After her death in 1970, Mrs. Hope Iselin gave her 14-acre estate to the City of Aiken and almost 51 years later, the city still maintains that history as the Hopelands Gardens is open to the public.
Hopelands Gardens and the neighboring Rye Patch are a sprawling, beautiful landmark that is home to the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, a large variety of wildlife and multiple natural and manmade water fixtures, among other attractions.
Part of maintaining the beauty and history of the Gardens is protecting the trees that populate the area.
“We’re considered a tree city,” Amber Coffey, the recreation program coordinator for Hopelands and the Rye Patch, said.
Lisa Hall, the coordinator for the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, said there are pine trees, "cedar, lots of azaleas, dogwoods and tea olives."
The staff at Hopelands do projects to help the wildlife thrive, such as a structure built in the pond for the turtles to sit on and sun called “Turtle Island."
Hopelands is also home to an abundance of wildlife. According to Coffey, they have seen “large koi fish in the ponds, lots of squirrels, foxes; we have some raccoons that visit in the evening.” She said armadillos and deer also visit and eat the vegetation.
Beyond nature preservation, Hopelands makes it one of its goals to foster community and culture in Aiken.
One event it hosts at the Gardens is the "Hopelands Concert Series." After a cancellation in 2020 due to the situation surrounding COVID-19, the series returned this past summer.
“People were just so excited to be out and be able to enjoy something like that. I think they really felt safe," Coffey said.
The concerts take place on the Roland H. Windham Performing Arts stage, a large stone platform that is outside and surrounded by a moat that separates it from a grassy seating area. This space is important to serving the Hopelands Gardens community, as it hosts other events here, such as book groups, graduations and weddings.
The Gardens and Rye Patch are also a popular wedding destination in Aiken. Shirley McClenahan, a facilities assistant for Hopelands Gardens and Rye Patch, said nearly 95% of the events she schedules are for weddings.
The main attractions at Hopelands aren’t just limited to the wildlife and private events, though.
The Racing Hall of Fame and Museum are open to the public six days a week for free admission, hosting multiple exhibits. As part of the historic preservation that the Gardens represent, the hall of fame immortalizes the 40 thoroughbred national champions that trained at the Aiken horse track and memorializes Hope Iselin, the former owner of the estate.
“It’s just pretty here, and it’s very comfortable, and it’s very laid back,” McClenahan said. “Rye Patch speaks for itself, so you really don’t have to sell it.”
The non-profit group Friends of Hopelands and Rye Patch works with the city of Aiken to support and maintain the beauty of the Gardens. It formed in 1971 to give advice to the city of Aiken and raise funds for projects, and in its 50 years of existence, it has built reflecting pools, a labyrinth and restored numerous buildings.
All of these projects contribute to the beautiful vision Iselin had for the Gardens after her death, Hall said.
“It didn't matter what your social status was, your religious status, or anything — doesn't matter. She wanted everybody to come out here,” Hall said.
The welcoming staff, relaxing environment and nuggets of South Carolinian history to be discovered make the Hopelands Gardens and Rye Patch an ideal destination for a day trip or picnic.