In the mid-1860s, Colonel Robert Campbell Brinkley was on his way to London, where he hoped to find financing to complete a stretch of railroad track linking Little Rock to Memphis. Fellow passenger, well-known humanitarian, George Peabody struck up a friendship with Col. Brinkley and by the time he returned to Memphis, Brinkley had secured financing for what would forever be known as the South's grand hotel. Just prior to the 1869 opening of the original hotel, Brinkley learned of the death of George Peabody. In his friend's memory, Brinkley changed the planned name for the new hotel from the Brinkley House to the "Hotel Peabody." The 75 room, $60,000 hotel was considered one of the finest in the South. A night at The Peabody, including meals, would set the well-heeled traveler back about $4. It boasted gas-lit rooms with private baths, a first class dining room and tearoom, shops and amenities, exceptional entertainment, a massive and well-appointed lobby, and a ballroom featuring a frescoed portrait of its namesake. The hotel was a financial success from the get-go. Socialites and salesmen, gamblers and railroad men, cotton traders and carpetbaggers filled the guest register, along with the likes of Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and President Andrew Johnson. The 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic blindsided the city of Memphis and Hotel Peabody. Thousands died and thousands fled. Though many hotels folded, The Peabody remained open, vacant of paying guests, but serving as a hospital for the yellow fever victims. Memphis was faced with bankruptcy and losing it charter. By the mid-1880s, the hotel was once again bustling, as cotton and hardwood trading resumed. River traffic saved the city to the point where, in 1893, it reclaimed both its charter and rightful place as one of the country's leading distribution centers. With the emergenceof the New South came a plethora of new hotels. In the 225-room Gayoso Hotel, The Peabody found its first true competition. It was time to renovate, restore, and refurnish. The Peabody did just that. By the time President William McKinley attended the Confederate Convention there in 1901, the hotel had re-established itself as the South's grand hotel. By 1906, The Peabody once again fell on hard times. It was a combination of things, a change in management and a collapse of the hotel kitchen and adjoining rooms. A $350,000, 200-room addition soon followed, the first all-steel structure in the city. As WWI raged, The Peabody aged. and by 1918 modernization was no longer an option. Working alongside the Lowenstein family, the Memphis Hotel Corporation made plans to demolish the building at a cost of $40,000. In its place, a large and imposing department store was built. It would sweep the city off its shopping feet, while only blocks away a bigger, better Peabody would emerge. On August 28, 1923, as the last guest checked out of the original hotel, a city mourned the loss of a great landmark. "The building stood last night like a stark, silent sentinel, forming a grim, almost sinister silhouette against a star-studded sky," wrote The Commercial Appeal. "It loomed over the busy thoroughfares below, calmly awaiting its doom." What they didn't know or even imagine was what lay ahead. For while the bricks and mortar of the old hotel would soon be gone, the spirit of The Peabody would live on, defying the imagination and charming even the most reluctant traveler.
History of The Peabody Memphis
Hotel History Tours with the Peabody Duckmaster
Take a trip back in time with this 1-hour tour of the "South's Grand Hotel" with the Peabody Duckmaster.
Daily, 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
$5 for hotel guests, $10 for other guests
Reservations required: 901-529-4108
Peabody history dates back to 1869 and when the original Peabody Hotel opened on the corner of Main & Monroe and immediately became the social and business hub of Memphis. In 1925 a newer, grander Peabody was built at its present location at Union and 2nd Street continuing the legacy of the "South's Grand Hotel." It was 1933 when ducks were originally placed in the hotel's lobby fountain, setting in motion an 80-year tradition that continues today with the March of the Peabody Ducks. The Peabody name has become synonymous with the 5 North American mallard ducks that are now the living symbol of the Peabody brand.
The company that brought The Peabody back to life when they purchased the hotel is Belz Enterprises, a highly successful, multifaceted real estate development and management firm based in Memphis, Tennessee. Starting out as one of the largest Holiday Inn franchisers in the business and then moving on to full-service luxury hotels, Belz Enterprises has a long standing history within the hotel industry.
