Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: The Peabody Memphis (1869), Memphis, Tennessee*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Following the Civil War, Memphis began the process of rebuilding. In 1869, Colonel Robert C. Brinkley opened a 75-room hotel which contained private baths, ballroom, saloon, and lobby. Brinkley planned to name the hotel after himself but when he learned that his dear friend, philanthropist George Peabody, had died, he christened it The Peabody. Its lobby was soon filled with Memphis business and society leaders as well as plantation owners and riverboat gamblers. Presidents Andrew Johnson and William McKinley, Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jubal Early were guests. Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, lived there in 1870 when he was president of a Memphis-based insurance company. After 57 years, the original Peabody was demolished to make way for a department store. It was replaced in 1926 by a new 12-story Peabody with elegant public rooms, ornate hand-painted beamed ceilings and duplex townhouse suites. It was built on the site of the Fransioli Hotel and was designed by the famous Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager. He also designed the Roxy Theatre and the Beacon Hotel and Theater in New York; the Sheridan Plaza and Sovereign Hotels in Chicago; the Carew Tower in Cincinnati, the Medinah Athletic Club in Chicago, etc.
In 1935, historian David Cohn wrote:
The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard's, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.
In 1932, general manager Frank Schutt and friend Chip Barwick returned from a hunting trip and decided to let their live duck decoys take a swim in the hotel's lobby fountain. This led to the creation of the March of the Peabody Ducks, a cherished Memphis tradition and an extraordinary public relations benefit to the Peabody. The world-famous March takes place daily at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. with great fanfare. The guests love the idea and, since then, five Mallard ducks (one drake and four hens) have played in the fountain every day. Over the years, the Peabody Ducks have gained celebrity status with television appearances on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and Sesame Street. The custom of keeping ducks in the lobby fountain may date back even further than the 1930s. A pre-1915 postcard shows ducks playing in the fountain.
In the 1950s, the Peabody suffered as a casualty of the declining fortunes of downtown Memphis. The Sheraton Corporation tried to revive the hotel in 1968 as the Sheraton-Peabody Hotel, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death while standing on the balcony of a small motel less than a mile south of the Peabody. His assassination and the subsequent riots accelerated the flight of white families and businesses. The hotel struggled to stay open for another seven years before it declared bankruptcy and closed in 1975. The property was bought at a foreclosure sale by the Belz family who spent upwards of $25 million to renovate and restore the hotel. The grand reopening of the Peabody in 1981 was credited as the inspiration for the downtown revitalization of Memphis that followed. The Peabody's success has been the catalyst in the redevelopment of other downtown properties including two nearby hotels.
The Skyway Room on the Peabody roof was refurbished and, with the adjoining open-air Plantation Roof, are the scene of pop and rock concerts. In the 1930s and 40s, Benny Goodman, Harry James, the Andrews Sisters and Tommy Dorsey performed here. The Peabody was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.