Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Ghostly Tales Of Charleston's Mills House Inn--Which One?

To say some of Charleston's oldest hotels have tales of the ghostly kind connected with them would be an understatement. After all, the Holy City is one of the oldest metropolitans in the country with a well heeled and notorious history. Why would Mills House Inn be an exception. Both employees and former guests describe seeing Confederate soldiers running up and down the halls searching for water to put out the fires ignited by the Great Fire of 1861, and to top it off, one of the apparitions seen was said to resemble one of the South's most beloved generals, Robert E. Lee.

According to Mills House Inn's documented history, these spectral manifestations make perfect sense. In 1861, Gen. Robert E. Lee came to Charleston to tour the city's harbor defenses. On his visit, he checked into the Mills House. While there, a fire erupted on Hasell Street at the Russell and Co.'s Sash and Blind factory and rapidly spread to Institute Hall and the Circular Church on Meeting Street, nearly a half-dozen blocks south of Hasell Street. Robert E Lee and his staff had climbed to the roof to witness the devastating inferno. When they returned to the hotel's parlor, they found a group of ladies and their babies preparing to leave. Lee took one baby and another officer took the other, and they hastily exited through the cellar into the smoky chaos outside. Back in Mills House, the staff valiantly fought the fire by using wet blankets to smother the sparks and embers that blew onto the roof and window ledges, saving the building from annihilation.

After the fire and Civil War 1865
Herein resides a proposed paradox. The Mills House Inn gracing the corner of Meeting and Queen Streets today was constructed in 1968 and registered its first guests on October 9, 1970, over a 109 years after the devastating fire of 1861. The last buyers and owners of the original Mills House of 1861, Charleston Associates, Richard H. Jenrette, Charles D. Ravenel, and Charles H. P. Duell, planned on renovating the seriously dilapidated building, but efforts proved impractical and decided to demolish it and replace it. The new Mills House Inn would replicate the old with one notable difference, it would have seven stories instead of the original's five. So you see, if we are to believe these ghostly sightings, the Confederate soldiers would be running up and down hallways not familiar to them (maybe that's why they can't find the water) and Robert E. Lee would be in a place he never stayed at.

Today's 7 story Mills House Inn

The history of old Mills House and its property has twists and turns as numerous as the estuary waterways of the Charleston Lowcountry. Part of the Archdale Square, names like Grimke house, St. Mary's Hotel and The Planter's Hotel preceded it. During the early 1840s, the United States Courthouse had offices there and from 1848-1852, there was the Mansion House hotel. The property was owned by the Grimke family until 1827, the year Plowden Weston purchased it. In 1836, Weston's sons sold the Mansion House hotel to wholesale grain merchant, Otis Mills, who continued acquiring neighboring parcels all through the 1940's. With these purchases, Otis Mills now owned a 130'x275' lot on the southwest corner of Meeting and Queen Streets, large enough to carry out his ultimate plan--build a five story hotel bearing his name.

In 1853, the original Mills House was built. Designed by architect John E. Earle and built by contractors James P. Earle and R. Earle at an estimated cost of $200,000, it had an iron balcony across the facade, ornate terra-cotta cornices above the windows, and an arcaded entryway. Much of the architectural trim was imported. The ironwork, marble mantels, and chandeliers were from Philadelphia, stoves and furnaces from New York, and furniture from Boston. However, the stone and marble work for pavement and exterior steps were locally supplied by W. B. White. The hotel boasted a dining saloon, a gentlemen's dining room, a second-floor ladies "ordinary" with tables for 160, and 180 guest rooms. Gas lighting illuminated every room and on each floor were eight "bathing rooms" for ladies; similar rooms for gentlemen were found on the first floor. Water for the baths, steam heating system, and in-house laundry were supplied by wells and cisterns on the property.

Mills House and brick house next to Hibernian Hall 1864
Thomas S. Nickerson, an experienced hotelier, leased the completed Mills House from Otis Mills. Their five-year agreement covered the hotel and outbuildings; Nickerson paid separately for the furnishings, wine, liquor, and other supplies. In mid-1857, Otis Mills negotiated a new three-year contract with Joseph Purcell for $7,500 annually, half of what Nickerson had committed to. Purcell had use of the Mills House and outbuildings, as well as the brick house next to Hibernian Hall, which was fitted up and used as a bar room and billiard saloon. He paid another $17,000 for all the furniture on the premises. It turned out Purcell and Nickerson possibly had a previous working relationship despite their separate agreements with Mills. In 1862, after the 1861 fire, the two were joint proprietors of the Mills House. In 1863, Mills sold the Mills House to Joseph Purcell and T. D. Wagener for $13,500 Confederate dollars. The hotel was sold at auction in 1873 and in 1874, George W. Williams sold it to John Hanckel, Robert Douglass, Eri H. Jackson, and Merritt P. Pickett.

Next, Rosa Lawton Douglas, the niece of James Island dairy farmer, St. John Alison Lawton, set her sights on the Mills House with an idea to take it in a different direction. Soon after purchasing it in 1901, Lawton and architect Rutledge Holmes solicited contractors' bids for remodeling the building into an apartment house. The plans were not executed. Mrs. Douglas sold the property to Cecilia Lawton, her grandmother. The elderly Mrs. Lawton, owner of Battery Dairy--a successful downtown bottler and distributor of the family's milk, renamed the Mills House after her son. The new name was St. John Hotel. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the South Carolina and West-Indian Exposition in 1902 and stayed at the St. John Hotel. She sold the property in 1907 and it remained in the next buyer's family for decades.

Despite Charleston's growing tourism industry, the St. John Hotel suffered from competition. New arrivals on the scene, the Francis Marion and Fort Sumter hotels, opened in 1924. Surviving into the 1960s, eventual lack of revenue needed for modernization and routine upkeep doomed it. The dilapidated structure was sold at public auction to the Charleston associates mentioned earlier--the builders of today's Mills House Inn and the place of the ghostly sightings. One element familiar to the confused phantoms would be the original iron balcony. It was salvaged for reinstallation.

The Mills House story, the old and the new, is another fragment in the Charleston narrative past and present. Stand on any tourist filled street corner from the Battery to King Street and you will hear this narrative espoused enthusiastically to visiting listeners by those who live off its elegance and enchantments. As to my proposed hypothesis, I am not intentionally or unkindly trying to cast any dispersions on the claims made by employees and former guests as to what they have seen in the softly lit hallways of the Mills House Inn. After all, seeing is believing, so it is said. In conclusion, as is often the case, the legend is but a shadow of the reality and occasionally, the realty is but a shadow of the legend. Either way, if the stories are a fanciful way of remembering the actual history, success has been achieved.

The Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel
115 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina
Phone: 843-577-2400
Room and rates

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