Historian David Cohn once wrote, “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” The Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN, has once again been nominated for the Nations Best Historic Hotel in a USA Today poll that runs until early August.
Like many southerners who grew up within a 100-mile radius of Memphis, this grand hotel holds special memories for me. The Peabody Hotel was named after George Peabody, southern gentleman who made significant contributions to many of the regions institutions. The original hotel opened in 1869 at the corner of Main Street and Monroe in downtown Memphis. The South was in the early stages of recovering from the War Between the States and was a showcase in a city that needed a new landmark. The hotel closed in 1923 and was reopened in 1925 on Union Avenue, where it stands today.
In describing the grand hotel, Cohn also wrote, “If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby…ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.” And I would add if you stand there especially between the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, that statement remains true today.
In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, my parents would reserve a room for the weekend when the Mid-South Fair was in town. I remember the large granite and marble columns in the lobby whose centerpiece was the large foundation filled with live ducks. Frank Schutt, who served as the hotel’s general manager in 1933, started the tradition when he and some friends returned from a duck hunting trip in Arkansas and released their live decoys in the hotel’s marble fountain. There was obviously some whiskey drinking that preceded this prank, but they remain there to this day. Twice daily, at 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., the ducks are marched to and from the elevators on a red carpet to throngs of tourist snapping photos.
The Peabody has seen its share of ups and downs. In 1973 the city was struggling to keep and attract businesses. Downtown was a mess and had yet to recover from the 1968 sanitation strike. Sheraton owned the property at the time and with little notice, closed the landmark property. It was a shock to the entire city. Efforts when made the purchase and revitalize the property in 1974, but they proved fruitless. In the summer of 1975, the Belz family stepped in and restored the property to its proper grandeur, reopening the Peabody Hotel in 1981. Today the Peabody Hotel in Memphis has 464 rooms is a Forbes Four-Star Hotel and has an AAA Four-Diamond rating too.
There is much to write about this property – so many stories it could tell. Doug Browne, president of Peabody Hotels and Resorts, has said the hotels success is built purely from the memories so many people have of the hotel and ballrooms. I agree. There is not a single time I walk through the doors I don’t feel like a 5-year old kid exploring the lobby for the first time.
Other Southern historic hotels in the contest are The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville and the Wentworth Mansion in Charleston. To vote in the poll, click here.