Elvis’s Graceland Walks the Line Between Private Family Home and Big Business
Since the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis—which won lead actor Austin Butler his first Golden Globe and BAFTA, as well as an Academy Award nomination for best actor—there has been a renewed spotlight on Graceland, the Memphis, Tennessee, estate where the hugely influential musician lived for 20 years until his 1977 death.
Before Graceland was home to the "King of Rock and Roll," the grounds were part of a 500-acre farm owned by Stephen C. Toof, founder of Memphis’s oldest commercial printing firm. Toof’s daughter, Grace, inherited the property in 1894, and when she died roughly three decades later, the site went to her niece, Memphis socialite Ruth Moore. In 1939, Moore and her husband commissioned local firm Furbringer and Ehrman to build the Colonial Revival–style mansion we know today as Graceland. A 22-year-old Elvis purchased the building and its surrounding 13.8 acres for just north of $100,000 in 1957.
Elvis—whose adventurous style was just as flashy as his iconic dances—was known to redecorate Graceland’s interiors pretty regularly, changing upholstery, carpeting, paint colors, and furniture to match his changing tastes, which were famously eccentric. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the musician added extra rooms and out-there interior features, including a built-in waterfall in the tiki furniture-filled Jungle Room, which he turned into a makeshift recording studio where some of his major hits were recorded. Interior designer Bill Eubanks helped Elvis overhaul the basement game room based on inspiration from a painting of a 1700s billiards room. (Eubanks reportedly purchased around 350 yards of fabric, which a team of workers spent 10 days bolting, pleating, and hanging to the walls and ceiling.) Elvis also tapped Eubanks to redecorate the TV room with a yellow, navy blue, and white color scheme and a bold lightning bolt motif. It’s said the musician borrowed the idea for the room’s wall-mounted TV sets after hearing about then President Lyndon Johnson’s setup.
Because Elvis’s body was found in the bathroom of Graceland’s primary suite on August 16th, 1977, the home’s entire second level has remained closed to the public since it opened as a museum in 1982. As such, the mansion walks a delicate and somewhat tenuous balance between public and private space. (After deciding to open it up to the public to bring in much-needed funds, his ex-wife Priscilla said, "To open up your home was like being robbed.") Even still, Graceland has become the second-most visited house museum in the United States, only second to the White House. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
The actual home itself is, by comparison to the Visitor’s Center and other grounds surrounding it, relatively small, an indication of how much the business of Elvis has expanded outside the confines of the structure (the museum, for one, is larger than the house). The estate hosts several annual events including a January 8 Elvis birthday celebration, as well as an Elvis Week with a candlelight vigil to commemorate the August anniversary of his death. There are also themed exhibits like the Making of Elvis Movie (currently open through September 4), which showcases behind-the-scenes videos from the 2022 biopic—including the creation of a Graceland replica for the shoot in Australia—as well as drafts of the script, props, set pieces, and costumes worn by Austin Butler and other actors. Fans can also pay between $1,200 to $2,000 to get married on the property at the Chapel in the Woods. Depending on who you talk to, Graceland is either a gaudy amusement park or a meaningful memorial.
Still, the world-famous mansion has remained relatively as it was since "the King" lived there. "Most everything you see at Graceland today is original, except for the tour path carpeting throughout the home," says Alicia Dean, Graceland’s marketing promotions and events specialist. "We’ve added stanchions to keep the public out of the rooms, but all of the artifacts you see are original to the home."
Adding to the personal feeling attached to the property is the fact that Elvis is buried on the Graceland grounds alongside his parents, grandson, and his only child, singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Presley (who inherited the property after his death when she was just nine years old). It was regularly noted that Lisa Marie continued to celebrate the holidays at Graceland with members of the Presley family until her recent death at the age of 54—just days after speaking at the annual Elvis birthday celebration. And though initially it seemed as though her three daughters had inherited Elvis’s estate, including Graceland, its future is up for debate. Following Lisa Marie’s death, an amendment to her will revealed that she had removed her mother Priscilla Presley as trustee, and transferred that power to her eldest daughter Riley Keough. Priscilla is now refuting the validity of those documents. ("Please allow us the time we need to work together and sort this out," she said in a statement, while Keough has not commented.)
"Graceland is not just a museum; it was Elvis’ private family home," Dean continues. "You get to walk through the same front door that Elvis and Priscilla brought home baby Lisa Marie from the hospital. Graceland was Lisa Marie’s childhood home, filled with memories and stories. We will continue to share those memories with the fans for years to come." But Graceland has become more than a museum or a private family home: it has become, like Elvis’s legacy overall, a big business.
Top photo courtesy of Graceland © EPE. Graceland and its marks are trademarks of EPE. All Rights Reserved. Elvis Presley™ © 2020 ABG EPE IP LLC
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