Zoey Goto, noted fashion and design expert and author of Elvis Style, recently visited Memphis and stayed overnight in the Presley family apartment (including sleeping in Elvis' teenage bedroom!) at the Lauderdale Apartments.
This is Zoey's narrative-visual account (including plenty of exclusive and stunning photos) of her experience - exclusively for EIN readers:
Lauderdale Courts holds the accolade of being the only place on earth where you can live as Elvis lived. While the apartment attracts crowds of fans during Elvis Week, it still remains a relatively well-kept secret as an overnight destination, where you can sleep within the same four walls that Elvis slept in as a teenager.
Having initially stayed while researching her book Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits, British author Zoey Goto returned again to experience this gem of an Elvis destination.
Walking around the gated housing complex now, it’s easy to imagine that not much has changed in the past almost seven decades since Elvis resided here. It was back in 1949 that Gladys, Vernon and their teenage son Elvis were first offered an apartment at Lauderdale Courts, where they stayed until 1953. It was the longest time that they would spend in a Memphis home, aside from Graceland, and the period where the family really put down their roots in their new city.
Having arrived from Tupelo only the previous year, the Presley’s luck had switched when they were offered the 5-roomed, 689-square-foot apartment for a very reasonable sum of $35 per month rent. This was just the opportunity for a better life that the Presley’s had been searching for.
The complex was one of the first American housing projects unveiled under president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Incorporating low level housing blocks, shared courtyards and parks, a recreation hall and a mall, Lauderdale Courts was considered a showcase in socially assisted housing. The residents were a close-knit community, with a tangible feeling that everyone was on the up.
It is perhaps that congenial atmosphere that led Elvis’ mother Gladys to ask a neighbour’s son to teach Elvis to play the guitar, and he would practice playing on his window ledge, in the basement or on the concrete steps outside his block in the evenings.
From the outside at least, the Presley’s housing block still looks pretty much as it did in the vintage photos showing a young Elvis posing with a toy gun or with his arms draped over the neighbouring kids, always somehow managing to steal the shot.
“The outside of the building is original as we are on the National Register of Historic Places, so can’t change the façade” explains Miranda Russell, Property Manager at Uptown Square Apartments, who now own the apartment.
Using Elvis Presley Enterprises archive photos of the apartment from 1951 as reference, they also employed local interior designer Amelia Carkuff to help bring their vision to life.
“Almost everything is a replica of how it was when the Presley’s lived here” Miranda continues. “For the inside, we had a small budget for decoration so mostly found things in garage sales and on eBay. The only original feature I know of is the gold plated light switches in the room. We also reintroduced the parquet flooring throughout the apartment, which is an exact replica of how it looked”.
The kitchen that Gladys’ was so proud of, with its standard issued 4-hob stove, shiny porcelain sink and drainer and room for a breakfast table and three chairs, has also been painstakingly recreated. They’ve even installed an original working refrigerator from 1951.
Gladys and Vernon’s bedroom is notably smaller than their beloved son’s and adorned with replica photos of the family. In the living room, a vintage RCA Victor floor radio takes pride of place while the modern addition of a television set and DVD player are discreetly concealed within a wardrobe.
Dotted throughout the apartment are contemporary conveniences such as a microwave, but somehow this updating has been so subtly handled that you don’t notice it. The overall feeling is of a restoration that has been carried out with great care and attention.
But of course, the real thrill for an Elvis fan is being able to sleep in Elvis’ teenage bedroom. Scattered around the room are photos of Elvis from his Lauderdale Courts era, vintage comics, a tin of Royal Crown hair pomade and an old guitar.
On the sideboard is a replica of the Humes High yearbook from 1953, which shows Elvis already starting to discover his style by growing his hair a little longer than his classmates and teasing it into a kiss-curl at the front.
Open Elvis’ bedroom window and you can hear the freight trains passing by and if the wind is blowing in the right direction, the faint sounds of Beale Street, making it easy to be transported back to another time.
Perhaps the single most significant thing about Lauderdale Courts is its location and the exposure that this offered Elvis. During these formative years, the cultural heart of Memphis was right on Elvis’ doorstep. Suddenly the record stores, the ostentatious clothing shops and blues sounds of Beale Street, the all-night gospel singings at the Ellis Auditorium, and the WMPS radio station where the Blackwood Brothers would perform, were within walking distance.
You can retrace his steps by taking a short walk to the historical marker that stands outside the former Poplar Tunes, one of Presley’s favourite record stores where he would later swing by the check in on how his records were selling.
Miranda also recommends visiting Elvis’ former Humes High School, where the current “students sometimes give fans a tour of the school, which is really nice apparently”. The Downtown area, where you can dress like The King at Lansky Bros or visit the Peabody Hotel, where Elvis signed his first recording contract, are also still standing and within walking distance.
Having spent four contented years living in The Courts, regrettably the Presley’s were asked to leave in early 1953, as their household income had reached above the housing association threshold. The trio packed up their belongings and were on the road again, lodging in a series of rental homes for the next three years, until fame came calling and the 21 year old Elvis could buy his family their first home on Audubon Drive, a quiet suburb of Memphis.
While the Presley’s were experiencing the American Dream, Lauderdale Courts destiny wasn’t looking quite so rosy as ran into disrepair. Eventually, the entire Lauderdale Courts complex was scheduled for demolition in the mid-nineties but was thankfully saved by the protests of local developers, Elvis fans and the media. $36 million was pumped into the renovation and it reopened in 2004, renamed as Uptown Square.
The complex remains a mixed-income community, with around a quarter of the apartments put aside for public housing residents. Walking around the grounds now, with its manicured gardens, play parks and picket fences; it remains a prime example of New Deal public housing, updated for 21 st century living.
Perhaps in gratitude of the Elvis fans who helped to save Lauderdale Courts from the wrecking ball, or maybe just sensing a good business venture when they see one, Uptown Square decided to open the Elvis apartment for public tours and overnight stays in 2004. Miranda recalls the instant success it became during Elvis Weeks.
“I started working at Uptown Square shortly before the 30 th Elvis Week anniversary, which received an overwhelming response from the fans. We were here from 6.30am to sundown and I’ve never seen so many people in my life - I think we brought in $30,000 from tours just in that week!” she recalls.
They are hoping for a similar surge of interest this August for the 40th anniversary and will be stopping overnight stays during Elvis Week and the week prior so that day tours can take priority.
Although the day tours throughout the year continue to be popular, surprisingly the apartment does not yet attract the numbers of overnight visitors one might expect. Perhaps this is because you can’t book online yet, or maybe it is just a case of fans not being aware that this is a possibility.
“Initially it was pretty slow but we’re starting to get more guests, as more people discover us through publicity” Miranda says. “It is such a great experience and we do get Elvis fans from all over the world come and stay here. No area is roped off so it is very hands-on, which the fans just really love”. If you’re looking for a premium hotel experience, it is probably best to stay at one of the luxury hotels in Memphis’ downtown area.
However, if you want to stay somewhere truly unique, where you can live, sleep and walk a mile in Elvis’ shoes, then the Presley apartment at Lauderdale Courts really can’t be beaten!
Overnight stays in the Elvis apartment at Lauderdale Courts cost $250 per night including tax. Daytime tours are $10 per person or $7 a head for groups of 10 or more. To book call: +1 901 523 8662
The author's daughter in Elvis' Bedroom - Oh, the joy and innocence
To find out more about Lauderdale Courts and other houses that Elvis lived in, pick up a copy of Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits by Zoey Goto available now on Amazon:
Buy from Amazon US and UK:
Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits