Elvis Week 2000: Preservation Group Helps Save Elvis', Memphis' Past

Groups work to preserve and rebuild the city's musical past, including Elvis' residences, Stax Records.

(Editor's Note: Elvis Week 2000 marks the 23rd anniversary of the passing of the King of Rock and Roll, who died in Memphis, Tenn., on Aug. 16, 1977. That week has evolved into an annual festival in Memphis, where thousands of Elvis fans from around the world converge on Graceland, Beale Street and other Memphis musical landmarks to celebrate his life and music. Sonicnet.com will be in Memphis all week, reporting on the events and the people who are part of this unique memorial.)

Contributing Editor RW Deutsch reports:

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It's 9:30 on a Thursday evening, and as Mike Freeman and Cindy Hazen pull into their driveway at 1034 Audubon Drive after going out to dinner, a tour bus filled with Elvis Presley fans from Denmark pulls up.

"Sometimes our lives can get a little crazy," Hazen sighed.

For those unfamiliar with that address in Memphis, it was the house Presley bought for his family in March 1956 and lived in for 13 months.

Freeman and Hazen, co-authors of two books about Presley, "The Best of Elvis" and "Memphis: Elvis-Style," bought the house about two years ago. Since then, they've been restoring it to 1950s-era style.

But that isn't the only local landmark getting the restoration treatment.

On Saturday Freeman and Hazen opened the house to the public for a pool party to benefit the Memphis Heritage Society — a 25-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of Memphis. Among their projects was the successful saving of Lauderdale Courts, the federal housing project where the Presleys lived during most of Elvis' teenage years.

The Audubon Drive residence was the first house the Presleys owned since Elvis had been a child. When they left this home, they moved to Graceland.

"This is where Elvis lived when he made history," Freeman said.

The Brink Of Stardom

It was that brief moment in pop-culture history when Elvis was suddenly a star — heading to Hollywood for his first screen test, receiving his gold record for "Heartbreak Hotel" (RealAudio excerpt) — and the fame, attention and money were still new to him. As his stardom grew, new friends such as actors Nick Adams and Natalie Wood came to stay at the house.

"When he lived here he was open to the public as he would never be again," Freeman said.

"His life was still normal then," Hazen added.

The 1950s ranch-style three-bedroom house includes a 30-by-50-foot swimming pool. Elvis had some renovation done to the house, including extending the game room and converting the garage into a pool house.

The famed photographer Alfred Wertheimer was allowed to practically live in the house for a period of time, taking photos of Gladys (Elvis' mother) cooking, Elvis shaving and such other everyday activities as signing autographs for the legions of fans that had already begun camping at his door.

"I wondered," wrote Wertheimer of his experience in the book "Elvis '56," "how a house this open could remain a home."

Freeman and Hazen bought the house after a friend happened to notice the "For Sale" sign go up. They've used Wertheimer's photographs during the restoration, and they've scrounged yard sales and eBay for various period knickknacks as well as a portable television set that matches Elvis'.

The walls of the house are decorated with paintings of Elvis and framed photographs of Wertheimer's, including one of Vernon Presley, Elvis' father, peeking out the bathroom door at the camera.

"It's hard to not feel the way Elvis must have when he moved here," Hazen said.

A Light On History

The Lauderdale Courts address sheds a different light on Presley's history. "You can't appreciate Graceland until you've seen Lauderdale Courts," Hazen said. "You have to see where he came from to understand where he went."

"We began efforts on Lauderdale in 1995," said Judith Johnson, executive director of Memphis Heritage.

Johnson ran into much resistance for preserving what some saw as a symbol of poverty. "Back then public housing was the first step on the ladder of the American dream, rather than the last step on the train to hell it became," Johnson explained.

Elvis Presley Enterprises, which runs Graceland and oversees Elvis' ongoing career, stayed out of the debate, according to Johnson. "They saw it as junk. It wasn't the Vegas Elvis they wanted to promote — the rich entertainer. Lauderdale is about poor people and Graceland never publicly supported our efforts."

Johnson and her organization were eventually successful in convincing the local government in 1997, partly due to new tax benefits for historic preservation. Plans are to turn the Lauderdale buildings into housing and a museum — similar to New York's Tenement Museum — dedicated to Elvis' early years and post-World War II public housing.

"Graceland now is trying to be friendly and we have to thank them for that," Johnson added. "They've given their blessings to this pool party."

Freeman and Hazen were partially responsible for the Lauderdale preservation effort. They started an e-mail campaign and included postcards in copies of their books so fans could urge government officials to support the preservation.

Rich Musical Heritage

Memphis Heritage has also nominated the Audubon Drive house for the National Register, but often their efforts to save the city's rich musical heritage have failed.

"We tried to save the Stax Records building in 1989, but it was torn down while we were petitioning to get it on the register," Johnson said.

They also tried to preserve Willie Mitchell's Hi Records studio, where Al Green cut such hits as "Take Me to the River" (RealAudio excerpt) and where Ann Peebles recorded, but the building had been altered so much it no longer qualified as historic.

Recently a private group has begun efforts to rebuild Stax, once the musical home to Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers, and has used some architectural drawings done by Memphis Heritage before it was torn down. But Johnson sees it as a noble effort, although a little late.

"We have to try to conserve this history, not try and reconstruct it after the fact. The problem is that renovation is like plastic surgery," Johnson said. "It might look better, but it loses its character. It's flawless but has no life experience on its face."

Hazen and Freeman are doing their best to re-create Elvis' former home and see themselves as caretakers of history.

"We hope someday to turn it into a museum," Freeman said. "But for now it's our home, too."

"I never thought I'd be living in a home with a swimming pool and a bar," Hazen said, laughing. "But now I can't imagine not."