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South Carolina Historical Society
In 1819 the South Carolina legislature noted a need for a fireproof public records building in both Columbia and Charleston. Three years later, in 1822, the City of Charleston hired Robert Mills, then Superintendent of Public Buildings and State Architect for South Carolina, to design the Charleston County Records Office. Construction lasted beyond Mills’s tenure as State Architect; however, he was contracted to continue to oversee the project in collaboration with John Spindle. Contract records also identify several craftsmen responsible for implementing Mills’s designs, including principal brickmason John Gordon, stone masons James Rowe and John White, and blacksmith John Johnson.
Representative of Mills’s design style, this Greek Revival building is a five-bay-wide structure fronted on both the north and south facades by a three-bay-wide, full-height portico of four Doric columns supporting a triangular pediment. Originally Mills designed a curved brownstone exterior staircase with wrought-iron railing leading to the piano nobile. Windows on the main level are topped by semicircular fanlights, creating vertical differentiation on the facade. The brick building was covered with scored stucco, adding to the horizontal balance and symmetry of the structure.
Mills used innovative architectural elements to protect the county’s public records from fire. The city had seen major devastation from the spread of fires in 1740, 1778, and 1796. Mills stipulated that the area surrounding the future building be cleared to create a firebreak. He also ordered the widening of Chalmers Street to the north and the creation of a garden that encompassed the building to the east and south; to the west of the proposed building was Meeting Street, which was already wide. The one-foot-thick masonry walls were the next buffer to protect the building from the spread of fire. Additionally, Mills avoided all use of wood features in the central stone stair and the windows, which had steel shutters and casings.
Mills’s designs were not only concerned with the spread of fire, but also the flow of light, air, and people. The double entrances gave officials easy access to the records office into one of two hallways that separated offices from the records rooms. The symmetrical room configuration is mirrored in the symmetrical layout of the vaulting system employed by Mills. While the offices and records rooms have groin-vaulted masonry ceilings, the passages have barrel-vaulted ceilings. In addition to facilitating the movement of people through the space, the double-hall design allowed for the horizontal flow of light and air. Similarly, the central cantilevered staircase enabled the vertical circulation of light, air, and people.
Mills was living in Columbia during the construction of the Fireproof Building, and Spindle made changes to some of his original specifications as work progressed. Most notably, instead of constructing fluted columns as Mills had designed them, Spindle had the columns covered in roughcast. Similarly, he omitted the belt course separating the main level and the second story. Spindle added quoins to the basement level, thus adding texture to Mills’s harmonious design.
In addition to Spindle’s design changes, several alterations have been made to the Fireproof Building since its construction. The original copper roof was lost after the Civil War and replaced with a tin roof. In 1886 Charleston suffered from a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed buildings across the city and left others severely damaged. Sections of the parapet had to be repaired after they fell during the earthquake, leaving the brownstone stairs severely damaged. The County hired E.T. Viett to rebuild the exterior stairs but Viett changed the configuration of Mills’s circular stair to the current angular stairs. In 1968 Charleston County sold the Fireproof Building to the South Carolina Historical Society (SCHS), an organization that collected books, letters, journals, drawings, and photographs pertaining to South Carolina history and that had maintained offices in the building since 1943.
Under the ownership of the SCHS, the building underwent two major renovations in 1970 and 2002. While efforts have been made to make the structure suitable for housing the Society’s collection, space and technology restraints remain inadequate. In fall 2014, the collections of the SCHS were moved to the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston, where they are protected in a state-of-the-art special collections facility. An extensive renovation of the Fireproof Building then began, which aims to create exhibition spaces and enhance the SCHS’s ability to interpret their headquarters as a work of architecture.
Bryan, John Morrill. Robert Mills: America’s First Architect. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.
Bryan, John M. Robert Mills, Architect. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 2001.
“County Records Building,” Charleston County, South Carolina. Historic American Building Survey, 1960. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Fireproof Building Ironwork Estimate. Container 11-517-26. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, SC.
“Gateway to History: The Renovation and Repurposing of the Fireproof Building.” South Carolina History. Accessed May 29, 2016. http://schistory.org/.
Liscombe, Rhodri Windsor. Altogether American: Robert Mills, Architect and Engineer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Lister, Toney J., “Fireproof Building,” Charleston County, South Carolina. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1969. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Mills, Robert. Autobiography of Robert Mills. Container 11-518-1. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, SC.
Mills, Robert. Rendering of the Facade of the Fireproof Building. Container 33-22-1. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, SC.
South Carolina Historical Society. Self-Guided Tour Manual. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, SC.
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