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Learn the secrets behind architect Robert Mills’s Fireproof Building

Learn the secrets behind architect Robert Mills’s Fireproof Building
March 2021

The building now houses the South Carolina Historical Society Museum

It was designed by Charleston-born Robert Mills (1781-1855), who also was the architect for the Washington Monument. Officially named the County Records Building, it served as the repository for state and local documents until 1942, when it became the home of the South Carolina Historical Society. Find out more about this National Historic Landmark that has withstood fires and hurricanes and now houses the society’s museum

Office Space Originally state-owned, the building was erected to house state records. After the formation of Charleston County, the structure came under county jurisdiction and served as offices for the supervisor, register of mesne conveyance, auditor, superintendent of education, coroner, and treasurer.

Inner Strength The secret behind Mills’s fireproof plan was simple: none of the material used in the construction could burn. The interior and exterior walls were built of brick, the floors and staircases of stone, and the roof of copper. Stone was used for the door and window lintels, while window sashes, frames, and shutters were made of iron.

Let the Sun Shine In One notable interior feature is the oval staircase rising from the basement to the third floor. With stone steps cantilevered out from the wall, the staircase appears to have no visible support. What gives it strength is the way the steps are notched so each is locked to the step above it and the one below. Mills’s placement of a cupola-like skylight at the top of the stairwell allows natural light into the center of the building.

Classical Lines Mills’s use of the Greco-Roman Palladium style also shows in his DC work, such as the National Treasury Building and US Patent Office Building, the latter patterned after the Parthenon. Mills designed numerous South Carolina buildings, including the original Circular Church on Meeting Street, just two blocks from the Fireproof Building. The church, described in 1818 as “the most extraordinary building in the United States,” was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1861; the nearby Fireproof Building lived up to its name.

Pure Greek Mills called his work “pure Greek,” writing in 1826 that his Greek Doric design was without ornament except for the exterior porticoes on each front, with four columns on an arcade of arched openings rising the height of the building. Set on a tall stone basement, the building is constructed of brick stucco in a brown hue to resemble stone.

Annals of History In 2016 and 2017, the building was renovated and modernized to provide a more secure, climate-controlled environment. While the majority of the Historical Society’s archives were moved to the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library, the society reopened the building as an events venue and museum dedicated to South Carolina history—and the history of the Fireproof Building itself.