Most recently, Belz Enterprises has established Peabody Hotels & Resorts, a hotel and resort management venture that will leverage the ongoing Peabody brand success. Peabody Hotels & Resorts provides solutions for raising brand awareness and increasing financial performance via its long-standing tradition of providing exceptional hotel experiences and creating memories that last a lifetime. Legendary, charming, elegant, and grand are just a few words that describe what sets Peabody Hotels apart from other hotel brands.
The groundbreaking for the new Peabody took place in the fall of 1923, barely a month after the original hotel had closed its doors. It would take massive amounts of materials, labor, and funds to bring the plans to life... 5,000 railroad cars, 30,000 sacks of plaster, 750,000 face bricks, 12 stories, and 625 rooms. The architecture was Italian Renaissance with terra cotta detailing. An enormous two-story air-conditioned lobby, complete with a magnificent black travertine marble fountain and $500,000 in furniture, would be surrounded by shops and services. On September 2, 1925, the new $5 million Peaody Hotel opened it doors. The Venetian Room was so popular its carpets were worn and faded within 2 years. And with so many requests for events, a $50,000 ballroom and dining facility had to be added. A year earlier, also added were the private Night Cap Club and the Owl's Nest, a stylish roof garden featuring cabaret dining and dancing. The lobby and its fountain were the center of attraction. In 1935, newspaper man David Cohn captured that feeling in his book Where I Was Born and Raised. "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg," he wrote, adding, "… if you stand near the fountain in the middle of the lobby… you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta." It is still true. The tradition of the famous Peabody marching ducks began in 1933. Peabody General Manager Frank Schutt, an avid sportsman, and a friend, Chip Barwick, returned empty-handed from a weekend hunting trip in Arkansas. The two friends had a bit too much Tennessee sippin' whiskey and decided to play a prank and put their live duck decoys (which were legal at the time) in the fountain in the hotel's grand lobby. Three English call ducks were placed in the fountain, and the reaction from hotel guests was nothing short of enthusiastic. Everyone wanted a piece of The Peabody to take home. In 1939 alone, The Peabody lost 10,900 towels, 1,620 sheets, 100 wool blankets, 2,400 pillowcases, 600 pairs of lace curtains, and 6,000 pieces of silverware. Dining at The Peabody in the late 1930s was a bargain compared to today's prices. Diners could eat at The Peabody's Table d'Hotel restaurant, where a full meal including appetizer or soup, a main course and dessert was just $1.50. While it may appear that the Skyway has been a part of The Peabody since it first opened, it wasn't actually constructed until the late 1930s. Prior to that time, guests dined and danced under the stars on what was first called the Marine Roof and later known as the Moroccan Roof. The Moroccan Roof was a lovely place to be when the weather was warm. But come October, it gets pretty chilly on a Memphis rooftop, and in 1938 the decision was made to enclose the east end of the roof. The Skyway was designed as a glass-enclosed circular ballroom that extended both the season and the seating capacity. More than a thousand people could do the Lindy on its massive beechwood dance floor without bumping into each other. Part of the roof area would remain open and renamed The Plantation Roof. The nightspot owed its name to the recent success of Margaret Mitchell's best seller, Gone with the Wind. The Skyway opened January 20, 1939, a few years after the hotel's Big Band broadcasts were picked up by CBS. Through the 1940s all across the South, listeners tuned in to CBS to hear the live broadcast from the hotel's Skyway ballroom. The Peabody was only one of three hotels in the country to be featured nationally.
