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Horses of Aiken, South Carolina

Last spring, I noticed that in addition to the usual sports talk in my parents' circle—which good-looking two-year-old filly was favored in the Aiken Trials, whether Tiger Riviere's boy might win the court tennis championship—there was a lot of talk about the Willcox, a recently reopened Winter Colony hotel. The white Colonial-style building, with its row of tall pillars out front, had been the site of many a Colony ball. It closed in the 1950's, and in subsequent years several different owners have operated it, without much success. Since the early eighties the place had been boarded up, a spooky memento of Aiken's glorious past.

Several years ago David and Christie Garrett visited Aiken, discovered that the Willcox was for sale, and, after researching the town's history, bought the hotel. The Garretts operate two properties in New York's Adirondacks region, the Lake Placid Lodge and the Point, which is built on the site of William Avery Rockefeller's great camp, Wonundra. They are attracted to properties that tell stories from the early days of the American leisure class—that crucial period in the formation of the nation's high-society manners, dating roughly from 1875 to 1920, when the Winter Colony was at the peak of its influence. Just as one can go up to the Point in the summertime and feel like a Rockefeller, so one could come down to the Willcox in the wintertime and feel like a Hitchcock.

Generally speaking, the people who still come to Aiken in Winter Colony style—with strings of ponies, hunters, dogs, and staff—welcomed the Willcox. The fact that the Garretts, in restoring the hotel, had accommodated the watchful Aiken Historic Preservation Commission on every point won over most of the old guard. There was a certain amount of umbrage taken when the Garretts announced, in an early prospectus for the hotel, that they would offer access to Aiken's court tennis facilities (a private, members-only club), but apart from that slip the natives seemed pleased to have a place where their own Winter Colony fantasies could be rendered. ("It would be soterrific if we could count on the Willcox for entertaining," I was told by one of the contemporary colonists, in that terribly serious way a hostess discusses entertaining.) It seems to me that there is almost always a certain amount of self-invention involved in appearing to be the real thing, and when new illusionists come along who are as skillful as the Garretts, they're embraced.

Shortly after I arrived on my most recent visit to Aiken, I went to take a look at the Willcox. A wonderful magnolia tree grows out front and gives shade to the rocking chairs that line the porch. The grounds are not large; there isn't room for a tennis court or a swimming pool. There are train tracks in a 40-foot-deep "cut" at the back of the hotel—a long trench dug by slaves so that trains could make the grade into town. (Some people say Franklin Delano Roosevelt parked a private train there and used a secret door into the Willcox.) Trains don't stop in the cut anymore, and it is overgrown and forlorn-looking—the romantic setting of a short novel about the Willcox, The Secret of Telfair Inn, by Idella Bodie, for sale in the gift shop.

Inside, the lobby is grand, an evocation of the great room in an English country house. The walls are covered in the original dark curly-pine paneling, and there are enormous fireplaces at either end that the staff keeps blazing throughout the day. This room, like all the rooms in the hotel, was designed by Christie Garrett, in collaboration with San Francisco-based designer Joszi Meskan, and the pieces in it are a mix of formal but comfortable sofas and chairs—including an "Aiken sofa," with a high back and sides to keep in warmth—mostly upholstered in burgundy, rose, bronze, and green.

The Willcox has 22 guest rooms (from $250 to $850 a night), a day spa, and a dining room, which has a much more sophisticated menu than the steaks and burgers you'll find at most Aiken restaurants. Many guests may find it enough to sit on the porch of the hotel, admiring the oak trees that arch overhead and enjoying the small-town feel of the place. If one wishes to inhabit the Winter Colony persona more deeply and try something horsey, the Willcox will arrange a horse-drawn-carriage picnic in the woods, or riding lessons. The polo matches and horse races are open to spectators, and two local stables will rent horses to experienced riders, but most of Aiken's remaining institutions are off-limits: you can't play golf at the Palmetto Golf Club unless a member invites you, and while there are two very active hunts—the Aiken Hounds, the second-oldest hunt club in the country, and the Belle Meade Hunt—in order to participate you have to know someone in the clubs. And you need a horse.


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