The Peabody Memphis

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Discover the Peabody Memphis, named after philanthropist George Peabody, which has been a cherished gathering place in Memphis since 1869.

The Peabody Memphis was constructed at a time when the United States was defined by great economic prosperity, industrial expansion, and significant social reform.

Following the turmoil of the Civil War, the city of Memphis, like much of the South, set about the daunting task of rebuilding. In 1869, Colonel Robert C. Brinkley opened a lavish hotel on the corner of Main and Monroe Streets in downtown Memphis. It boasted 75 rooms with private baths, a ballroom, saloon and lobby. Brinkley intended to name the grand structure after himself, but just as the hotel was about to open, he received word of the death of his dear friend, philanthropist George Peabody, who financed the development of a rail system from Memphis to Charleston. To honor his friend's memory and generosity, Brinkley christened the new hotel, The Peabody.

The original Peabody closed its doors in 1923 to make way for a department store. It was replaced two years later with the present structure on Union Avenue. The Italian Renaissance building was designed by Chicago architect, Walter W. Ahlschlager and upon opening, became the preferred gathering place for Memphis business bigwigs and socialites. Presidents Andrew Johnson and William McKinley and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jubal Early were guests. The Peabody was a place where plantation owners could rub elbows with professional gamblers and steamboat captains.

In 1932, general manager Frank Schutt and his pals returned from a hunting trip and decided to let their live duck decoys take a swim in the hotel’s lobby fountain. Their lighthearted lark was an enormous hit that lead to the creation of the March of The Peabody Ducks - a cherished Memphis tradition that continues to this day.

The hotel continued to serve as the business and social center of the Mid-South throughout the 1930s and 1940s, hosting one of only three national live-radio broadcasts on CBS. The Plantation Roof and adjoining Skyway Room were popular spots for big band music and dancing to the sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and the Andrews Sisters. In the 1970s Memphis, like much of the country, experienced a period of urban decline. A series of small fires and ownership changes, coupled with declining occupancy and downtown business, forced The Peabody to close.

In 1975, The Peabody was purchased by the Belz family, who embarked on a six-year, $25 million dollar renovation to return the hotel to its former glory. The Peabody reopened on September 1, 1981, quickly regained her status as the "South's Grand Hotel."

  • About the Architecture +

    The Italian Renaissance style building was designed by Chicago architect, Walter W. Ahlschlager.

  • Famous Historic Guests +

    "Andrew Johnson, 17th president of the United States. William McKinley, 25th president of the United States. Robert E. Lee, American commander of the Confederate States Army. "

Image of Historian Stanley Turkel, Historic Hotels of America Image of Stanley Turkel's Book Built To Last: 100 Year Old Hotels East of the Mississippi, Historic Hotels of America.

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Nobody Asked Me, But… No. 185;

Hotel History: The Peabody (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 11AM and 5PM 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 1940, bellman Edward Pembroke volunteered to care for the ducks. Pembroke was given the position of “Duckmaster” and served in that position until 1991. As a former circus animal trainer, he taught the ducks to march into the hotel lobby, which started the famous Peabody Duck March. Every day at 11AM, the Peabody Ducks are escorted from their penthouse home, on the Plantation Roof, to the lobby via elevator. The ducks, accompanied by the King Cotton March by John Philip Sousa, then proceed across a red carpet to the hotel fountain, made of a solid block of Italian travertine marble. The ducks are then ceremoniously led back to their penthouse at 5 PM.

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 destination 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 and is a member of Historic Hotels of America.

*excerpted from his book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi


About Stanley Turkel, CMHS

Stanley Turkel is a recognized consultant in the hotel industry. He operates his hotel consulting practice serving as an expert witness in hotel-related cases and providing asset management an and hotel franchising consultation. Prior to forming his hotel consulting firm, Turkel was the Product Line Manager for worldwide Hotel/Motel Operations at the International Telephone & Telegraph Co. overseeing the Sheraton Corporation of America. Before joining IT&T, he was the Resident Manager of the Americana Hotel (1842 Rooms), General Manager of the Drake Hotel (680 Rooms) and General Manager of the Summit Hotel (762 Rooms), all in New York City. He serves as a Friend of the Tisch Center and lectures at the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. He is certified as a Master Hotel Supplier Emeritus by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. He served for eleven years as Chairman of the Board of the Trustees of the City Club of New York and is now the Honorary Chairman.

Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. More than 275 articles on various hotel subjects have been posted in hotel magazines and on the Hotel-Online, Blue MauMau, Hotel News Resource and eTurboNews websites. 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. Executive Vice President of Historic Hotels of America, Lawrence Horwitz, has even praised one book, Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry:

  • “If you have ever been in a hotel, as a guest, attended a conference, enjoyed a romantic dinner, celebrated a special occasion, or worked as a hotelier in the front or back of the house, Great American Hoteliers, Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry is a must read book. This book is recommended for any business person, entrepreneur, student, or aspiring hotelier. This book is an excellent history book with insights into seventeen of the great innovators and visionaries of the hotel industry and their inspirational stories.”

Turkel was designated as the “2014 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.

Works published by Stanley Turkel include:

Most of these books can be ordered from AuthorHouse—(except Heroes of the American Reconstruction, which can be ordered from McFarland)—by visiting, or by clicking on the book’s title.

Contact: Stanley Turkel

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