In 1940 Edward Pembroke, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey wild animal trainer, became the hotel's first Duckmaster. For the next 50 years he "mastered" the ducks as they marched into the lobby fountain to the sound of John Philip Sousa's King Cotton March. A suite in the hotel and a nearby office complex are named in his honor. To this day, Edward Pembroke's portrait greets guests at the entrance of the hotel. Today, the five Mallard ducks, one male and four females, are housed in the "Duck Palace" on the hotel roof. Every day at 11 a.m., they are led by the Duckmaster down the elevator onto a red carpet into the lobby fountain. The ceremony is reversed at 5 p.m., when the ducks return to their palace on the roof of the hotel. The ducks call the fountain home for about 3 months, then they are returned to the wild. The ducks are raised by a local farmer and friend of the hotel. During WWII, The Peabody found itself bulging at the seams. A 3-day maximum stay was instituted along with an ever-expanding waiting list. However, soldiers and sailors with no place to go and nowhere to turn were not turned away. As long as they were up by dawn, they were welcome to sleep in the hotel's mezzanine and lobby. University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) fans were known to stop by the lobby to cheer their team on at pre-game pep rallies. After one big game, the fans headed for the hotel's Creel Room to celebrate their win against Tennessee. The Peabody had to close and clean the Creel Room three times in a 24-hour period as crowds poured in to party. Through the years, generations of people have dined, danced & celebrated in the Skyway and on the Plantation Roof. From birthdays, graduations, toasted engagements and weddings, the Skyway was athe place to be for all who wanted a memorable time. The Peabody lobby has played host to a variety of mascots, amimals, equipment, and special events. It has been filled with many things from displays of new cars to live stock. A new car was bought right off the lobby floor. A bull brought in for the 1955 Cattlemen's Convention had its stall located just beyond the lobby registration desk. That prize Hereford was sold for $8,000. There was a notable change in America's landscape in the 1950s. In suburbia, families could find nearly anything they needed or wanted within blocks of their home. The glamour of going downtown was no contest for the convenience of the neighborhood shopping center. Department, businesses, hospitals, and professional groups joined the exodus to the suburbs. The Peabody, a downtown mainstay, was caught in the shifting tide. As business and leisure moved elsewhere, a new breed of overnight accommodations appeared on the horizon. The first Holiday Inn broke ground in 1952, just across town. It provided an economic option for vacationing families. The Venetian Room, once filled to the brim, was now full of empty tables. It, along with the hotel's massive basement coffee shop, would close, the latter to be replaced by a local radio and TV station. Tired and in need of repair, The Memphis Hotel Company let it be known that the hotel was for sale. Eventually a chain, out of Alabama, took over the reins in 1953. A 1957 blaze caused over $100,000-worth of damage to the Continental Ballroom. Facing mounting debts and unable to refinance, the hotel was forced into foreclosure. A receipt dating back to 1955 was sold at auction in 1999 for a reported $65,000 - close to 15 times the amount of the transaction it represented. It was piece of rock and roll history, a one-of-a-kind piece of memorabilia typed on The Peabody stationery and signed by Elvis Presley and his father, Vernon. It documented the receipt of a $5,000 bonus for signing with RCA, along with a smaller sum from Presley's publisher…minus Colonel Tom Parker's commission. The fact that the document was typed on a piece of The Peabody stationery makes it all the more valuable. Elvis' ties to the hotel date back to his teenage years when The Peabody was the location for his senior prom. If Elvis walked into The Peabody today, he would be pleased to see that Lansky's, one of his favorite clothing stores, resides in the hotel's lobby. Had he known it would be there, Elvis may never have left the building.
In 1965, The Peabody was sold to the Sheraton Hotel Corportation, in hopes the national chain would improve the declining hotel. Sheraton did everything it could to gain the city's confidence, assuring people that the ducks, mezzanine, and other Peabody institutions would remain intact. Emphasizing the word "restore" and avoiding the word "renovate," the chain spent nearly as much to restore The Peabody as it had to buy it. Meeting rooms were retooled. Suites were added, as was an Old English Tavern-style restaurant. Other parts of the hotel took on a more contemporary feel. The Sheraton-Peabody sign was on the roof for nine years. In December of 1973, ITT-Sheraton closed their Memphis property with little or no notice. The city's downtown area had been in a steady state of decline since the 1950s. Still, the unheralded closing came as a shock to Memphians. After a luncheon for Memphis City Beautiful commission in the Continental Ballroom, all the doors were locked and a 'For Sale' sign was posted. Eight years before, in perhaps the most explosive winter in Memphis history, the city's sanitation workers mounted a strike. A series of protests and boycotts, failed mediations and interventions by the National Guard fueled the fire, as downtown became an easy target for vandals. