Nestled in the heart of Aiken, South Carolina, stands The Willcox, a hotel that has seen the passage of time and the transformation of a city. In 1891, an Englishman named Frederick Willcox and his Swedish wife, Elise Wellborn, arrived in Aiken and built a house at the corner of Chesterfield Street and Colleton Avenue. They soon established a catering company, and Elise’s culinary skills quickly became renowned, attracting the wealthy “Winter Colony” families.
The turn of the 20th century brought a significant event that would shape the future of The Willcox. 1898 the Highland Park Hotel burned down, leaving many winter colonists without accommodation.
Encouraged by Mrs. Thomas (Louise) Hitchcock, the Willcoxes decided to transform their residence into a small hotel, and in 1900, The Willcox opened its doors to its inaugural guests. The hotel expanded in 1906 by incorporating an adjacent two-story house and underwent a further expansion in 1928, reflecting both Second Empire and Colonial Revival architectural styles.
Of Aiken’s once-famous resort hostelries, only The Willcox still stands, a testament to its enduring charm and elegance. The building’s irregular shape, consisting of a central block with asymmetrical wings, adds to its unique character. On March 19, 1982, The Willcox achieved a significant milestone when officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, affirming its esteemed position in historical records.
Famous Guests and Social Impact
The Willcox has always been more than just a hotel; it has been a social hub, a gathering place for the elite and famous. Diplomats, society leaders, European royalty, wealthy athletes, and members of the entertainment world have all graced its halls. Names like Winston Churchill, John Jacob Astor, Evelyn Walsh McLean, and Bing Crosby are etched in its guestbook.
The hotel’s allure extended beyond its luxurious accommodations. It became a symbol of the leisurely life that Aiken had to offer. The Willcox has hosted various distinguished guests, including Count and Countess Bernadotte of Sweden, who chose it for their honeymoon.
Other notable visitors include the cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden, renowned singer Andy Williams, celebrated dancer Irene Castle, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, all drawn by the hotel’s singular allure.
The Willcox’s influence reached beyond its walls, contributing to Aiken’s social fabric and cultural heritage. It was where memories were made, friendships were forged, and history was written. The laughter, music, and lively conversations still resonate in its grand halls, reminding visitors of a bygone era of elegance and grace.
World War II and Closure
The winds of change swept through The Willcox as World War II brought travel restrictions and economic challenges. The once-thriving inn fell on hard times and closed its doors in the early 1950s. It was a period of uncertainty and loss, as the grand building that had once been a beacon of hospitality and warmth stood silent and sad.
In 1957, The Willcox was sold at auction, and over the following 20 years, it was sporadically repaired but remained boarded up. The memories of its glorious past seemed to fade, and the once-magnificent building became a shadow of its former self.
However, The Willcox was not destined to be forgotten. In 1985, it was renovated and reopened as The Willcox Inn. A new chapter had begun, and the hotel was ready to welcome guests again, reviving the spirit of hospitality that had made it famous.
Modern Era and Renovations
The turn of the millennium brought new life to The Willcox. 2000 the Garrett Hotel Group purchased the property and reopened it in 2002. The hotel underwent significant renovations, transforming it into one of South Carolina‘s most luxurious small hotels.
In 2009, restaurateurs Geoffrey & Shannon Ellis purchased The Willcox, infusing it with their passion and vision. The hotel continued to evolve, blending its rich history with modern amenities and elegance.
The Willcox’s reputation soared, and accolades followed. In 2016, Travel + Leisure ranked it the 7th best hotel in the world and the best in the South. The hotel’s restaurant, bar, spa, horse boarding, and vacation rentals became synonymous with quality and excellence, attracting discerning guests worldwide.
The Willcox: Amenities and Activities
The Willcox is not just a place to stay; it’s an experience. The guest rooms at The Willcox are designed with an eye for luxury, featuring lofty ceilings, intricate crown moldings, and beds as soft as clouds, ensuring a luxurious stay for every visitor. The dining options are exceptional, with creative chefs crafting culinary delights that tantalize the taste buds.
The Lobby Bar voted the area’s best, is a place to see and be seen, offering original cocktails like “The Parisian at The Willcox.” The full-service salon and spa provide rejuvenation and relaxation in serene, fire-lit rooms.
But The Willcox’s charm extends beyond its walls. Aiken is home to outdoor fun, historical landmarks, art galleries, museums, boutiques, and a performing arts theatre. The hotel’s offerings include horseback riding, golf, polo, trap and skeet shooting, and more, ensuring that there’s something for everyone.
Recent Achievements and Community Engagement
The Willcox continues to shine as a hotel and a vital part of the Aiken community. On July 31, 2023, it was voted the second choice on the Reader’s 10 Favorite Resorts in South Carolina for Travel + Leisure magazine. The hotel’s engagement with the community and support for local activities reflect its commitment to Aiken’s cultural and social life.
Aiken’s recognition as the Best Small Town in the South and The Willcox’s ranking as the #2 Best Hotel in the South are not just awards; they affirm this iconic establishment’s enduring appeal and timeless charm.
Through the years, The Willcox has remained true to its heritage while embracing the future. It symbolizes elegance, luxury, and warmth, where memories are made, and history is honored.
The Willcox is more than a hotel; it’s a living testament to Aiken’s rich history and cultural heritage. Its walls have witnessed the comings and goings of famous guests, the celebrations of joyous occasions, and the quiet reflections of those seeking solace and comfort.
Its architectural beauty, luxurious amenities, and commitment to excellence have earned it accolades and admiration. But more than that, The Willcox has made a place in the hearts of those who have walked its halls, dined at its tables, and slept under its roof.
As Aiken continues to grow and evolve, The Willcox remains a timeless jewel where the past meets the present, elegance meets warmth, and every guest is welcomed as part of a grand and continuing story.