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Architecture in the Life of Elvis Presley

From Mississippi to Memphis, the King of Rock 'n Roll Had Many Haunts

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Buildings are often part of important milestones in our lives. For rock star musician Elvis Presley, architecture represents a rise to fame and continued megastar status.

Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, 1935

Photo of a modest, white, two-room home in the style of a Katrina cottage.
Photo ©Ken Lund, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0), at flickr.com

This two-room Tupelo, Mississippi house is similar to other low-cost, functional homes often found in the southern United States. A southern climate allowed the architecture of shelter to be simple. Its narrow design resembles Shotgun Houses popular at the time, and even today's Katrina Cottage.

The historical marker near this modest home reads:

BIRTHPLACE OF ELVIS PRESLEY Elvis Aaron Presley was born Jan. 8, 1935, in this house, built by his father. Presley's career as a singer and entertainer redefined American popular music. He died Aug. 16, 1977, at Memphis, Tennessee.

The family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when Elvis was 13 years old.

Sun Recording Studio, Memphis

Photo of brick building, sun studio painted on wall, large electric guitar hanging above door.
Photo of Sun Studio ©Reading Tom, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), flickr.com

Elvis' first successes were realized in this modest, brick building in Memphis, Tennessee. What some say is the first "rock 'n roll" song, That's Alright, Mama, was recorded here by a 19-year-old Elvis Presley in the summer of 1954. The historical marker in front of the building reads:

SUN RECORDS In the early 1950's Sun Records was a small recording studio located here at 706 Union. Owned and operated by Sam C. Phillips, Sun Records became nationally known for giving many local area artists, both black and white, their start in the recording industry. These included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Howlin' Wolf and others.

The electric guitar above the door is typical of 1950s roadside architecture. The function of a building would often be represented by an object, whether it be a musical instrument like a guitar or the iconic food images associated with diners and carhops.

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Levitt Shell, Memphis

Levitt Shell in Overton Park, 1936, Memphis, was Elvis' first performing venue
Photo of Levitt Shell ©Jeremy Sorrells on flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Elvis Presley's first paid performance is said to have been in this open air music shell on July 30, 1954. The new recording artist opened for established country singer Slim Whitman, the headliner that summer at the band shell in Memphis' Overton Park.

The 1936 Levitt Shell would be a significant architectural structure even if it weren't the birthplace of rock 'n roll performance. Like other Depression era projects, the Memphis public works structure was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Levitt Shell is one of 27 such government-funded band shells built around the U.S. for the purpose of employing people during the Great Depression. At a reported cost of $11,935, the New Deal-era shell is similar to band shells in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis.

Architect Max Furbringer's simple layered hemisphere design has stood the test of time, as the public continues to enjoy performances in the historic shell of Overton Park, Memphis, Tennessee.

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Source: History of the Shell, Levitt Shell [accessed January 5, 2014]

Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 1954

Photo ©Don Klumpp, Getty Images

The historic Municipal Memorial Auditorium and Stage of Stars Museum was home to the Louisiana Hayride radio show. Elvis recorded That's Alright, Mama in the summer, and by the fall of 1954 the teenaged Presley was performing live to a radio audience from Shreveport, Louisiana. The statue by Eric Kaposta was added in 2004.

The 1929 art deco building was designed by Jones, Roessle, Olschner & Wiener and built by Ashton Glassell Co., Inc. The Shreveport municipal building's long history includes use as the city morgue and temporary barracks during World War II. In 1991 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "The building is so intensively ornamented," says the nomination document, "that even the tiny spaces between the brackets supporting the balconies feature stylized motifs."

Decorative facades found on similar buildings of the day include structures on New York City's Wall Street, Depression-era Ohio Post Office buildings, and Bertram G. Goodhue's design of the Central Public Library in Los Angeles, California.

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Elvis Presley's First Home, Memphis, 1956

Photo of a very modest, white, ranch-style suburban house.
Photo by Mike Brown ©2006 Getty Images

In the mid-1950s, the American Dream included home ownership, and the Presley family was no exception. Royalty payments, especially from Heartbreak Hotel, allowed Elvis to purchade this suburban Memphis home for himself and his parents. The Presleys lived in this ranch-style home at 1034 Audubon Drive for a little more than a year in 1956-1957. As Elvis' success became more sensational, the family felt the need to move to the more secure Graceland Mansion in 1957. However, a ranch style home in the suburbs was the first reward for the extraordinary Elvis.

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Elvis Presley's Honeymoon Hideaway, 1967

Photo of a the bay windows of a modern Palm Springs house.
Photo by David McNew ©2003 Getty Images

While in the U.S. military, Elvis met Priscilla Beaulieu in Germany in 1959. After they married in 1967, the newlyweds retreated to this leased a Honeymoon Hideaway in Palm Springs, California.

The house was originally owned by developer Robert Alexander, a builder who modernized the ranch-style house for a new generation of Californians. Perhaps Elvis was attracted to the modern split-level design as a reminder of the first ranch home he bought in Memphis, back in 1956. Since Elvis' death, this site is often a gathering place for fans, club conventions, and an occasional guided tour led by Priscilla look-alikes.

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The International Hotel, 1969

Photo of marquis advertising Elvis performing at a large, modern, high rise hotel (background)
Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images

The International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada was considered the largest hotel in the world when it opened in 1969. Architect Martin Stern, Jr. has been credited with at least two accomplishments:

  1. Bringing googie architecture to Las Vegas
  2. Integrating hotels, casinos, and convention areas into one, large structure

Elvis Presley lived in the Penthouse suite of the International for four weeks in the summer of 1969. As one of the first performers at the new resort, Presley worked two sold-out shows a day, seven days a week for a month.

The International has gone through several name and owner changes, but it remains in operation as The LVH Las Vegas Hotel & Casino—ask for the Sky Villa.

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Graceland Mansion, Memphis

Photo of the front of the final home of Elvis Presley, Graceland Mansion in Memphis, TN.
Photo ©Joseph Lee Novak, CC BY 2.0 at flickr.com

Elvis bought Graceland in March 1957, as his career was exploding and his security and privacy were compromised. The 1939 Neoclassical mansion in Memphis, Tennessee is a far cry from the two-room home built by his father in Tupelo. Often described as a Classical Revival or a Colonial Revival, Graceland "was constructed at the top of a hill, almost at the center of the property in a grove of oaks, with rolling pastures in front and behind it, and a western exposure towards the Mississippi River." The National Historic Landmark Nomination form compiled by architectural historian Jody Cook gives a thorough description of the property [PDF, May 27, 2004, accessed January 7, 2013]. Graceland was designed by Furbringer & Ehrman, the same Max Furbringer who designed Levitt Shell for Elvis' first performance.

The Presley family often rented apartments and leased houses as Elvis was growing up in the south. Leasing residences was a trend that a successful and very busy Elvis Presley would continue even while owning Graceland Mansion. The number of homes associated with Elvis is immense. When adding performance and recording venues to his numerous residences, it's no wonder that Elvis sightings continue.

After his 1977 death at Graceland, the house opened for tours in 1982 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Graceland rose in stature to become a National Historic Landmark in 2006, based largely on the historical significance of Elvis Presley instead of the architectural significance of Graceland.

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