KT Dunn is a lifelong resident of the Midwest who enjoys researching and exploring landmarks of historic significance.
On a clear and mild January morning in Memphis, a few days after what would have been Elvis Presley’s 85th birthday, we set out on another road trip and impulsively visited Graceland for the first time.
We entered the parking area at Elvis Presley’s Memphis across the street from the mansion. This large complex opened in 2017 and includes a ticketing center, exhibits, and an entertainment venue. Although several levels of tour tickets are available online, we bought ours when we arrived, opting for the basic tour of the house and the two airplanes on display at the exhibit complex. Shuttle buses run every 15 minutes from the complex to the mansion.
On this winter weekday following the annual birthday celebration, the crowd was light. We proceeded directly from the ticket window to the boarding area and joined the next tour group. Before boarding the shuttle, we were issued headphones and iPads loaded with self-tour information narrated by John Stamos and Lisa Marie Presley. In no time, we were motoring through the gates of Graceland Mansion and up the driveway.
Stepping Through That Front Door…
In the year that I became a parent, Elvis was still living at Graceland. His marriage to Priscilla had recently ended. His father continued to conduct business in his office on the property. All this came to me as we finally made time to “take the tour.” Who hasn’t marveled at the phenomenon that was Elvis Presley? This was Elvis Presley's home for 20 years, from 1957 until his death in 1977, and today it seems frozen in time.
Our tour group collected at the front portico as we awaited entry into the house. The grounds seemed hushed and pastoral, despite the bustle around and about them. The stillness continued as we stepped inside. Instantly and unexpectedly, I was aware of the sensation of intruding into someone’s private space. Our voices dropped to a murmur. Although the foyer and the living room were very pretty, still dressed for Christmas, the low lighting underscored a vague gloominess as if the light of day couldn’t quite reach past the windows. Researching online later, I was interested to find similar observations made by past visitors. Looking through the roped-off living room from the entry hall, the attached single-story music room can be seen with its vintage TV set and baby grand piano.
Fumbling with my iPad, headphones, and personal iPhone and camera with which to take still photos (flash and video are not allowed), I paused to focus on my surroundings. The staircase was lined with poinsettia plants, traditionally provided by the Graceland Poinsettia Campaign and purchased with donations that are applied to the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation. The second floor, housing Elvis’ personal space, has always been off-limits to tour groups.
The Living Area
The living room area has been partially restored to resemble the setting of the late 1960s to early 1970s, including the custom-made 15-foot white sofa. Remaining are the peacock stained glass installations and a mirrored wall that were part of a 1974 remodel. The music room, with its baby grand piano and vintage TV, can be seen beyond the living room.
The house is large, having been expanded to occupy over 17,000 square feet, but the rooms in the living spaces felt somehow smaller than I expected. It’s a curious mix of spacious and cozy, formal and decidedly whimsical.
The formal dining room, located across the foyer from the living room, features inlaid marble flooring and a crystal chandelier.
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The semi-open kitchen is at the center of the floorplan, with no window or exterior door apparent. At first glance, I sensed that this would not have been the original layout. The configuration makes the kitchen convenient, but it seemed likely to me that plans for the 1939 structure must have originally included a kitchen at the back of the house with a window and a back door leading to a porch and the back yard. Sure enough, a little research confirmed that the adjacent Jungle Room had been added in the 1960s as an enclosed porch encompassing the original back entry and lower-level stairs. The room was subsequently remodeled into a den.
After a peek into the lovely bedroom that was once Gladys and Vernon Presley’s, we continued to the "Jungle Room."
A well-known story of the Jungle Room is that Elvis purchased all its unusual furry furnishings from a local furniture store in a whirlwind shopping spree. A stone wall and water feature along with green shag carpeting complement the “wild” look. This room was intended as a den and was later used for recording sessions.
The Lower Level
Also remodeled in the 1970s were the basement rooms, including a TV room and bar, and a pool/billiards room. The Pool Room was outfitted with hundreds of yards of pleated fabric on the walls and ceiling, which is meticulously maintained to this day. In the TV Room, three television sets allowed simultaneous coverage of the major networks of the time.
Graceland was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and became a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
The Trophy Building and Museum
The Trophy Building, a wing attached to the back of the house, features an extensive collection of memorabilia related to Elvis, his career, and his family.
The Outdoor Spaces
The graves of Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother may be visited in the Meditation Garden, which Elvis regarded as his special retreat. This area is included as part of the house tour; however, the gates are open daily from 7:30 to 8:30 AM for walk-in visitors to the Meditation Garden only, free of charge.
Outbuildings on the grounds of Graceland include Vernon Presley's office, where he tended to household business; a smokehouse; a racquetball court built in 1975; and a horse barn.
Two airplanes once owned by Elvis are included in the tour: The Lisa Marie, a customized Convair 880 jet, and the Hound Dog II, a Lockheed Jetstar.
History of Elvis' Graceland
Part of a 500-acre farm originally owned by S.C. Toof, the land passed to his daughter, Grace, for whom it was named. Eventually, Grace’s niece, Ruth Moore, and her husband, Dr. Thomas D. Moore, acquired the property and built the limestone Colonial Revival house in 1939. Graceland was then inherited by the Moores' musician daughter, Ruth Marie Moore Cobb, who in 1957 sold it to Elvis and his parents, Vernon and Gladys.
The formal living areas of the house were arranged so that Ruth Marie's guests could gather for musical recitals. The property met other requirements of the Presleys too, including overall space and a measure of privacy. Among the first improvements Elvis made was to install the stone wall and iron entry gates at the entrance, as well as a swimming pool near the house.
Graceland is located in a neighborhood called Whitehaven, about 10 miles south of central Memphis. The property was fairly isolated at the time Elvis purchased it, although in the years to follow the area was further developed until Graceland was eventually surrounded by homes and businesses. Originally 3764 Highway 51 South, Graceland's address would later become 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard.
Vernon Presley, the original executor/trustee of Elvis' estate, died in 1979. In his will, he appointed three successors: Priscilla Presley, a bank, and an accountant. Priscilla and her co-executors made the house and grounds available for tours in 1982.
Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis and Priscilla, retains sole ownership of Graceland.
Please see Graceland's website for additional information about ticketing, tour packages, events, and more.
© 2020 KT Dunn