Hotel Aiken building should stay, says state preservation organization | Local News

The ultimate fate of the building formerly housing Hotel Aiken has long been a hot topic in the city.

The structure’s approved demolition as part of Project Pascalis, the downtown Aiken revitalization project, has drawn the ire of some citizens and caught the interest of Preservation South Carolina.

The organization is a statewide nonprofit with the mission to preserve, protect and advocate for historic places around South Carolina, according to Mike Bedenbaugh, a preservation development consultant with Preservation S.C.

Project Pascalis calls for redeveloping parts of downtown Aiken into a new hotel, convention center, apartments and parking garage.

Bedenbaugh said the group saw activity online relating to Hotel Aiken and heard from some concerned residents in Aiken.

“In speaking with (those citizens), we saw that there was an opportunity for us to lend a hand to those folks who understand the importance of preserving places and telling the story of economic development in their communities,” Bedenbaugh said.

Hotel Aiken’s history

Bedenbaugh said he and his wife have traveled to Aiken frequently and in passing the hotel several times, he has “bemoaned the fact that this wonderful building is sitting there empty and not being utilized.”

Built in 1898, Hotel Aiken was first owned by Henry Hahn. Renovations both in name and style have occurred several times over the years, according to previous Aiken Standard articles, with the Hotel Aiken moniker being introduced in 1922.

While the building would have several more name changes , the Hotel Aiken was brought back in 2001 when Shah Investments purchased the property.

In late 2017, Neel Shah revealed an $11 million plan to both refurbish and expand the hotel. The boutique result, Shah said at the time, would mix the hotel’s history with contemporary accommodations.

Those plans were delayed a few times, with the project ultimately sitting in limbo.

The Aiken Municipal Development Commission approved a $9.5 million purchase of seven parcels of land in downtown Aiken in November 2021 – which included the parcel housing the Hotel Aiken building – for the purpose of redevelopment.

The commission was created by Aiken City Council in 2019.

Inside the structure

Bedenbaugh traveled to Aiken recently to tour the building along with Craig Bennett, of Bennett Preservation Engineering, which is an engineering firm focused on structural engineering for historic preservation. 

Bedenbaugh said he was struck by the “incredibly good shape” the building was in, “considering the neglect that it suffered the past five years.”

“You walk into the lobby and the beautiful marble tile floor’s there underneath tons of dirt,” Bedenbaugh said. “You walk up into the building, and I was astonished how little damage had occurred from leaks. I was expecting a lot more damage from what I had heard other people say.”

In a letter written post-visit, Bennett said the building appears to qualify for the historic provisions of the International Existing Building Code, as the hotel “appears to be eligible for listing in the National Register” and “there is no change of use anticipated for the building.”

“Under the provisions of that code, if a structure has been maintained, or if it is to be repaired to its original structural condition, the structure can continue to be used for its current use without being brought up to the provisions of the current building code for new construction,” Bennett wrote.

He believes that with “appropriate repairs to only the damaged portions of the structural systems, or with that and some strengthening, the building may be reused as a hotel under the provisions of the International Existing Building Code.”

Bedenbaugh concurred with Bennett’s observations and feels that the building can still contribute to downtown Aiken’s economy. He also brought up the potential demolition of the old C.C. Johnson building next door to the hotel, where apartments and a parking garage are proposed to stand.

“We have always found and stand by the premise that when new economic systems are put into historic downtowns, you ignore the traditional built environment at your peril,” Bedenbaugh said. “You default to short-term trends, short-term style of architecture that is trendy today, but is out of date 10, 15, 20 years from now.”

Viability of renovating

Previously, a representative from Taylor and Viola Structural Engineers, out of Charlotte, North Carolina, visited the hotel Jan. 4 to “assess the condition of the existing structure and evaluate the building for future occupancy.”

The report was commissioned by ODA Architecture, which is the lead master architect for Project Pascalis as a whole and the lead architect for the hotel and conference center.

The assessment notes that two types of structural deficiencies were found in the building.

The first type is structural elements that are in “generally poor condition.” The report says that “these elements have either degraded over time, have been modified excessively or have suffered water or other environmental damage.”

