Original Memphis : The Peabody Hotel

story by Tricia Dewey | photos courtesy of The Peabody Hotel

Nothing says holiday season in Memphis like the fabulously festive seasonal atmosphere of the Peabody Hotel. This year the Peabody is celebrating 150 years since the opening of its first hotel on the corner of Main and Monroe and its story is one of evolution like the city itself.

“As the Civil War ends, the story of the Peabody begins,” according to Memphis historian Jimmy Ogle. “Memphis was the fastest growing town before the Civil War and the fastest growing town in the country after the Civil War, it was a boom town,” and ready for a world-class hotel. A chance meeting between Colonel Robert Brinkley and George Peabody helped Brinkley find the financing to fund the hotel, and the Peabody was launched. Constructed in 1869 at a cost of $60,000, the Peabody became one of the South’s finest hotels and meeting places, and even in that original structure had a massive well-appointed lobby and grand ballroom.

This original Peabody closed in 1923, and in 1925 the planned larger Peabody reopened in its current location at Union and 2nd Street, a work of Chicago architect Walter Ahlschlager in Italian Renaissance Revival style. The Peabody ducks got their start in the large central travertine fountain in the 1930s when Peabody general manager Frank Schutt returned from a duck hunting trip and decided to place live decoys in the fountain (reportedly whiskey was involved). In 1940, Edward Pembroke, a former animal trainer, became the first Duckmaster and trained the ducks to ride the elevator and walk the red carpet to the fountain to the tune of John Phillip Sousa’s “King Cotton March.”

As with many other downtown Memphis landmarks, the Peabody experienced hard times in the 1970s and eventually closed its doors. Lucky for Memphis, years earlier Jack Belz had attended many events at the beautiful hotel and had the vision to purchase it from auction in 1975. He committed five years and $25 million to restore it to its original splendor down to the stained-glass skylights and wooden beams visible in the lobby today. The reopening of the Peabody in 1981 helped reinvigorate downtown Memphis. The hotel has embraced the holiday season ever since.

The holiday event season kicks off at the Peabody with a massive Thanksgiving Day buffet brunch on the mezzanine level seating approximately 1400 people. Just the dessert section is 32 feet long! If you’re looking for an antithesis to Black Friday shopping, the day after Thanksgiving at the Peabody starts with the usual 11 a.m. duck march. Once the ducks are paddling the fountain, the crowd disperses throughout the lobby perhaps slipping into a comfortable armchair, ordering somethingfancy, and preparing to be dazzled by local school and church choirs that perform throughout the day culminating in the singing of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and the arrival of Peabody Santa. Santa then magically illuminates the 30-foot Christmas tree in the lobby strung with 20,000 lights. It takes 20 Holliday Flower florists seven hours to assemble and decorate this tree. For many years Holliday Flowers has decorated the Peabody including 600 feet of lighted garland, approximately 11 other Christmas trees throughout the hotel, holiday wreaths, and outdoor décor.

The gingerbread aroma emanates from, yes, gingerbread! For the past 10 years, award-winning pastry chef Konrad Spitzbart has createda gingerbread display near the lobby entrance. Past themes have included a Christmas village, life- sized gingerbread house, Thomas the Train, and the Grinch. The pastry kitchen has been at work since September on the gingerbread display, which this year will be a European Christmas village. Assembly begins the week before Thanksgiving and final touches are added to bring it all together.

You can duck into the lobby for musical cheer provided by local choirs beginning after Thanksgiving and ongoing until a few days before Christmas, 11 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. Three Santa Teas at Chez Philippe are scheduled for Sundays in December (8, 15, 22). These are high tea affairs with seasonal tea sandwiches and festive sweets with a visit from the big guy himself.

The holiday season culminates at the Peabody with a blowout New Year’s Eve party. Chez Philippe and Capriccio Grill restaurants within the hotel host elegant dinners. Two bands and a DJ play in the continental ballroom, with doors open and music flowing throughthe hotel. Balloon drops, one in the ballroom and one in the lobby over the fountain, add to the festivities. For a more intimate New Year’s Eve a jazz trio plays in the Corner Bar. As David Cohn wrote in his 1935 book “God Shakes Creation,” “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel… If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.” This is never truer than during the season of holiday traditions.

Go to peabodymemphis.com for more information on events and reservations.