A group of prominent Aiken residents made an investment in their community when they purchased property to build a school in 1888 with a $5,000 endowment.
The Aiken Institute, which officially opened in 1891 on the grounds at Chesterfield Street and Colleton Avenue, gave the area the name "Institute Hill."
The three-story brick building, which contrasted with the traditional one-room schoolhouse, was Aiken's first step toward providing a graded grammar and secondary education, according to The Many Faces of Aiken, by Will Cole.
He wrote that the building was constructed at a cost of $8,324.
The Aiken Institute, which was authorized by an act of the South Carolina General Assembly, originally housed grades one through 11, according to a 1979 Aiken County Rambler article.
Pupils were charged a tuition of about 25 cents a week, the article stated.
A wing was added in 1913 to the main building, which was designed by L.F. Goodrich. In 1930, two rear wings were attached to the 1913 structure.
The institute became part of the public school system in 1935, according to Over a Hundred Schoolhouses, by Frank Roberson.
All grades attended the institute until 1937 when a new high school was built, which resulted in the building becoming Aiken Elementary School.
When the school closed in 1986, it was the second oldest school in use in South Carolina. Aiken County Public Library moved into the 1913 addition of the building in 1990.
"A restrictive clause in the deed requires that the property on which the building is situated be used for educational purposes," stated a 1986 library use feasibility study, which listed a number of reasons to convert the former schoolhouse to a library.
The building occupied 3.5 acres of level land in the heart of a downtown residential neighborhood that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the study said, the structure was located near public buildings and retail stores in downtown Aiken.
"The building had been used for years and years and years as a school, so they really gave it a complete makeover as a library," said Mary Jo Dawson, the director of Aiken-Bamberg-Barnwell-Edgefield Regional Library System.
Some of the original building's features, such as the pressed tin ceiling on the second floor and a brick wall separating the reference room from the nonfiction stacks, remain, she said.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity to keep the building alive," said Ms. Dawson. "That building has had so many educational uses in Aiken County."
Reach Betsy Gilliland at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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