Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Exclusive spirits—The Willcox

The Willcox
100 Colleton Avenue, SW
Aiken, South Carolina

The Willcox is so exclusive that it once turned away the Prince of Wales. Granted, it was Master’s Week while the Masters Golf Tournament was being played in Augusta, Georgia, just across the Savannah River and there was no room at the inn. Then again, having once turned away such a prestigious guest only adds to the mystique of this haunted grand hotel in horse country.

Interestingly, it was the visit of another prestigious guest that lead to national exposure for these exclusive spirits. While in the hotel during a campaign stop for presidential candidate, John McCain, a crew from NBC was alerted to possible paranormal activity in the hotel. As a result, the hotel was featured in a segment on haunted hotels on the Today Show. While taping an interview for the show, the exclusive spirits pulled some of their antics.

While interviewing the hotel’s general manager, “they asked, ‘How do you know ghosts are here?’ and—boom!—all the lights went out.” Even after changing equipment, the lights (I’m assuming the crew’s lighting, not the lights in the hotel) refused to work.

Aiken rose to prominence as a resort town for Southern planters. Before and after the Civil War, the town gained a reputation as a health resort where the ill and invalid could recover or ease the symptoms of their maladies. It was this reason that brought Louise Eustis to Aiken in 1872. An equestrian, Eustis took advantage of the mild climate to pursue her horsey pursuits and after her marriage to sportsman Thomas Hitchcock, they began encouraging their wealthy friends to visit Aiken.
 
The Willcox, 2012, by Bill Fitzpatrick. Courtesy of
Wikipedia.
The Aiken Winter Colony, as it was known, began to attract the country’s elite. Politicians, scions of industry and business, the idle rich and fashionable began to swell the town’s population. Names like Astor, Vanderbilt and Whitney became common names around town. Noble sports like polo and fox hunting were introduced into the area with large hotels and estates constructed to house and serve the moneyed.

While the reasons for Frederick Willcox’s arrival in Aiken from his home country of England are unclear, he found success within the ashes of the Highland Park Hotel. Opened by Thomas Hitchcock, the Highland Park Hotel burned in 1898 and Willcox opened his small hotel in 1900. The Willcox built its reputation on “atmosphere, impeccable service and excellent cuisine.” The hotel’s reputation brought its guests back year after year and it served as a center of life in town during the height of the days of the Winter Colony. British politician Sir Winston Churchill, cosmetics maven Elizabeth Arden, architect Thomas Hastings and the British Army in India polo team all sought after the spacious rooms of The Willcox.

World War II cut deeply into the sparkling, carefree existence that had been experienced by many in Aiken. As the face of America had been changed by war, the upper echelons of society were changed as well and in 1957, Albert Willcox, Frederick’s son, decided to close and sell the hotel. For decades, the grand dame would sit idle and Aiken would return to a quiet existence as a small town.

With the hotel’s restoration and reopening, The Willcox has garnered awards and accolades including being named among the world’s top hotels by Conde Nast Traveler.

The exclusive spirits of The Willcox still make their presence known as well. The Georgia Paranormal Society investigated the hotel in 2006 and they described the Roosevelt Suite as one of the most active places they have encountered. Setting up equipment in this room that was occupied many times by President Franklin Roosevelt, the team captured things on tape the entire evening.

The hotel’s manager carefully pointed out in a 2007 article that most of the activity consisted of small things happening. Those things include books moving around on their own in a 3rd floor suite, a telephone ringing with no one on the other line and Christmas tree ornaments flying off the tree and landing nearby unbroken. A guest on the third floor heard footsteps and voices above her. The hotel has no 4th floor.

While it is noted that activity has been seen in most of the hotel’s rooms, it should be noted that guests have nothing to fear. The activity is simply the exclusive spirits of “swells and dandies of the Gilded Age” still living it up on the other side.

Sources
Baughman, Tony. “’Today’ show features inn’s hauntings.” The Aiken
     Standard. 1 November 2007.
History of the Willcox. Thewillcox.com. Accessed 26 March 2014.
Marion, Margaret. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for
     Willcox’s. 19 March 1982.
Wylie, Suzanne Pickens and Margaret Marion. National Register of
     Historic Places nomination form for Aiken Winter Colony. 13 August
     1984.

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