Examples listed include cracking in mortar joints, excessively modified wall framing and water-damaged roof framing.

The second type is existing structural elements that are in fair condition, but are “sized inappropriately to meet current design standards.”

One example given is “that both existing floor joists and existing 2-by-4 interior bearing walls are inadequate, regardless of condition, for the current configuration and intended use.”

Overall, the analysis concludes that “much of the building can be preserved if desired, but it should be expected that preservation measure would be extensive in nature.”

“The issues (raised in the report) about the structural integrity of the building are very major issues, especially when we look at the viability of renovating, what we would get and how much money it would cost to get there,” Jay Ham, senior vice president of development for Raines Development, said during a previous Design Review Board meeting.

“I understand (residents’) comments about, ‘Can the building be saved?'” Ham later said. “I think the structural assessment said, ‘Yes, it could.’ It’s a matter of what does it cost to do it, and what do you get at the end of that?”

This report was done in addition to relevant officials touring the building, including the Aiken Design Review Board. The board, which is tasked with preserving and elevating the city’s historic features, toured the hotel in January to get a sense of the building’s condition in preparation for development.

The board approved the hotel’s demolition during a March 1 meeting, as members concluded that demolition was the best option for what the developers aim to accomplish.

“I know there’s a value in renovating buildings, and I know that the history of the downtown, (the) different buildings, different building types (are) important,” said McDonald Law, board chair, during the meeting. “But yet, we need a hotel, and I’m not sure that we can do the hotel we need in that building, personally.”

Project Pascalis overview

In total, Project Pascalis is made up of eight parcels in downtown Aiken, bounded by Laurens Street, Richland Avenue and Newberry Street. Of those, seven were purchased by the Aiken Municipal Development Commission for $9.5 million in early November 2021.

The eighth parcel is 121 Newberry St. S.W., the former home of a State Farm Insurance office. This parcel is owned by Aiken Alley Holdings LLC, of which Ray Massey is listed as the registered agent.

The Aiken Standard has previously reported that Massey is part of a group of local investors involved with Project Pascalis.

While plans remain fluid, a previously proposed master plan shows a layout for a hotel, conference center, apartments, parking structure and a reconfigured Newberry Street.

The conference center would wrap around an existing building in The Alley that currently houses local businesses including Gallery J Salon, Takosushi, The Alley Downtown Taproom, Art & Soul of Aiken, Bechtel, Woodchuckers Axe Throwing and Huntington Ingalls Industries. Officials have said none of the businesses fronting The Alley would be impacted by the redevelopment.

In a way, The Alley will be extended with the construction of the conference center along Newberry Street. The street currently has a northbound lane and a southbound lane; the vision is that the southbound lane, closest to The Alley, would be torn up and built on top of, including widened sidewalks.

The plan is for the conference center to be owned by the city and operated by what is currently Newberry Hall, officials previously said.

Several businesses on Richland Avenue, including Taj Aiken, Security Finance, Nationwide and On Board Realty, would be impacted by these plans. On Newberry Street, Newberry Hall and Warneke Cleaners would be impacted.

The city has said it will work with impacted businesses to assist them with finding new locations.

‘Historical importance’

Overall, Bedenbaugh said Preservation S.C. fully embraces the economic planning that Aiken “wants to do in regards to meeting spaces and convention centers if that is what the community desires. The more income and the more investment, the better.”

“It just cannot be at the expense of the historic places and story that Aiken communicates that makes it so unique,” he said.

While the group doesn’t have any real authority to control what happens to the building, they want to ensure that “the building can speak for its own historical importance.”

“We’re advocating for the building’s reuse, and hopefully giving information that local advocates and citizens that care about such things can utilize,” Bedenbaugh said.

The group has worked in communities around the state since 1990, with Bedenbaugh saying the group has been successful over the years in helping communities preserve their historic buildings.

“We’re here to tell you Aiken could have a conference center here, could have meeting spaces, could have a 110 room place and still have this building and the historic storefronts there intact, telling the story and giving another reason for 110 people to want to spend the night here,” Bedenbaugh concluded.