Courtesy Mills House
During the 1850s, at the height of the rice, cotton and indigo trade in the South Carolina port city of Charleston, Otis Mills, known as the John Jacob Astor of Charleston, saw the need for a hotel to accommodate discerning individuals.
He built that hotel in 1853, and during the 1860 Democratic National Convention, noted guest Robert E. Lee enjoyed steam heat and running water, unusual conveniences for the time. Soon after, the South’s Orders of Secession were read from the hotel’s wrought-iron balcony.
President Theodore Roosevelt stayed there, as did Elizabeth Taylor. And no wonder.
Set on Meeting Street, the Mills House Hotel is surrounded by Charleston’s Historic District. Horse-drawn carriages amble past its door. Across the street, African-American women sell finely crafted sweetgrass baskets displayed on blankets in the sun. Exotic aromas waft from world-renowned eateries nearby. And a few blocks away, Spanish moss swings in ocean breezes from live oaks on the Battery.
“A certain image comes to mind when Charleston is mentioned in conversation, and no hotel better reflects what Charleston is than the Mills House,” said Tripp Hays, director of sales and marketing, who has been with the property for 24 years. Longevity is a trait shared by the hotel and its staff.
Entering the parlor is akin to stepping into one of the city’s fine antebellum homes. Completely renovated in the 1970s, the hotel is decorated with 17th- and 18th-century artwork and antiques. Railroad artifacts decorate the Best Friend Bar, named for a 1930 steam locomotive. An 1840 board table and an 1830 sideboard grace its 14-person Robert E. Lee Boardroom, a reminder of the room in the pre-renovation Mills House that served as Lee’s field headquarters before the Civil War.
All 214 guest rooms are decorated with period furnishings. Eight have poolside balconies.
Made up of three adjoining rooms, a ballroom with antebellum decor occupies nearly half of the hotel’s 5,000 square feet of function space; a suite of three smaller rooms with a seating capacity of 100 opens into a lounge for more intimate gatherings.
“Groups of 70 to 120 are our specialty,” said Hays.
A second-floor pool deck and two terraces with expansive city views give groups a chance to gather outdoors. In a ground-floor courtyard, an 1840 fountain is the centerpiece of a private garden designed by noted 20th-century landscape designer Loutrel Briggs. Tents and heaters can be added in cooler weather for parties of up to 70 people.
Every winter for the past 17 years, the Palmetto Advance Practice Association of Irmo, S.C., has held a three-day meeting at the Mills House using most of its meeting space. Debbie Nelson, conference co-chair, plans the event for 225 to 300 nurses.
Her group loves the site for its “combination of ambiance, location and staff,” she said. “I like the fact that from year to year, I’m usually dealing with the same people. John Edwards, the GM, has been there for 25 years. I’ve been a meeting planner for 30 years, and the Mills House is the easiest property I’ve ever worked with.”
Her group has used Hibernian Hall, a National Historic Landmark that is the hotel’s next-door neighbor. Majestic and columned, it was designed by Thomas Walter, architect of the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
As director of corporate communications and meeting planner for Charleston company PeopleMatter, Joy Capps has planned and attended events there.
“Hibernian Hall is a phenomenal venue,” she said. “It’s historic, yet with the capacity to house a large group and break into a variety of spaces. You can have one area dedicated to six-foot table booths for exhibitors, another for meal setup, a meeting space and a band on the stage.”