On Sunday morning, we got up and headed out for our long drive to Charleston. It is a four and a half hour drive, so we planned to make the trip a bit more leisurely, and not plan to be in Charleston before the tourist attractions closed for the day. We got our hotel breakfast buffet, packed up and checked out, and headed out. Soon, it started raining. Then it started dumping huge buckets of water onto our car. The drive became pretty frustrating, because it alternated between light rain and a torrential downpour. We drove for a couple of hours, and then stopped for lunch in Columbia, South Carolina. We drove around for a few minutes in the business district (which was absolutely deserted on a Sunday) and found the Liberty Bar and Grill. I found out later that it is a chain, but at the time, we didn’t know that. It is in an old restored warehouse (they did a good job with the restoration). I had a Cobb salad and Jon had the Ahi Tuna Salad. We asked our server to recommend a local brew, and ended up trying the Sweetwater 420 Pale Ale from Atlanta, Georgia. It was light and hoppy and a teensy bit bland. It certainly wasn’t on the same level as West Coast microbrews – I think they might get there though!
After lunch we went over to the Robert Mills house before getting back on the road. I knew nothing about Robert Mills, but I read in the guidebook that the Columbia Historic Society owns and operates four home museums that are open for tours. We thought they all looked interesting, but we only had time for one, so we chose the Robert Mills house. Confusingly, Robert Mills didn’t own the house, and never lived in it – he was the architect. The home was actually owned by Ainsley Hall – his 2nd large mansion in Columbia – the first is across the street.
Ainsley Hall and his wife Sarah lived in the beautiful home across the street. As the story goes, one evening in 1823 Mr. Hall was chatting with a colleague who offered to buy the home and asked Mr. Hall to throw out a price. Mr. Hall responded with $35,000, what he thought was an astronomical price (about $750,000 in today’s dollars – he clearly hadn’t lived through a real estate bubble if he thought that was an unheard of sum, but that’s how the story goes). You can see where this is going, right? The colleague accepted the deal, then had his slaves come down and move Ainsley and Sarah Hall out of their home THAT NIGHT. The record is silent on what Sarah thought of this, but one can assume she was PISSED! I would be really torqued off! Now Ainsley really had to kiss ass, so he promised Sarah that he would build her a better house across the street that looked down upon their old home. He bought the lot and made a deal with Robert Mills to build the home.
Robert Mills has an impressive resume. He was a federal architect under seven different Presidents, designing and building the US Patent Office (modeled after the Parthenon), the US Treasury Building, and the Washington Monument. He was an early advocate of fireproofing measures (this is significant later in this post – trust me). Actually, nobody is really sure what sort of deal he had with Ainsley Hall to build the home, because he mostly designed public buildings. When you look at the home, you certainly see the public building influence.
So Mr. Mills set about building the home, and when it was almost complete, Ainsley sent Sarah off to New York to go shopping to furnish and decorate their new abode. He was going to follow her there shortly. Well, Ainsley set out, then got sick on the journey and died. And sadly, since he had neglected to update his will to give Sarah the new home in the event of his death, she got NOTHING! Sarah had to go home and live with her parents… She never remarried. The home was sold to a Presbyterian Seminary, and was eventually purchased by a Bible College.
The tour of the house is pretty cool. The first thing that you notice upon entering the front door is that this home has no grand staircase in the entryway. In fact, there is no staircase in the entryway at all. There are two reasons for this. Mills wanted the entry to be symmetrical with matching doors. He even put in an extra false door so they would be symmetrical! Strangely, he could have just had two doors going into the dining room, but apparently that wasn’t what he wanted. The other reason was that Mills knew grand staircases were a huge fire hazard. If a house caught fire (which they frequently did back then), the oxygen would race right up the staircase and trap the occupants upstairs. So instead, Mills put in a staircase that was enclosed in brick. Interestingly, this is the home’s only staircase. For the time period, it was highly unusual to not have a separate staircase for the slaves. The grand entry is also curved, and even the doors are curved! When you go into the rooms off the grand entry, they have curved walls – it would have been tough to curve the molding in those rooms!
The tour also took us into the basement, where the living would have taken place during the hot summer months (if you didn’t take off for Europe during the summer). While it certainly was cooler downstairs, it was a bit dreary. Terra cotta tile floors and less light. But I suppose you can’t live the glam life all the time. Megan, our guide, was cheerful and talkative and answered all my questions (we were the only two people on the tour so I could ask whatever I wanted!)
At the end of the tour, Megan showed us where Mr. Mills, had the brick walls on the outside of the home painted red and relined. Yes, you read that correctly. The natural work of brick and mortar didn’t create lines that were straight or perfect enough for the obsessive-compulsive Mills. So he had the brick painted and relined, so they could give it the look of perfectly straight mortar lines running through the brick. And Jon thought I was particular!
After we finished our tour at the Robert Mills house, it was time to get back on the road and head the rest of the way to Charleston. And right about then, it started raining again!