Once a winter retreat for elite Northerners, Aiken, S.C., exudes a sophisticated small-town charm.
written by Cathy Martin • photographs by Chris Edwards • styling + production by Whitley Adkins
hair and makeup by Meredith Wetzel for Bella Faccia, Augusta, Ga. | model: Spencer Kane for Directions USA Model + Artist Management
Sipping cocktails in the spacious, wood-paneled lobby of The Willcox in Aiken, S.C., it’s easy to imagine the lively scene here a century ago. That’s when local society was dominated with names like Astor, Vanderbilt, Ziegler and Whitney. Plenty of show-biz folks spent time in Aiken, too, from Bing Crosby to Jimmy Stewart to Fred Astaire.
It’s a Wednesday evening in April, and the 22-room inn is abuzz with locals and overnight guests, some wearing dresses and sport coats, others in casual or golf attire. The vibe is elegant yet relaxed, with twin stone fireplaces on opposite sides of the room, well-worn antiques, and plenty of cozy seating nooks where groups gather for drinks and small bites or dinner. The setting evokes a sense that not much has changed here since The Willcox opened in 1900.
Oh, but if these walls could talk. There are so many stories in this town of about 30,000 — like the one about a special tunnel dug into the hillside behind The Willcox for Franklin D. Roosevelt, a frequent visitor, to privately disembark from his train before taking the secret elevator to his third-floor suite.
Likewise, there is plenty of local lore about the goings-on behind the walls of Aiken’s 100 or so “cottages” — estates built by business tycoons and their families from the Northeast in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Known as the winter colonists, they were drawn to Aiken to escape snow, ice and tuberculosis that ravaged the country until the mid-1900s. Much like Pinehurst and the Sandhills region of North Carolina, the temperate climate and fragrant longleaf pines were believed to have healing qualities.
With them, the colonists brought their favorite pastimes, too. As a farming community, Aiken’s population was familiar with horses for utilitarian purposes, but the town soon became — and still is — a hub for equestrian sports. There are at least 40 polo fields in Aiken County alone.
Stroll through town — nearly everything here is within walking distance — and eventually paved roads give way to dirt paths. In the equestrian district, you’re just as likely to pass riders on horseback as cars and walkers. At a busy intersection along Whiskey Road, a main thoroughfare in town, a traffic sign reads, “Yield to horses in the intersection.”
Here and throughout the historic district, many of the stately homes built for another era have been carefully maintained and restored. Homes required a minimum of 20 rooms to meet society standards, according to Marty Bailey, who’s lived in town for 12 years and runs a local tour business, Tailored Tours of Aiken. Others no longer stand, but the gates and walls that once surrounded them remain.
One such estate was Dinsmore Cottage, which was home to one of Aiken’s most prominent residents — Evalyn Walsh McLean, wife of Edward McLean, one-time publisher of The Washington Post, and owner of the Hope Diamond. McLean wore the 45-carat jewel everywhere she went, according to Bailey’s research, even allowing her Great Dane and English standard poodle to don it at house parties, rollicking affairs where guests might be found playing “Find the Hope.”
One of the oldest and certainly one of the largest estates in Aiken is Joye Cottage, a 60-room home that once belonged to New York financier William C. Whitney. Nearby you’ll find Banksia, a sprawling 17,000-square-foot mansion named for the Lady Banks roses that grow here. It’s now the Aiken County Historical Museum, filled with collections related to the town’s history. A few steps from the museum is Hitchcock Woods, a 2,100-acre urban forest with 70 miles of sandy trails for pedestrians and equestrians. Events here include fox hunts (hounds follow an artificially laid scent instead of actual live foxes) and the annual Aiken Horse Show, a tradition dating to 1916.
Golf was another favorite pastime of the winter colonists. For 51 weeks of the year, the prestigious Palmetto Club — the second oldest continually operated 18-hole course in the U.S. — is open to members only. But during Masters week, when golf fans flock to the region (Aiken is a half-hour drive from Augusta National), the club founded in 1892 allows nonmembers to tee it up and hit the greens, recently restored by course architect Gil Hanse.
There are public courses too, including the Aiken Golf Club. Completed in 1915, the course sits near the site of the former Highland Park Hotel, a posh 125-room inn that was destroyed by a fire in 1898. Around this time, several of the locals convinced Frederick Sugden Willcox, a Highland Park employee originally from Cheshire, England, to open The Willcox with his wife, Elise.
Today, The Willcox lives up to its motto as the “living room of Aiken.” Guest rooms are spacious and elegantly furnished with antiques and luxurious linens. There’s a spa offering massages, body treatments and facials; an outdoor pool; a lobby bar and a chef-driven restaurant with menus ranging from small bites to heartier entrees to delectable desserts. Guests can dine inside or outside on the porch or by the pool; or find a cozy spot in the lobby and enjoy cocktails and shareables like the salmon crudo, lobster nuggets with a Chinese black bean sauce and Tiki-style Brussels sprouts with cashews, coconut and cilantro.
At the end of the day, you can sit back and relax in one of the rockers out front, or inside on one of the plush Chesterfield sofas, and envision a world where business moguls and their families mingled with film stars and Southern aristocrats. A bygone era, but after a couple of days in this small Southern town, it’s easy to understand Aiken’s appeal. SP
While you’re there:
The drive to Aiken from Charlotte is about two hours and 15 minutes. Steps from The Willcox is downtown, where you’ll find shops, boutiques and restaurants. The Alley is a lively pedestrian plaza with taprooms and eateries, including Whiskey Alley, serving elevated pub fare in a casual setting. Betsy’s Round the Corner is a local favorite for breakfast and lunch in a diner atmosphere. For a grab-and-go breakfast or lunch, New Moon Café serves small-batch roasted coffee, breakfast sandwiches and burritos, paninis and salads in a quirky downtown spot. Home cooks will love Plum Pudding, a shop filled with kitchen wares, including dinnerware by Vietri, Juliska and C.E. Corey, along with wine, snacks and other gourmet packaged goods. For something sweet, pop into La Parisienne Bakery and sample macarons, dacquoise, opera, croissants and more. (Don’t miss their Le Tout-Chocolat – a crispy chocolate base with hazelnut praline and chocolate mousse.) Other Aiken treasures include Hopeland Gardens, a 14-acre preserve where you can stroll among the live oaks, crepe myrtles, camellias and reflective pools and fountains.
Featured photo: La DoubleJ Bellini dress, $795, and Rejina Pyo Nane bag, $595, both from Showroom; Mignonne Gavigan earrings, $165, Charlotte’s. Photographed at The Willcox in Aiken, S.C.