Mills’ other architectural designs, including the Treasury Building and the Old Patent Office Building (now part of the Smithsonian Institution), helped define the image of the emerging American republic for the nation and the world.
And his alumni status, like the beauty of his work, is perhaps best left in the eye of the beholder.