Graceland was the home of legendary pop singer Elvis Presley (1935-1977), the “King of Rock and Roll” and arguably one of the twentieth century’s greatest entertainers.
3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard
Memphis, TN 38116
ph.: (901) 332-3322
Web site: www.elvis-presley.com/HTML/home .html
Admired by millions, Elvis Presley became a cultural icon whose mystique extended to his Memphis mansion, Graceland. One of few entertainers to be intimately associated with a particular house, Elvis turned the luxurious Graceland into a symbol of a poor southern boy who rose to wealth and success, but who at the same time never left his family, his friends, or his roots behind. Built to resemble a traditional antebellum southern plantation house, Graceland helped shape the legend of Elvis Presley and captured the imagination of the public almost from the moment it became his home. After Elvis’s untimely death, Graceland became a historic site that would attract not only ordinary tourists, but also fans who continue to be fascinated by Elvis Presley and who gather in Graceland to celebrate his influence on their lives and on American culture.
A two-story colonial house featuring four columns overlooking the front lawn, set on a hilltop surrounded by oaks and magnolias, Graceland was built in 1939 by Dr. and Mrs. Thomas D. Moore. The fourteen-acre tract of land on which the house was built had been owned by Mrs. Moore’s side of the family for nearly a century, and it was named Graceland after Grace Toof, Mrs. Moore’s aunt. The house was also called Graceland.
In 1957 Elvis Presley, having achieved tremendous success and renown as a rock-and-roll singer, musician, and film star, affirmed his new status by buying Graceland from Mrs. Moore for $100,000. For the rest of Presley’s life, Graceland would be a home for himself and a large circle of people that included his wife, his daughter, his parents, members of his extended family, and friends. After moving into the mansion, Presley constructed a gatehouse as a place in which uncles and cousins could live and work as gatekeepers. He also added iron gates, known as the Melody Gates, which feature twin images of Presley with guitar on a field of musical notes. Presley and his mother Gladys originally furnished the inside of the house with dark blue walls, red carpets, and red satin chairs with rhinestones, and, although over the years the house was redecorated a number of times, the decor continued to reflect Elvis’s dramatic taste. The den, which was named the Jungle Room because of its Polynesian motif when the house became a historic site, was where Presley and his friends relaxed and watched football games and movies on television. The exotic decor especially reflected Presley’s personal taste, as did such decorative elements as a striking statue of Venus placed under a plastic waterfall. Other reflections of Presley’s personality were his music room, his trophy room, and a small, guitar-shaped swimming pool and fountain. Presley also extended the west and east wings of the house and added a “Meditation Garden,” reflecting his interest in New Age philosophy. The Meditation Garden contains a semicircular wall supported by Grecian columns with a stained-glass window in its center, as well as carved figures of angels and other spiritual figures.
Presley’s life at Graceland demonstrated to his fans that, in spite of his wealth and fame, he never abandoned his family, friends, or, indeed, the South itself. Still, fans enjoyed seeing Presley live in style, and saw in Graceland a suitable castle for the man who was known as the “King of Rock and Roll.”
There were times when Graceland was the scene for the kind of hedonistic activities associated with the pop music world, but in general it was a place where Presley unwound and lived a private life. Presley also had a home in Hollywood, but Graceland, situated not far from his childhood home in Mississippi, served as a retreat from the pressures of show business and as a way for him to reconnect with his roots and his musical heritage in the South. A man known for his generosity and loyalty, Presley hosted a contingent of friends and family who often lived on the property. Presley was utterly devoted to his mother and father, Gladys and Vernon, who moved into the house in 1957 along with Elvis’s paternal grandmother. His beloved mother Gladys died soon after, but his father and eventually his father’s second wife Dee Presley continued to live in the mansion. In addition, a retinue of bodyguards, cousins, and friends, happy to be known as Presley’s “Memphis Mafia,” also more or less lived at Graceland and were an important part of Elvis’s social life. The gatehouse was used by many friends and relatives, and eventually Presley brought in mobile homes that were occupied by various uncles, aunts, and cousins. Most of the relatives were also employed at Graceland as staff. However, while Presley provided room and board for his family and friends and lavished gifts on them, he was also warmed and reassured by their protective presence, and when he was at home they all ate meals together at the large dining room table.
Elvis’s beautiful wife Priscilla was also an important part of life at Graceland. The former Priscilla Beaulieu moved into Graceland in 1961 when she was sixteen years old and married Presley in 1967. Priscilla and Elvis married in Las Vegas, but soon afterward they held a second wedding reception in the trophy room at Graceland for family and friends. Their daughter, Lisa Marie, was raised at Graceland and continued to visit her father there after his separation and divorce from Priscilla. After Elvis’s difficult separation, former beauty queen Linda Thompson lived at Graceland as his companion until a year before his death and helped with Presley’s final redecoration of the house.
