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|
|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|
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
Room and rates
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