The Guesthouse at Graceland
By Patrick Cooke
One might have thought that in the nearly 40 years since Elvis Presley was called home to Jesus that most of his fans, and his legacy, would have faded away by now. But had you had been among the Elvis faithful attending the recent opening of The Guest House at Graceland, Memphis’s newest, most lavish hotel, you would have come upon a surprising scene.
Gathered under the hotel’s wide circular lobby, rocking out to a sound system playing groove-yard hits like “Hound Dog” “Suspicious Minds” and “Jailhouse Rock” were graying, duck-tail geezers in biker jackets and pony-tailed grandmas in wheelchairs. But there were also Baby Boomers galore sporting muttonchops— men, mostly—Gen-Xers, and even a few Millennials showing off Elvis tattoo portraits underscored with the initials TCB, the famed Elvis tagline meaning “Takin’ Care of Business.” Regardless of generation, opening night at The Guest House was about a crazy little thing called love.
Like the boy king Tutankhamen , the King of Rock and Roll’s mystique has only grown larger over time, worshiped in life, but even more so in the afterlife. Of the more than 600,000 travelers to Graceland each year—20 million in the past 34 years—80 percent are first time visitors. Twenty percent arrive from 140 countries in six of the world’s seven continents.
For years, pilgrims to the homestead stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel, a two story motel across RT 51 from Graceland. After more than 30 years of service, however, the faded property, with its wood paneling, worn carpets and a chair-hoist for lowering Mama into the hotel swimming pool out back, had become just a little too heartbreaking. The old hotel was torn down in October of last year.
By contrast, the new Guest House is a bright, spacious and inviting structure. There are 430 guest rooms aligned in two massive wings that meet at the center lobby. There are also 20 “specialty” suites located in what is known as “The Upstairs” as the top floor of the Graceland homestead is called. These have spacious living rooms, private bars and kitchens. One, “The Kings Suite,” has a television screen anchored to the ceiling above the bed, a design touch that Elvis insisted upon in his homes.
Priscilla Presley, Elvis’s one-time child bride, who was on hand for the opening confab, is said to have inspired and managed the decor of the hotel’s rooms and public areas. The temptation must have been great to simply decorate guest rooms with photos of the King from his film career— “Blue Hawaii”, “Roustabout”— or perhaps stills of him performing beneath the torturous stage lights of Las Vegas. Instead, hints of Elvis are done in subtle grace notes. Artwork in a guest room may depict just the large tail fin of a 1959 Cadillac, or a close up of a single blue suede shoe. The high back chairs in the lobby evoke the popped collars of Elvis’s jumpsuits, while the chair’s long sweeping arms suggest the famous sideburns. An outdoor fire pit, adjacent to the spa and massive swimming pool, is built in the shape of a heart. “Elvis would have found this a dream hotel,” Ms. Presley told the crowd.
There are five dining options at The Guesthouse ranging from the elegant to the downright down-home. Not to be missed is Delta’s Kitchen which features Southern cuisine inspired by the Delta region. EPs has a roadhouse feel offering choices of beer to accompany burgers and pulled pork. A note of caution to those with vegetarian leanings: you won’t starve at The Guesthouse, but if you feel the urge to set aside your restrictions for a meal or two, this is the place to do it.
The builders of The Guesthouse hope to draw not only travelers, but concert-goers. Attached to the hotel is a 450-seat theater that would seem an ideal venue for name-brand bands touring through Memphis. Management hopes that the hotel project— the first in 90 years— will be a shot in the arm for the Whitehaven area of Memphis. It has already created more than 200 much-needed jobs in the area, and a go-to, state-of-the-art theater should help boost the local economy.
While we’re in the neighborhood, there are changes afoot yonder at the Graceland Mansion itself. It’s an easy walk from The Guesthouse but shuttles run all day. A $45 million, 200,000 square-foot entertainment complex is being built adjacent to the homestead under the rubric “Elvis Presley’s Memphis.” Visitor exhibits will be devoted to the King’s auto collection, his airplanes — the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II— as well hundreds of artifacts from his movies and his many, many jump suits. The center will open March 2, 2017.
Two restaurants at the complex will be named after Elvis’s parents, Glady’s Diner and Vernon’s Smoke House. Visitors too pooped after touring Graceland to board one of the regular hotel shuttle buses down to Memphis’s Beale Street to hear some nightly blues, may want to simply grab a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Vernon’s (Elvis’s favorite) and head back to the hotel. To lie in bed looking up at a flat screen TV embedded in the ceiling, while snarfing a grilled PB&B, is truly to live like the King.
Patrick Cooke spent 15 years as executive editor of ForbesLife magazine (formerly Forbes FYI) Among the publications his journalism, satire and criticism has appeared in are The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Architectural Digest and Rolling Stone. He is a regular contributor to the Review section of the Wall Street Journal.