Aiken, SC (WJBF)- This month on Hometown History, we visit Aiken’s gem, The Willcox.
At the turn of the 20th Century Aiken was a popular Winter Colony, meaning people would come here to escape the harsh northern winters. High end hotels popped up all over the area to accommodate guests.. After the tragic demise of one of those hotels, The Willcox was born.
“Dancing and candlelight dinners and drinks by the fire.”
When you step into the lobby of The Willcox, known as the living room of the community, it’s like taking a step back in time. You can almost see the men with their cigars and brandy, discussing politics by the fire.
In the dining room you get a sense of ladies having tea and gossiping about the current scandals. General Manager, Tina McCarthy claims you never know who you will be sitting next to when you go to The Willcox.
“There are a lot of famous people that have stayed here. Politicians, writers, artists. We don’t like to say who that is because that’s one of the reasons they come here is they like the privacy,” McCarthy smiled slyly.
The hotel was built in 1900 by Englishman Frederick Willcox, who was a caterer at the Highland Park Hotel. Lauren Virgo, executive Director at the Aiken County Historical Museum, said after the Highland Park burnt to the ground in 1898, the Winter Colony needed a new hotel.
“Supposedly, the legend is that, Louise Hitchcock, one of the founding members of the Winter Colony here in Aiken, encouraged Fred to open up his own hotel. Especially after the loss of the Highland Park Hotel, you have a lot of the winter colonists who are looking for a place to stay and they want somewhere nice,” Virgo explained.
Many well known historical figures have stayed at the Willcox including Elizabeth Arden, Winston Churchill, and Harold Vanderbilt. The hotel once had turn turn away the Prince of Whales, who was in town for the Masters, because there were no rooms available. Even a popular US President was known to have frequented The Willcox in his day.
“Franklin Roosevelt was known to have his private train car come and stop right behind the hotel. And there is a door down there and we actually have a basement here,” said McCarthy. “And so he would get off of the train and there’s that special door right there that he would quietly slide in and go up to his suite. And on the third floor we do have a suite called The Roosevelt Suite.”
McCarthy wonders if only these walls could speak what stories would they tell?
One famous legend involves a snooty doorman with an expensive taste in shoes.
“One of the most famous stories is that there was a doorman at The Willcox. Because The Willcox was originally for male guests. So, the doorman would check out the gentlemen as they were walking towards The Willcox’s door, and he would say that if they’re not wearing shoes by Peal or Maxwell, which were these very famous London shoemakers, then we didn’t want them here at The Willcox,” laughed Virgo.
The hotel in structure is beautiful with a lot of the original paneling and trim. It has the distinction of being the first Inn in the South with hidden plumbing for its bathtubs.
The Willcox had it share of issues over the century it has been around. It survived a couple of fires when most of its counterparts had been destroyed by them.
“So one fire was on Thanksgiving back in 2000 when the hotel was under renovations. And it actually started on the third floor. It was an electrical fire. So, we were ready to open in a few months after that. So, luckily we weren’t open for business,” said McCarthy.
In 2000, the Garrett Hotel Group purchased the property and remodeled it. It reopened in 2002. Since then, it has been purchased by Geoffrey and Shannon Ellis who still own it.
The Willcox has received write ups in prestigious travel magazines such as Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. Those readers have voted the hotel the best hotel in the South and one of the best in the world. The Willcox continues to be well known for its luxury accommodations, and gourmet cuisine.
“We’ve won lots of awards and it’s really helped put us on the map. But they’ve been voted by the readership of those places. So, as a small business, you can’t have paid advertising, you’d never be able to afford it. So those awards are very important to us,” McCarthy said.
In a building as old as the hotel, there are bound to be some ghost stories attached. The Willcox is no exception.
“Well let’s just say there’s a lot of energy here. Sometimes you kinda just scratch your head and go what just happened? I would say the energy here is a very friendly energy. We have had some guests tell us stories. I’ve been here a long time, but I’ve personally never seen anything. But you can definitely feel the energy through out the entire building, you just feel it,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy prefers to keep specific stories a mystery, but she did say some people have reported strange sounds and items moving.
“Just, you know, they maybe heard something on the fourth floor, and we have no fourth floor. So little things like that. They’d come down to the desk and um excuse me? You’re on the third floor and we only have three floors,” she laughed.
Virgo, however, shared a few fun ghosts stories she has heard.
“It has been said by many of the morning Willcox staff, that every morning between 6 and 6:30 they can hear creaking stairs as if someone was coming down, but when waiting for the guests no one came. As they watch up the stairs the front door is heard opening. When anyone has gone to investigate they find that two of the rocking chairs on the front porch are in motion. It is believed by all that they are Mr. and Mrs. Willcox.”
Is it ghosts or just the wind? We may never know.
Be sure to watch on the second Thursday in October when we do Hometown History: Ghost Stories.
Hey Aiken, that’s just part of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Brandon Dawson