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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Graceland, Memphis

Graceland is never more charming than at night when the tourist
attraction glitz seeps away and the aura of southern charm settles in.
This is not about Elvis. It's about the architectural shell he built around himself over the course of twenty years from the time he "made it" in the pop music world around 1957 until his death in 1977. This is not about Graceland the tourist attraction either, even though that was our introduction to the the place this past spring when we passed through Memphis in search of the "ghost of Elvis." Graceland is not known to be haunted, but insofar as the house and its carefully preserved, thirty-seven-year-old interior is concerned, the metaphor is not without substance. Elvis is, of course, buried at Graceland (out beyond the pool) but he is also mirrored in the house he shaped to his own personna. In some ways, Graceland was exactly as I'd expected--rags to riches is not usually accompanied by refined tastes. By the same token, there were surprises. Graceland, Elvis, his entire life, even his death, is often summed up with the single word,"tacky." If nothing else, Graceland often underscores the validity of that observation, yet...sometimes I found aspects of this overdecorated shell not nearly as tacky as I'd expected.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Graceland in April. Careful placement of landscaping and mature growth
hides much of the expansion of the Presley years.
Graceland originally came into being, the product of "old money"--inherited southern wealth laden with all the cultural baggage such images entail. Built by a doctor and his wife in 1940, as old southern mansion go, it's not very. Designed by Memphis architect, Max Furbringer, the original house boasted about 10,000 square feet of living space on two floors-four rooms upstairs, four on the fround floor. The exterior was a tasteful tan limestone, the style, Classical Revival as it prevailed in the South at the time. The pairing of the Corinthian columns and the narrowness of the Greek portico have always bothered me. Neither are true to classical proportions. So before anyone sheds tears of disgust as to what Elvis may or may not have done in terms of "desecrating" the classic southern architecture of the old Graceland (so named by it's original owners), let me point out that the house was neither old nor truly classical when Presley moved in and went to work turning it into a comfortable, domestic habitat image of himself.

The living room of Graceland--formal but not stuffy. The mirrors give it a "busy" glitz we see today as being fussy, but that's likely just our 21st-century tastes.
Graceland's "grand staircase"
isn't all that grand
The first thing that struck me in entering Graceland was the fact that it was not huge. The rooms are generous in size and proportion, quite in line with those of many upper-level residences today. Graceland is not palatial. It is rich, opulent, stopping just short of the "tacky" I mentioned before only because such interiors were the product of mid-20th century tastes. Though the interior was updated at least twice during the Presley years, it still remains today, several decades old in style. It would seem that the very fact that the house was not enormous in scale tends to cramp Elvis' 1950s era vision of the style in with the rich should live. Remember, Elvis was barely out of his teens when he bought the estate for $100,000. He wanted a secure place for his aging, depression era parents, a "fun" place to kick back between tours, and a place to show off his newly acquired wealth (if not his good taste).

Expansion during the Presley years brought Graceland to 17,500 square feet.
Graceland's second floor, not open for tours.
Elvis' bedroom is to the lower right, his bodyguard occupied the
bedroom on the lower left. He died in the bathroom between them.
The master bedroom at Graceland
--the shell inside the shell, or a padded cell?
Twenty years changes people--anyone--but especially a high maintenanace pop-rock star. Money becomes no object. Comfort and convenience grow in importance. Privacy becomes an issue, the entourage grows, the career becomes more and more demanding, time (especially time off) is of the essence. Graceland came to reflect all these changes. Parents die, wives and lovers come and go, children are born, the body ages, health declines. And despite what some might say, aesthetic tastes, here mostly in interior design, become somewhat more refined. Elvis's Graceland began with a style one wag termed "early bordello." From what I've seen, it was no exaggeration--lots and lots of red. Unauthorized photos of the singer's upstairs private quarters (above, left) offer a glimpse of what the whole house may have looked like in the early years.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Jungle Room. I somehow got the idea it was down in the basement.
The heavily carved woodwork was the only thing "tacky" I could see.
There was nothing subtle about Elvis, except perhaps his voice. Downstairs, too much red became lots of white and blue as feminine influences crept in. I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that the infamous "Jungle Room" was not nearly as tacky as I'd expected. The famous waterfall was so unobtrusive I almost missed it (an attractive cut-stone wall with water drizzling down over its surface). I was expecting tiger stripes and lots of animal skins, with endless ferns and palms. Okay, the carpet was green and there were some plants, but nothing in really bad taste.

The dining room--the draperies may seem a little heavyhanded today,
but nothing not in keeping with the prevailing styles of the 1970s.
The dining room and living room, as redecorated in 1974, are not unattractive, though the mirrored wall panels may be a be overdone (not to mention the 13-foot sofa). Visually, the only thing I found troubling was that the grand piano was proportionally too large for the added-on music room. It looked uncomfortably wedged in sitting there. The dining room looked expensive, but I'd readily be willing to call it my own. The kitchen--nice, not huge, warm and modern in every respect--an inviting hangout.

The basement media room, a bit much, but I could get used to it I think.
In the basement (a cellar when Elvis bought the house) contains a pool room (pocket pool, that is) and a sizable media room lined (above) with built in seating around the perimeter and three TVs (one for each network). The pool room is, quite frankly, the ugliest room in the house--oppresively dark and over-upholstered. In contrast, the media room is richly paneled, featuring earth tones accented by bright yellow and white pillows. A mirrored wall and ceiling appears to double, or triple, the volume of the room and is disconcerting, yet visually exciting. Think what he could have done with today's big-screen electronica.

The Graceland kitchen, no larger, no less cozy, nor warm than what
you might find today in many suburban homes.
Graceland is a museum dedicated to the preservation of "living large" as applied to the 1960s and 70s. By today's celebrity standards, 17,500 square feet of heavily upholstered, drapery laden, white-carpeted, and mirrored living space would barely rate as a "humble abode." Only one swimming pool? Just a three-car garage? Where's the spa? In all fairness, various peripheral structures behind Graceland might possibly double the figure above, but that does little to diminish the estate's antiquarian essence. Elvis did not "desecrate" Graceland in sizing it to fit his massive ego and no less masssive career. He simply updated the premesis, not always with the greatest sense of taste, but never as "tacky" as the topplers of human icons would have us believe.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Out behind the house. Easily the least remarkable thing about Graceland
--a typical suburban back yard.


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