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"The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepherd's, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby... ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta..."
- Author/Historian David Cohn, 1935.
The Peabody Hotel is a Mid-South institution, its name considered synonymous with Southern hospitality and Delta style. The 13-story hotel is an excellent example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture and is Memphis' only historic hotel.
The original Peabody was built by Colonel Robert C. Brinkley in 1869. Just prior to its opening, Brinkley received news of the death of his good friend, philanthropist George Peabody. As a sign of respect for Peabody, who endowed George Peabody College in Nashville and contributed much to the disadvantaged South, the new hotel was named The Peabody.
The original hotel was built at the corner of Main and Monroe in downtown Memphis and was considered one of the finest in the South. It had 75 rooms with private baths, a ballroom, saloon and lobby. It cost $3 to $4 a day for a room and meals, extra for a fire or gas light.
Colonel Brinkley gave The Peabody to his daughter, Anne Overton Brinkley, as a wedding gift when she married Robert Bogardus Snowden near the end of 1869. For 96 years, the Snowden heirs would be connected directly or indirectly with the affairs of the hotel.
Lavish balls were held at The Peabody. It was the place to see and be seen. The original Peabody was host to such notables as Presidents Andrew Johnson and William McKinley and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jubal Early. Plantation owners, professional gamblers and movie stars frequented The Peabody.
The Peabody continued to enjoy success until it closed in 1923. In 1925, a $5 million Peabody, designed by architect Walter Ahlschlager, opened at its present downtown Memphis location on Union Avenue. At this point, ownership had passed into the hands of the Memphis Hotel Company, controlled by R. Brinkley Snowden, great-grandson of the original builder.
In the 1930s, General Manager Frank Schutt began a Peabody tradition that continues today. Returning from a weekend hunting trip in Arkansas, Schutt and his friends thought it would be humorous to leave some of their live duck decoys, which were legal at the time, in the beautiful Peabody fountain. Three small English call ducks were placed in the fountain, to the delight of hotel guests. Since then, ducks have been in the fountain every day. In 1940, Bellman Edward Pembroke, formerly a circus animal trainer, volunteered to care for the ducks and taught them to march into the Lobby – initiating the famous Peabody Duck March. The late Mr. Pembroke was named Duckmaster and served in that position until 1991. The Peabody Duck March has become a tradition that has made the hotel famous.
The Peabody played a role in the musical history of Memphis as well. Blues musicians like Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Rufus ‘Speckled Red’ Perryman, Tommy Johnson, Robert Wilkins, Garfield Akers, Walter Vinson, and Kid Bailey all recorded in rooms at the Peabody in the late '20s and early '30s, playing for talent scouts from big record labels like Vocalion and Paramount. Others, including Gus Cannon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jim Jackson and “jug bands” fronted by Will Shade, Jack Kelly, and Jed Davenport all performed at the hotel.
The Skyway and adjoining Plantation Roof were added on to the hotel in 1939 and immediately became an undisputed attraction for big band dancers. Entertainers such as Tommy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, Jan Garber, George Hamilton, Buddy Moreno, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Ted Weems, Chuck Foster, Lawrence Welk, and the Andrews Sisters appeared regularly. During the 30s and 40s, The Skyway was one of just three national live radio broadcast sites for CBS Radio. One such weekly program called “Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance” was hosted by a young Sam Phillips, from 1945 to 1950, before he launched Sun Records.
The Peabody became the hub of Mid-South social and business activities. In addition to guest rooms and apartments, the hotel offered space for 40 shops and offices, including the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce, and the Rotary, Kiwanis, and Civilian Clubs. Cotton was "King," and Memphians were in high spirits.
In the 1970s, downtown Memphis, like many urban areas, experienced a social and economic decline. Businesses, shoppers and retailers soon left the area, causing all of downtown to suffer. After several fires and changes in ownership, The Peabody closed
On August 1, 1975, The Peabody was purchased by Belz Enterprises, spearheading downtown redevelopment. After a six-year, $25 million renovation, The Peabody reopened on September 1, 1981. Its restoration and reopening were greeted with enthusiasm, quickly restoring The Peabody to its rightful place in Memphis society.
The Peabody remains the hub for downtown activity, both business and social. It retains its status as the most popular place in Memphis for weddings, debutante balls, proms, bar mitzvahs, charitable events and annual celebrations including the Cotton Carnival and Memphis in May. Many important business deals have been sealed over lunch or breakfast in the hotel's restaurants. And all summer long, Memphians enjoy amazing views of the Mississippi River at the Peabody Rooftop Parties and socialize in the Grand Lobby Bar, which Esquire magazine named "One of the Ten Best Watering Holes in America." Even celebrities continue to seek The Peabody as their place to stay during a Memphis visit.
Still called the "South's Grand Hotel," The Peabody is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. The hotel was cited by the U.S. Department of the Interior as one of the country's most outstanding preservation case studies.
1869 The original Peabody Hotel is built by Colonel Robert C. Brinkley at the corner of Main and Monroe in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, at a cost of $60,000. It is named for the late philanthropist George Peabody.
1923 The original hotel closes.
1925 On September 1, a new $5 million Peabody Hotel opens at its present location on Union Avenue, offering 625 guest rooms and space for 40 shops and offices.
1930s General Manager Frank Schutt initiates the first phase of the famous Peabody Duck March by placing live hunting decoys in the Lobby fountain.
1930s-40s The Peabody Hotel becomes the site of one of three national live radio broadcasts, which made the Skyway and adjoining Plantation Roof undisputed attractions for big band dancers.
1940 Edward Pembroke, originally hired as a bellman, volunteers to care for the Peabody Ducks and is eventually appointed as the official Duckmaster. Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, teaches the ducks the famous Peabody Duck March.
1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, marking the beginning of downtown social and economic decline.
1975 The Peabody is purchased by Belz Enterprises.
1977 The Peabody is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
1981 The Peabody Hotel reopens on September 1, marking the beginning of a downtown renaissance for Memphis.
1984 The Peabody is awarded the Forbes (Mobil) Four-Star rating. The Peabody is also inducted into the prestigious Preferred Hotel Group.
1985 the original Royal Duck Palace opens as the Peabody Ducks new rooftop home when they are off duty.
1993 Paramount Pictures releases "The Firm" starring Tom Cruise and based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham. The Peabody served as the setting for several scenes in both the book and the movie.
1994 Edward Pembroke dies. Pembroke served as hotel Duckmaster for more than 50 years. A hotel suite is named in his honor and his portrait is hung in the Grand Lobby.
1995 The newly refurbished Skyway Ballroom, on the roof of The Peabody, reopens.
1997 The Peabody receives Restaurants & Institutions' Ivy Award for food service excellence. In addition, Chez Philippe, the hotel's signature gourmet restaurant, is refurbished.
2001 The Peabody Memphis is named among the "Top 100 Hotels in North America" in Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards.
2002 Capriccio Grill, The Corner Bar and Peabody Deli & Desserts open at The Peabody Memphis, replacing the former Dux, Mallard's and Café Expresso restaurants.
2002 Chez Philippe is recognized as one of the "Top 50 Hotel Restaurants" by Food & Wine magazine.
2005 The Peabody Memphis completes a multi-million dollar, three-year restoration project that includes renovation and redecoration of all 464 guestrooms and suites and the restoration of historic meeting rooms and public spaces like the famous Grand Lobby and rooftop Skyway.
2009 Chez Philippe receives the AAA Four Diamond Aware for the 20th year in a row.