Even a building that miraculously survived being in the path of the biggest fire in Charleston’s history, then 545 days of bombardment by the Union Army, the largest earthquake ever to strike the U.S. East Coast, dozens of hurricanes, and generations of changing travel trends that wiped out Charleston’s other grand 19th century hotels, was finally no match for one of the Lowcountry’s most destructive nuisances: termites.
Merchant Otis Mills (1794-1869) built the 180-room, five-story hotel at the corner of Meeting and Queen streets in 1853. A reporter with the Charleston Courier, assigned to cover its grand opening, was so awed by its grandeur that it took him nearly a full page to describe its ornate terra-cotta window cornices, iron balconies, marble mantels, chandeliers, and arcaded entry. It offered visitors every modern amenity available at the time, including steam heat and running water. Gas lighting cast ladies in beautiful soft focus in its private rooms and public spaces.
The Mills was in the direct line of fire (literally) as the Great Conflagration of 1861 blew southwest from the Cooper River side of the peninsula, destroying almost everything in its path. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, in town to inspect the harbor’s defenses in the early days of the Civil War, was staying at the hotel that night, and with his staff watched the approaching inferno from the roof as it consumed the Circular Congregational Church and S.C. Institute Hall across the street. Lee and his party fled the hotel at that point, though the mostly enslaved African-American staff stayed behind, frantically waving wet sheets and linens out of the property’s many windows to stave off the sparks. Whether it was their heroic efforts, or simply another random shift in the heavy winds that night, somehow the Mills survived when so much all around it burned to the ground.
In support of the Confederate cause, Mills sold most of his real estate holdings, including the hotel, two years later. After that, it passed through a string of owners and managers, eventually coming under the ownership of Cecilia Lawton, from James Island’s Lawton Plantation family, in 1902, and she renamed it the St. John’s Hotel. President Theodore Roosevelt stayed here during his 1902 visit to the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition.
Competition from the new Francis Marion and Fort Sumter hotels cut deeply into the St. John’s popularity in the 1920s and it struggled to remain relevant among its more modern, updated competitors. Though it stayed afloat financially, it did not thrive and had no cash reserves for much-needed renovations. It was finally sold at auction in 1968 to a group of prominent, preservation-minded local businessmen: Richard H. Jenrette, Charles D. Ravenel and Charles H.P. Duell, who hoped to rehabilitate it. But decades of neglect and termites had taken their toll and the building was structurally unsound beyond repair.
The new owners carefully dismantled the old hotel, salvaging as much of its historic fabric as possible, including its ornate ironwork and terra-cotta cornices. Pieces that weren’t salvageable were reproduced. Working with an architectural team from New York and the local firm of Simons, Lapham, Mitchell and Small assisting with historic details, they built a new hotel as similar as possible to the original, with the exception of adding two additional floors, taking its height to seven stories. Assuming its original name again, the Mills House again began welcoming guests on Oct. 9, 1970.