Preserving, Protecting, and Planning for Aiken’s Most Valuable Assets Since 1974

Preservation and Aiken

“It is essential that the qualities, areas, sites, structures, and natural and man-made objects relating to the history of the City of Aiken…be preserved…”

City of Aiken Zoning Ordinance, Article 6, 2.6.1

In 1990, after a 5-year effort that included city government, businesses, and citizens, the Aiken City Council adopted a zoning ordinance that established two overlay districts, the Historic Preservation Overlay District (Article 6, Section 2.6.1) and the Old Aiken Overlay District (Section 2.6.2.). In doing so, the council recognized that preservation was essential to:

  • Safeguard the heritage of the City of Aiken
  • Preserve the integrity and stability of neighborhoods and business areas
  • Conserve and enhance property values
  • Promote the continued attraction of businesses, residents, and tourists, thereby strengthening the local economy.

A common belief is that historic preservation is just for gray-haired old ladies living in the past – it is not. Preservation is vital to the future. It not only retains the charm that defines the City of Aiken, but it is necessary for economic stability and growth. This charm attracts tourists, industry, and new residents. The City Council gave special recognition to the downtown area, and so stated in the Downtown Preservation Ordinance, by saying Aiken’s downtown is “the heart of the City and deserves special protection that this (overlay) district provides.”

It isn’t just locals who recognize and value the charm of Aiken. In 2018, Southern Living magazine awarded Aiken the title of “The South’s Best Small Town.” Among many accolades, it noted that “Downtown Aiken, especially Laurens Street, is loaded with a variety of eclectic eateries, galleries, and shops, often tucked behind storefronts that have preserved their character.” Travel and Leisure consistently ranks the Willcox Hotel as a top-ten resort, and just recently, USA Today nominated the Willcox as one of the ten best historic hotels.  This is the same Willcox Hotel that was slated for demolition in 1985 and saved by a group of dedicated preservationists.

The fact sheet below addresses some common questions about the value of preservation. 

The Old Aiken Design Guidelines that guide new and modified construction in the Old Aiken Overlay District can be found here




Prepared by the

Historic Preservation Commission[1]

Why historic preservation? Isn’t that anti-development?


There has been unprecedented growth throughout the country and especially in the Southern belt in the last few decades.


Historic preservation is the best tool and best mechanism to direct compatible new growth and appropriate development so as not to lose the individual distinctive character that attracts residents and businesses.

Historic preservation is not anti-development. It is a progressive, pro-development tool and it works – look at the background. The motivation behind the historic preservation movement is clearly economic:

  • 1920-1950: The purpose of a historic district was not too different from a museum. From the 1920s to the 1950s, only 11 historic preservation ordinances were enacted nationwide.
  • 1960-1970: There was a surge of interest in historic preservation when it became clear to city planners and private investors that historic preservation had an economic value, not just an aesthetic value. Examples: New Orleans, Savannah, Georgetown, Boston Back Bay, Charleston, etc., etc.
  • By 1983, there were 800 to 1,000 historic preservation ordinances nationwide. As of 2022, there are more than 2,300 active historic preservation ordinances nationwide according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and there is an active National Alliance of Preservation Commissions.
  • Over 30 communities across South Carolina, from Anderson to Cheraw, from Fort Mill to Beaufort, have historic preservation ordinances.

Why Aiken? Continued growth – strong history – distinctive character.

  • Downtowns needs historic preservation – it is the only mechanism found that enables downtown areas not only to survive the influx of outside malls and online shopping but to flourish in spite of them. Frederic, Maryland, is a great example – 5 malls surround a flourishing downtown. The reason? Historic preservation activities.
  • Aiken’s residential communities have become popular places to live. Real estate values have increased. Our historic district is one of the most important in the country.
  • Leading city planners throughout the country, especially in the South, recognize that the type of infill is critical in districts such as ours, and that design controls over exterior activity are essential to ensure that the historic character of neighborhoods is not destroyed in the process of growth.
  • Design controls, such as the Design Review Manual used by Aiken’s Design Review Board, are not anti-development. They are progressive, not regressive, and used throughout the country. People not familiar with historic preservation generally think any new building is a good building because it means activity. The downside is that if the new building does not fit in, it becomes a negative infill project and neighborhood. In contrast, good infill can’t help but reinforce character and marketability.

Most common concern: “Big Brother”

Answer: You need to apply for a building permit anyway. The trade-off is protection against incompatible new growth and inappropriate infill which in turn protects real estate values. 

Most common threat: Legal action

Answer: Every state, including South Carolina, now authorizes local communities to prepare preservation ordinances. Some states even mention historic preservation in their constitutions.

[1] This fact sheet was originally prepared in 1990, when the Historic Preservation Commission was founded. However, the philosophy it contains is as relevant today as then. Key information has been updated.