This historic hotel endures as a Memphis marvel.
I have lived all over the country, even overseas. Although I know no constant home, The Peabody has always been a presence throughout my life. In the city where my parents met and my grandparents built part of their equally nomadic life, my family returns to the hotel lobby like homing pigeons.
In the 1940s, my grandmother would go to the dances held on the hotel’s Skyway, the top-floor rotunda where big bands would play and CBS would broadcast the performances. (Later it would host Elvis Presley’s prom.) After the Peabody was saved by new owners and investors multiple times during the ’60s and ’70s and refurbished once again in 1981, my parents would station themselves in the lobby before and after concerts and dancing. Thirty-something years later, my mother and I sit in that lobby together over gin and tonics.
Now, as a travel editor, I return to Memphis for other reasons, but I find that the hotel still holds the same magic I felt when I saw those duck march into the fountain for the first time as a kindergartener. The city has gone from golden days to blue ones and back again more than enough times in that time, but the Peabody, built in the 1880s, somehow maintains an importance in a city that is changing thanks in large part to a new generation of residents.
Whether you’re booking your first stay or returning yourself, there’s always a new detail to find or piece of history to learn. Here are five reasons to make the trip there.
- The Ducks: While it might be a Memphis cliche to some, the march of the mallards to the lobby fountain from the elevator is a scene worth sticking around in the crowds of guests who line the red carpet and watch from the mezzanine. The tradition started when the hotel manager and his friends returned from a hunting trip in Arkansas and decided to place their live decoys in the fountain after a bit too much whiskey. Occasionally, the hotel hosts a celebrity Duckmaster; Brittany Howard, Peter Frampton, and, Memphis native, Justin Timberlake have all served in the past.
- The Mezzanine: Overlooking the lobby, the second floor is filled with relics from the past. Many of them reside in the hotel’s history room where you’ll find copies of old stationary, examples of the first linens, and photographs of famous visitors. Wes Anderson-ish vignettes abound, especially the bank of landline phones and booths where visitors once placed long-distance calls.
- The Lobby: When the lobby was refurbished the first time in the early 1920s, it was renown for being air-conditioned and its fountain carved from a single piece of travertine marble. It was also outfitted with $500,000 worth of furniture Much of the original architecture and materials still stand today. Don’t forget to look up at the ornate stained-glass-and-painted-wood ceiling while you’re sipping your drink.
- The Bathrooms: While the bathrooms differ in size (It’s a historic building after all.), each come with bars of soap carved into a shape of a duck and double as free souvenirs. There’s also a landline telephone mounted on the wall in each of them—a feature from the past that’s remained.
- The Rooftop: In the summer, the rooftop bar opens for guests and locals with sweeping views of the city and the Mississippi River. The hotel hosts parties every Thursday night, and, although not in the same style as they were in these ’40s, hundreds come to socialize and dance under the iconic, red-neon sign.