Rendering courtesy Graceland Enterprises, Inc.
S urely everyone has read about all the exciting things going on at Graceland these days. Just this past spring, the State of Tennessee approved Memphis’ request for a tourism development zone for the 120-acre Graceland campus, and the City approved a 5 percent tourist surcharge on items bought there.
Construction of an elegant new 450-room hotel and conference center north of the mansion, The Guest House, is well under way, as are plans for an entertainment complex. And after nearly a year of negotiations, it was agreed that Elvis’ two jets, the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog II , will remain at Graceland right where they are. Hooray for that!
With all this forward momentum, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at the history of the Graceland property, before Elvis Presley bought it in 1957, and also at some of the details connected to his purchase of the home. Jack Soden, the very amiable and historically minded CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., recently took time out of his busy schedule to recall some of this history, and also to talk about the occasional good luck that has, in his view, helped Elvis’ beloved home become the world-famous attraction it is today.
Soden says that, understandably, many visitors to Graceland assume that Elvis himself built the home, and that his mother was named Grace. (Of course, we all know her name was Gladys!) In fact, according to Soden, the pre-Elvis history of the house is one of the questions most frequently asked by visitors.
The answer is pretty straightforward: While Elvis fell in love with the property, he did not build it. In fact, the house we know as Graceland has a long and storied past, connected to several prominent Memphis families.
An aerial view shows the property before Elvis purchased it.
Soden says that Graceland was originally part of a Hereford cattle farm in Whitehaven, then on the outskirts of Memphis, owned by the descendants of S.C. Toof, the nineteenth-century founder of a well-known Memphis printing firm. Eventually the family owned 480 acres, with this undeveloped land being called Graceland after one of Toof’s daughters, Grace Toof Ward, who had originally purchased 323 acres in 1894.
By 1939 the land was owned by Ruth Toof Brown (Grace’s sister) and her husband, Battle Manassas Brown. They gifted their daughter, Ruth, a 158-acre parcel in its northernmost section. She and her husband, Dr. Thomas D. Moore, prominent members of Memphis society, built a Southern colonial house on the property in 1939-1941 and named it Graceland. Their new home was designed by the Memphis architectural firm of Furbringer and Ehrman, and built by Robert Crouch for the princely sum of $41,462. It was here the Moores raised their daughter, Ruth Marie Moore Cobb, who became a famous harpist with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. After the Moores divorced in 1952, Mrs. Moore eventually moved out of the house and allowed a local church group to use her property for gatherings until they could build a church on the adjoining land. Enter the young and famous Mr. Presley. For Elvis and Graceland, it was a case of love at first sight. He had previously lived for a year on Audubon Drive, a lovely street then and now in East Memphis, not far from The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, but the budding superstar needed something that afforded more privacy and security, now that he was a show-business sensation. Memphis realtor Virginia Grant showed his parents the lovely white-columned mansion on Highway 51 (now Elvis Presley Boulevard) in Whitehaven near the Mississippi line. Several days later — in March 1957 — Elvis bought Graceland for $102,500, along with 13 and 3/4 acres that included a lake.
His newly acquired country place, vacant at the time, was sold for Mrs. Ruth Brown Moore by Hugh Bosworth of Bosworth Inc. Elvis moved in with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, becoming “a country squire” overnight. The singing star added the now-iconic musical-themed iron gates and a pool, and over the next few years expanded the house from 10,000 to 17,000 square feet. The existing four-car garage came in handy, although perhaps it was a tight squeeze for Presley’s many Cadillacs and Lincolns.
While speaking of the history of Graceland, Soden points proudly to the architect’s rendering of the home that was unearthed in a barn on the property and now hangs in his office. In this connection, he adds that “our Graceland archives are highly secured and private” and are located in more than one location, some of which are undisclosed. However, “guests can explore our new archives studio and see some of the archives; 10 percent of our collection is on display and 90 percent in storage in secure locations.”
Angie Marchese is the long-serving and indefatigable director of archives at Graceland; Robert Dye is the photography archivist. Marchese travels widely to help install Elvis exhibitions all over the world, including, as recently as this past April, a 28,000-square-foot exhibit in Las Vegas at the Westgate Hotel and Casino (formerly the International Hotel and the Las Vegas Hilton). Titled “Graceland Presents Elvis: The Exhibition, the Shows, the Experience,” this is the largest single Presley display outside of Memphis.
For Soden, the development of Graceland can be likened to “a row of dominoes.” In other words, for the home to have become the amazingly successful tourism mecca that it is today, “things had to fall into place just right.” And they did!
To begin with, there was the sheer beauty of the estate with its elegant name (think God’s grace) that Elvis did not change when he purchased the property. Soden says that Elvis took this name to audiences everywhere and made it famous around the world. Also, he notes Elvis was devoted to Memphis, and he was always identified with the city, and vice versa. While we now take this synergy for granted, few celebrities are so connected with the place they call home that their private residence becomes a shrine for thousands of visitors year after year.
When Elvis bought the property, one major attraction was Graceland’s pastoral setting. But that didn’t last for long. Soon, housing subdivisions started springing up nearby, with stores following, which meant that, as early as 1970, Graceland had become a residential oasis in a bustling commercial setting.
While the pros and cons of this situation are obvious, Soden, true to form, sees this as another positive “domino” that has contributed to the success of Graceland as a business enterprise. Since “access is everything,” the home’s location just off Interstate 55, close to the airport, has made it possible for Graceland to become the tremendous tourist attraction that it is today. Every day out on Elvis Presley Boulevard, for example, tours of Graceland are given in nine different languages, with the most recent addition being Mandarin Chinese.
The Graceland campus has expanded over time; it’s now a patchwork of 120 acres. According to Soden, nine acres across from the mansion on the west side of the highway comprise the latest parcel of land that has been added to the estate; it was bought from the family of Memphian William R. Carrington Jones and is reserved for future growth.
Behind Graceland and across the street are neighborhoods of nicely kept homes, and the obvious question is how those neighbors feel about having a world-famous tourist attraction in their own backyard. “Keep in mind we enjoy a good deal of support from these homeowners,” explains Soden, “and we have earned the faith they have in us.”
Graceland was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. As longtime caretaker of Memphis’ most well-known landmark, Soden is convinced that Elvis Presley Enterprises is a stabilizing force in the area. “We want more green grass and trees and less asphalt, so that we will be in step with the world’s image and expectation of Graceland.”
This being said, I think you all will agree that Elvis’ memory and his beloved home, Graceland, are in very good hands.