Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Virginia and Nicholas Trist; by descent to a private collection; by gift to Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1956
Accession Number: 1958-28
Historical Notes: The most important advancement of Mills's career came in 1803, when Jefferson introduced him to the British émigré architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe – whom he had just appointed surveyor of public buildings in Washington. Mills later told Jefferson that when he began working with Latrobe, "I began first to imbibe the true & correct principles of Architecture":
My present ideas of this noble art & science, which are dramatically opposite to those I enter'd Mr. L[atrobe]'s office with, I trust are founded on the details of Reason & nature, because these are the only true foundations of correct taste, and real beauty.1
Mills worked under Latrobe for five years as a draftsman and clerk. When Mills entered his office, Latrobe's Bank of Pennsylvania, completed about two years earlier (1801), was commanding enormous attention. Latrobe's goal for the building had been "to produce a pure specimen of Grecian simplicity in design, and Grecian permanence in execution."2 It quickly became a landmark in American architecture and furthered the Greek Revival.3
Mills's drawing of the Bank of Pennsylvania was sent to Jefferson at Monticello in October 1808.4Jefferson also owned an engraved perspective of the bank that was part of William Birch's The City of Philadelphia.
When Mills decided to leave Latrobe's office in 1808 to establish a practice in Philadelphia, he wrote a characteristically complimentary letter to Jefferson. In seeking his help, Mills appealed to the president's well-known belief in the ability of the citizens of his country:
My wish is to endeavor to shew to the European who visits us from the metropolis of his country, that the american talent for architecture is not a whit inferior to the European’s, under the same advantages.5
4. Mills left the drawing with John Woodside, who then sent it to Jefferson. Woodside to Jefferson, October 11, 1808, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.