Tag Archives: Robert Mills

Robert Mills awarded the “premium for the best design of a monument” by the Board of Managers of the Washington Monument

Thanks to Lance Humphries with the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy for sharing today’s update on Baltimore’s Washington Monument.

74S1042B.jpgOn May 2, 1814 the Board of Managers of the Washington Monument informed architect Robert Mills that his design for the city’s planned memorial to George Washington had been selected. As the monument was the first one in the country to honor America’s first president, the board was particularly pleased that this honor could go to an American architect, a realization that the new nation was becoming cultural independent from the “Old World,” as they had declared they were politically in 1776.

Robert Gilmor and Isaac McKim were tasked by the Board of Managers to send Mills the official letter sharing the news:

Baltimore 2d May 1814

At a meeting of the Managers of the Washington Monument thisday,agreeably to notice, to award the premium for the best design of a monument, the one furnished by you received the approbation of the board, & we as members of the corresponding committee are directed to communicate this information, & that your [draft] on Mr. Eli Simkins, their Secretary for five hundreds dollars (being the amount of the premium) will be paid at sight.

Agreeably to the terms of the public notice, should you have committed to you the execution of your plan, the amount of the premium will be deducted from your Commission or contract, as the adoption of your design is presumed to be a sufficient compensation for what you have already done.

Your mo. ob. s
R.Mills,Esq. IsaacM’Kim

Drawing from Robert Mills' "Book of Designs"The design was not quite final, however, as Mills’ complex design (with many levels and tiers of inscriptions documenting the history of Washington’s life) posed some initial concerns. The height of the column worried those who lived on its intended location (at today’s Monument Square) that it might be “overturned by some shock, owing to its great elevation.” Others feared that the monument might be too expensive. These concerns continued to shape the design and location before the city laid the cornerstone to the Washington Monument on July 4, 1815.

Source: Robert Gilmor, Jr., Board of Managers of the Washington Monument, to Robert Mills, May 2, 1814, Richard X. Evans Collection, Special Collections Division, Georgetown University Library, Washington.

Architect Robert Mills submits a “book of designs” for Baltimore’s Washington Monument

Robert Mills, 1808

On January 12, 1814, a 33-year-old architect named Robert Mills mailed off a “book of designs” to the Board of Managers of the Washington Monument in Baltimore. Accompanying the dozen drawings and pages of notes describing his design, Mills included a letter making the case for his particular qualifications as an American architect:


Through your indulgence in granting me a little time beyond the period fixed upon in your advertisement, for designs for the Monument you purpose to erect to commemorate the inestimable virtues and glorious deeds of the immortal Washington, I have now the honor of submitting to your consideration the result of my labors towards accomplishing the Wishes of your honorable board— Accompanying this letter you will find a book of designs with a description of the Monument….

Being an American by birth and having also the honor of being the first American who has passed through a regular course of study of architecture in his own country, it is natural for me to feel much solicitude to aspire to the honor of raising a monument to the memory of our illustrious countryman. The education I have received being altogether American and unmixed with European habits, I can safely present the design submitted as American founded upon those general principles prefaced in the description contained in the Book of Designs. For the honor of our country, my sincere wish is that it may not be said; To foreign genius and to foreign hands we are indebted for a monument to perpetuate the Glory of our beloved Chief.

Drawing from Robert Mills' "Book of Designs"
Maryland Historical Society

Four years earlier on January 6, 1810, Maryland  had  authorized the “Board of Managers of the Washington and Monument in Baltimore” to raise funds by lottery to support the design and construction of a monument to George Washington. Delayed by the war and difficulties in raising money, the members of the board voted on February 15, 1813 to hold a design competition with a prize of $500 for the “best design, model or plan for a Monument to the memory of General Washington.”

Robert Mills submitted a detailed description of his proposal back in November along with a few rough sketches. When the board extended competition deadline  from January 1 to April 15, it gave him more time to prepare the illustrations contained in his “book of designs,” an essay with a description of the drawings and “a few remarks upon Monuments in general,” and the letter excerpted above.

In claiming the title of America’s first trained architect, Robert Mills played to his strengths despite the debatable nature of his claim. The board’s original announcement for the competition, appearing in the Niles’ Weekly Register on March 20, 1813, remarked:

“it is hoped that the American artist will envince by their productions, that there will be no occasion to resort to any other country for a monument to the memory of their illustrious fellow-citizen.”

Maryland Historical Magazine captured the definitive history of the Washington Monument in an 1939 article where you can find full transcripts of Robert Mills’ proposals and correspondence.

Learn more about the history of the Washington Monument from the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy or on Robert Mills in the excellent history by John M. Bruan: Robert Mills: America’s First Architect.

Washington Monument, 1828
Washington Monument looking north. Painting by John Rubens Smith, 1828. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-01542.