It’s Elvis Week, a time when diehards make a pilgrimage to Graceland, the king’s home-turned-tourist attraction in Memphis. For decades the annual event has filled the rooms at the nearby Heartbreak Hotel. The Elvis fanatics who rarely quibble about the faded charms of Graceland—recently updated with iPad-guided tours narrated by the actor John Stamos—have mixed feelings about the old Heartbreak. The hotel garners praise for its location and campiness alongside barbs for its outdated air conditioning and well-worn décor.
“It was built under the concept of how inexpensively you could build a hotel,” says Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of Graceland Holdings, which is developing the new hotel. Heartbreak was originally built in 1985 as a branch of the Wilson World hotel chain, developed by Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson. Elvis Presley Enterprises, the business arm of the musician’s estate, purchased the hotel in 1999 and rebranded it as an official Elvis destination.
Now Heartbreak will be “going away,” Weinshanker says, to be replaced by a $70 million, 450-room hotel designed to modern standards. The new facility will echo the Grecian-style portico found at Graceland, which is about a quarter mile away and draws about 600,000 visitors a year.
Weinshanker says that the project was approached with one question in mind: What would Elvis want? “Elvis loved visitors,” he says, “and he used to send them down to a motel when he couldn’t house them. What would he have done when it got to the point where there were so many people, and he didn’t want to send them down the block? He’d build a guesthouse.”
The new hotel, dubbed the Guest House, will have a full-service restaurant, a sports bar, and a conference center. The goal is to keep all the clientele who turn out for stays at the Heartbreak, which still does brisk business. During Elvis Week the 120-room hotel has an “infinite wait list,” according to Weinshanker. “The only time a [new] person comes in is when someone else, unfortunately, passes away.”
Elvis Presley Enterprises tapped local architects Hnedak Bobo Group to design an upscale extension of the Graceland experience. Gone are the kitschy furnishings and vintage feel of Heartbreak; in their place are the usual trappings of a comfortable if somewhat generic hotel. Elvis’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, will attend the groundbreaking on Thursday.
Rooms at the Guest House, slated for completion in the fall of 2015, will cost an average of $160 a night—$20 more than the Heartbreak’s average. So what will happen to the older hotel once the bigger one opens? “There are people bidding on hitting the plunger,” Weinshanker says of the old hotel’s likely demise. But the hotel’s exact fate is still to be determined: “It’s like taking a horse out to pasture. We’re just trying to figure out a humane way to do that.”