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis on April 3, 1968, expectations ran high for a peaceful end to a devastating situation. His death at the hands of James Earl Ray, just blocks from the Sheraton-Peabody, reached far beyond the city's streets as the nation struggled to make sense out of the tragedy. Nearly a decade later, the city's once-thriving downtown was still struggling to survive. No one, it seemed, was willing to invest in what could be. The Peabody, it appeared, was doomed. A reprieve came in January, 1974, when a group of Huntsville, Alabama investors stepped in to save The Peabody. Those hopes were dashed when occupancy rates quickly dipped to an all-time low. With less than 53 registered guests and no relief in sight, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy on April 1, 1975. With the hotel once again for sale, the city's newspapers were filled with speculation. In a story in the April 22, 1975 edition of the Press Scimitar, the city's afternoon daily, Social Services of Tennessee was cited as having expressed an interest in buying the hotel and converting it into housing for the elderly. July 31, 1975. Philip Belz and his son Jack, who, along with I. Edwin Hanover (Jack's father-in-law), owned the mortgage to the hotel, arrived at the Shelby County Courthouse for the auction of the hotel. Their company, Belz Enterprises, was a quiet, yet major presence through the Mid-South, though hardly a household name. It soon became apparent that there was little, if any, interest in saving the hotel. With no time to consider their options, the mortgage-holders knew they had to protect their investment and the dreams they had for the hotel. Jack Belz and his father-in-law, I. Edwin Hanover, became the new owners of The Peabody. The hotel was in a sad state of disrepair and neglect, as was the downtown area surrounding it. There were those within the financial community who encouraged Jack Belz to tear the hotel down and build a parking garage. But The Peabody was more than just a hotel to Jack Belz. The Peabody had been part of his life for as long as he could remember. The family album was filled with photographs of proms and parties, graduations, birthdays and his own 1948 wedding day celebrated at the once-grand hotel. Like Robert Brinkley, Jack Belz had a vision. He felt that if the restoration was done on a grand scale – the hotel would have the power to pull the entire downtown area up. Finding funding for such a venture in the middle of a recession was not easy. Eventually seven banks came together to make a loan based on a "guestimate." It would take four years and $25 million (more than twice the original estimate and four times what it cost to build in 1925) to complete the renovation. In 1935, newspaper man David Cohn had written, "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel…if you stand near the fountain in the middle of the lobby… you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta." It had been a long time since The Peabody had lived up to that promise. But, like the South, the hotel would rise again. In September of 1977, The Peabody was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and retains its status as a national landmark.
Bringing The Peabody back to its former glory would not be enough. What had been considered spacious, luxurious, and grand in 1925 would hardly meet the needs of the modern-day traveler. If they were going to restore anything, it was going to be the way people felt when they stayed at The Peabody. They began reconfiguring, enlarging, and enhancing the guest rooms. They modernized the plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning and, all new back-of-the-house technology and telephone systems were developed and installed. Room by room, the grand hotel grew grander. In the Grand Lobby, carpenters broke through what had been a false ceiling added by the previous owners. When the dust settled, the remnants of a once-magnificent stained-glass skylight were revealed. Employing the same techniques, wired glass and colored glazes used some 50 years before, a new skylight was designed true to the era of its origin. The renovation took four years and $25 million to complete–more than twice the original estimate and four times the original cost. The Grand re-opening in September 1, 1981. In honor of The Peabody's Grand Opening, Little t Music Inc. commissioned Dr. James Wrichens, Assistant Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, to compose an original piece of music, aptly named "The Hotel Peabody Suite." Since 1869, United States presidents, world leaders, dignitaries and celebrities had always made The Peabody their hotel of choice. The South's Grand Hotel was back to claim its rightful place in history and into the future. For over 140 years, this grand Memphis landmark continues to remain the gold standard. It has weathered storms and plagues, wars and crises. From the day the Belz family bought the hotel and the renovations began, The Peabody became the symbol of, and inspiration behind, the rebirth of the downtown Memphis area. Today, The Peabody is more than just the social and business hub of Memphis. The "South's grand hotel" has become part of the personal history of those who have passed through its doors, a backdrop for memories to be passed down for generations. The Peabody holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all Southerners. As the crown jewel of downtown Memphis, The Peabody is a living legend. With history and memories being created every day, The Peabody will continue to touch lives as long as it stands. We invite you to become a part of the history and add to the memories. The Peabody, the South's grand hotel, now and forever.