5 Star Stories: Secrets, skylights and celebrities of the Peabody Hotel
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Mid-South has a lot of jewels that make us proud to call it home. At WMC, we give them five stars, like the “South’s Grand Hotel” -- the famed Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.
Over the years, the Peabody has been the backdrop for movies and popular music, where royalty, entertainers, politicians and every day Memphians lodge, dine and sometimes dance the night away.
The Peabody Hotel first opened its doors more than 150 years ago -- in February 1869 -- on the corner of Main and Monroe. It’s named in honor of its first owner, George Foster Peabody, who was a friend and mentor to Col. Robert Campbell Brinkley.
“It’s always had a great name,” said general manager Doug Browne. “It’s always sat up there with hotels like the Broadmoor, the Greenbrier, the Dell, the Plaza.”
The Peabody survived the “Panic of 1873," two yellow fever epidemics, a brief closure, a fire and a partial building collapse. It bustled and sometimes wobbled along until 1923 when the original hotel doors closed for good.
Bigger and better, the Peabody Hotel reopened two years later at its current location on Union Avenue. And in 1933, what started as a practical joke became a well-worn and beloved tradition when then-general manager Frank Shutt returned to the hotel after -- shall we say -- a “spirited” Arkansas duck hunting trip.
“And decided, let’s see what would happen if we took one of our live decoys -- at that time you could use live duck decoys -- and put it in the lobby,” said Jack Belz, current owner of the Peabody Hotel. “It created a sensation.”
Belz says ducks in the fountain became an 86-year sensation that continues to this day in the very same famous fountain along with the twice-daily duck marches.
But one place you will never see a duck in the Peabody is on the menu at any of the hotel’s restaurants.
“And we celebrate constantly our wonderful ducks,” said Belz. “There’s no other place in the world with that.”
Throughout its many years, the Peabody has reigned supreme as the place to see and be seen, from social functions to political and business happenings.
“The center for social activities and whenever there was a major announcement to be made in the community,” said Belz, adding that those announcements were most likely made at the Peabody Hotel.
Head duckmaster and hotel historian Doug Weatherford believes the hotel also helped birth American pop music.
“The balcony behind me (the Continental Ballroom) contains the room where Elvis’ high school prom was held," said Weatherford. “He signed his first contract with the colonel right over there (near the hotel piano). The people who taught him how to dress and dressed him for 30 years own that store right there (Lansky’s). Still have his clothes on the rack. Jerry Lee Lewis misbehaved in the bar down the hall multiple times. And Neil Diamond wrote his most significant song (“Sweet Caroline”) right here. So this is ground zero, in my opinion, for American pop music.”
But things changed drastically throughout Memphis after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. That shot signaled the beginning of a social and economic decline for downtown Memphis.
Once again, the Peabody Hotel was forced to close its doors, this time in 1975, causing shock and sadness throughout the community and sending the “South’s Grand Hotel” to auction on the courthouse steps.
But according to Belz, his and the Hanover families had a plan.
“Well, frankly, we already owned the mortgage on the Peabody, and so we thought we were gonna auction off the mortgage and be able hopefully to make a profit,” he said. “Instead, no one bid on it except (us) and Prince Mongo.”
So the families decided to outbid Prince Mongo -- an eccentric Memphian named Robert Hodges who once lived in a castle in Memphis’ Central Gardens neighborhood -- to keep the hotel for themselves. But by then, the hotel was in bad shape.
“Well, it was tired and certainly not in the same shape that it should have been,” said Belz. “But it was still beautiful. It’s the same thing like you find an antique piece of furniture. And while it’s dusty and maybe moldy, you see the intrinsic beauty in it and you re-polish it and so forth, and bring it back to the original luster."
“We had the occasion to go visit the Peabody many times while it was closed, just to walk through and bring back old memories and things like that,” said Belz. “It was extremely impressive to us and we couldn’t stand the thought of demolishing that hotel, as some of the so-called naysayers in Memphis had suggested we do. So we become in love with the Peabody again and again.”
And so began a labor of love and to some extent guesswork. The architect who designed the hotel had died, and the plans were nowhere to be found, which Belz said led to some surprising discoveries.
“While we were beginning the demolition work in the lobby, that beautiful sky-lighted lobby over there now, which was covered with acoustic ceiling, we took some of those panels out one day and daylight came shining through,” said Belz. “We had no idea those skylights were up there, and no one else did. And as we were doing that demolition, we found in the boiler room in one of the wall encasements drawings on the hotel. So it was only after we had acquired it six or eight months that we finally got some drawings about it."
When the hotel doors opened again in 1981 with a new Grand Ballroom and Tennessee Exhibition Hall, the “tired” interior was polished, signaling the start of a downtown renaissance.
“I think it’s been good for the city and the entire community,” said Belz.
Browne, the general manager, says there’s much more to a stay at the Peabody Hotel than ducks, architecture, location and history.
“What happens over the next two or three days is the southern charm that our staff, our 550 associates, that’s what creates the memories with our people,” said Browne. “That’s what makes them remember Memphis.”
The Peabody Hotel and its fine dining restaurant Chez Philippe were also just named among Forbes Travel Guide’s 4-Star award winners for 2020.
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