Although Presley continued to perform and to inspire his admiring fans, in these last years he suffered from obesity, dependence on prescription drugs, and other health problems. He died of cardiac arrest at Graceland at the age of forty-two on August 16, 1977. The sudden and premature death of Elvis Presley at Graceland sent shock waves around the world; his funeral in Memphis attracted international attention and a great outpouring of grief and affection. Along with his mother, father, and grandmother, Presley is buried at a family plot in the Meditation Garden at Graceland.
After Presley’s death, his daughter Lisa Marie inherited Graceland. Her guardian, Priscilla Presley, replaced the retinue of family and friends with a professional staff and was granted permission to make Graceland a museum. Priscilla also redecorated Graceland in blue and white. Since opening to the public in 1982, Graceland has been visited by millions of people from every state in the Union and nearly every country of the world. It is one of the five most visited home tours in America, and, after the White House, is the most famous home in America. In 1991 Graceland was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
More than 600,000 visitors tour Graceland each year. It is especially popular during the summer months; in July attendance builds to over 4,000 people each day. Graceland’s visitors come from all over the world and from all socioeconomic brackets and age groups, although more than half of the visitors are under the age of thirty-five. Graceland also attracts visiting dignitaries, entertainers, and, especially, musicians.
Graceland has evolved into a mecca for fans of Elvis Presley. As Presley lifted their spirits when he was alive, his music and his Graceland house continue to exert a mystical pull on millions. Many visitors find Graceland an inspirational experience, especially during “Elvis Week,” which begins on August 10 and ends on the anniversary of Presley’s death, August 16. Elvis Week has taken on aspects of a pilgrimage in which visitors pay tribute to Presley and visit his grave. The event, which has been compared to a family reunion, also includes music, dance, sports, and social and charity events, culminating in a highly emotional candlelight ceremony on August 15. This all-night vigil begins at sunset, when visitors gather in front of the Melody Gates and recite prayers and poems and sing Presley songs while their candles are lit with a torch from the eternal flame from Presley’s grave. Led by fan club presidents, participants in this emotional ritual–including some visitors dressed in Elvis costumes–circle Presley’s grave with their candles, leaving flowers, notes, and other gifts. The spiritual intensity of Graceland events such as Elvis Week suggests that the house has become to some extent a sacred site for many visitors.
At Christmas, Graceland is decorated with lights and religious images, including a string of blue lights on the winding driveway. These decorations are kept up until around Presley’s birthday on January 8, when special times are scheduled for visits to the grave site. While all of the above events draw the ordinary curious tourist, they also attract devoted fans and admirers of the man and his music.
Graceland is open daily from 8:30
In 1993 Graceland purchased the property now known as Graceland Plaza, directly across Elvis Presley Boulevard, which houses the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum. Visitors walk down a tree-lined mock highway past exhibits of twenty-two cars owned by Presley, including his famous 1955 pink Cadillac, his 1956 purple Cadillac convertible, his 1973 Stutz Blackhawk, and his motorcycles. Visitors to Graceland Plaza can also enjoy a tour of Presley’s two private jet planes: the Hound Dog II and the larger, customized Lisa Marie, which Presley named after his daughter and described as his “flying Graceland.” Another section of Graceland Plaza, “Sincerely, Elvis,” features personal items such as his offstage wardrobe, sports equipment, home movies, record collection, photographs, his mother’s clothing and accessories, his and Priscilla’s wedding outfits, and childhood items of Lisa Marie.
Another part of the Graceland experience is Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, named after Presley’s first million-selling record. In keeping with the song’s lyrics, the hotel is situated at the end of “Lonely Street,” and the desk clerks dress in black. Owned and operated by Graceland, the hotel features decor inspired by Elvis Presley’s particular style and taste.
Doss, Erika. Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith and Image. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999. Includes discussion of Graceland as a spiritual site and describes Elvis Week. With photographs. _______. Elvis Presley’s Graceland: The Official Guidebook. Memphis, Tenn.: Elvis Presley Enterprises, 1993. Provides a history of Graceland and descriptions of the house and grounds. Hammontree, Patsy Guy. Elvis Presley, a Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Includes an informative discussion of Graceland and Presley’s life with his retinue there. Marling, Karal Ann. Graceland: Going Home with Elvis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Free-wheeling examination of Graceland as a cultural phenomenon. Includes drawings of Graceland and a bibliography. Rodman, Gilbert B. Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend. New York: Routledge, 1996. Includes an insightful discussion of Graceland, emphasizing close association between Presley and the house and its attraction for fans. Winegardner, Mark. Elvis Presley Boulevard: From Sea to Shining Sea, Almost. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987. Examines Graceland from the perspective of its visitors.