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Boston Society of Architects

Taste Feature

An idyll to the King

When you give in to Graceland, taste is tangential

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Interior of the Pool Room.

Image: Thomas Hawk/Creative Commons

I first visited Graceland, Elvis Presley’s famed estate in Memphis, Tennessee, for the reason I suspect many people go to NASCAR events and hockey games and probably Graceland itself: I wanted carnage. Elvis, at that time, meant little to me. American pop-cultural significance aside, Elvis Presley was a washed-up relic, a bloated has-been. In my mind, “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog” took a distant back seat to Hollywood hackwork, Vegas, and white jumpsuits. His extravagance, however, was the stuff of legend. There were no half measures for the King of Rock and Roll. His mansion, said to be a gaudy masterpiece, had become a kind of shorthand for bad taste. I came to Graceland as a rubbernecker. I left as a convert.

Our homes, and the objects we choose (or not) to fill them with, reveal much about ourselves: memories, secrets, aspirations. They are the museums of ourselves, each of us a curator. Nowhere is this more colorfully in evidence than at Graceland, which has been open to the public since 1982. The house was his magnum opus; Elvis never stopped redecorating in the 20 years he owned it. Part museum, part working residence (family members continued to occupy the house until the mid-’90s), it has changed little over time. Anybody can now experience Graceland as Elvis did. Only the second floor, where he succumbed to a cardiac event in 1976, is off limits. Rumor has it that a plastic Jesus statue guards the padded double doors of the master suite.

Initially, Graceland seems oddly formal given its reputation. The entry foyer and flanking living/dining rooms are funeral-parlor stiff, decked out in white carpeting, mirrored walls, royal blue drapery, and abundant gold trim. (The living room is, in fact, where Elvis’ private funeral service was held.) The centerpiece is the 15(!)-foot-long white sofa, built to accommodate the sizable coterie of Presley family and friends (the “Memphis mafia”). Off in the distance is the Music Room, featuring a black baby grand piano, a limestone-clad console television set, and floor-to-ceiling gold curtains. The kitchen itself is typical of the era: wood cabinetry, Formica counters, stained glass lamps. It is not difficult to conjure Elvis here in his pajamas, himself conjuring up a nocturnal peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich. By at least one standard of “good taste,” Elvis was a supreme arbiter, a veritable Oscar Wilde.

The real fun begins, as it always does, in the basement. Down a stairway is the TV Room, a yellow-and-black hall of mirrors. Dominated by a giant sectional sofa, the room includes a leather-upholstered bar along one wall, the signature Elvis “TCB” lightning bolt (Taking Care of Business — in a flash) painted on another, and a trio of wall-mounted TVs (an idea Elvis copped from LBJ, the better to watch multiple football games simultaneously). A porcelain white monkey, one of several in the house, frolics on a mirrored coffee table, while a menagerie of glass clowns patrols the bar. Next door is the art nouveau tent that is the Pool (billiards) Room. Some 350 yards of elaborate print fabric cover virtually every surface in the room, furniture included. The basement is, in effect, a proto man cave. Exterior windows are covered up, sealing out the real world and enhancing the nighttime ambiance.

Back upstairs is Graceland’s highlight, the so-called Jungle Room. A converted patio, this tiki time capsule of plastic plants, faux fur, rainbow lights, and animal prints is a phantasmagorical tribute to Polynesian culture. One end of the room is completely taken up by a working indoor waterfall. Sofas with gargoyle arms jostle for space with wooden island-god thrones. Built as a den, the Jungle Room was also a recording studio where Elvis laid down much of his later work. The ersatz exotica of the Jungle Room channels the King’s personality more directly than any other space in the house. It’s fake, but it’s also very real. His sense of humor is evident throughout. Say what one will about the green shag carpeting that covers both floor and ceiling, it is impossible to leave this room without a smile. This is design with a healthy disregard for convention, a joke that we’re all in on.

The remainder of the tour (including a slot-car track-cum-trophy room and the Meditation Garden burial site of the Presley family) is moving and impressive, but it is the spaces personally touched by the King that truly resonate. Elvis was a corporation; his work was the result of many people. Graceland, however, was his home, his intimate domain. It offers a glimpse into his soul that we will never get from his music or films.

Less a house museum than a caper gone wonderfully awry, Graceland stands as the work of a restless individual with means and dreams in equal measure. Elvis was fast; TCB was more than just a mural. The Jungle Room was decked out in 30 minutes, based on a furniture set featured in a local television ad. No design options, sample boards, or study models. Grip it and rip it. There is much at Graceland that one could take issue with, but when something goes this far over the top, the standard definitions of good and bad taste no longer apply. Elvis may have inspired countless black velvet paintings over the years, but very little at Graceland can rightly be called “kitsch.” There is no irony here, no obvious critical distancing. This is a big kid creating the ultimate playhouse. I may not have had much time for Elvis that first time I visited Graceland, but his overwrought, underthought Xanadu won me over. Bold, playful, and manic, Graceland breaks every rule and inspires me to this day.

The thing about things

Books, records, photographs, paintings, figurines —  the objects we put on display in our homes are far from random. They reveal what we don’t (or won’t) say about ourselves. While I may not be a reliable narrator when it comes to my life, the highlights of my own cat burglar–confounding Graceland tell a truer tale:

  • The Robot, a bizarre ’70s-era hairdo contraption found on the curb in Downtown Crossing. It rode the T back with me that night and has enjoyed pride of place ever since.
  • An army of Bob’s Big Boys. The tip of an iceberg of midcentury pop-culture/roadside paraphernalia.
  • A plaster Henry Winkler Life Mask. First (and last) eBay purchase. The link was sent to me as a joke that I interpreted as a dare.
  • Amateur art, aka paintings-pulled-from-the-trash. I love the unmindful abandon with which novice artists attack their work and find it poignant when they choose to discard it.