How Priscilla Presley Turned Graceland Into A Tourist Attraction

The home of Elvis Presley, Graceland is as iconic to the public as the King of Rock 'n' Roll himself, but during Presley's lifetime, it was never considered that the spectacular home would be open to the public. Following the death of Presley's father Vernon Presley in 1979, Priscilla Presley became co-trustee and co-executor of the vast estate (via History). However, things weren't as they seemed. As reported by The Los Angeles Times, after Elvis died in 1977 the income he generated slowly dried up even as it cost nearly $500,000 to maintain Graceland. Priscilla simply couldn't afford the maintenance for the estate, but she refused to sell the property.

She decided to make the tough decision to open Graceland up in order to preserve both the estate and Presley's memory. On June 7, 1982, five years after Presley's passing, Graceland opened to the public. Within just four weeks, the number of people who had visited Graceland allowed the family to keep the estate running. For Priscilla, the decision wasn't an easy one. Speaking to Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, in a special 40th Graceland anniversary interview, she revealed, "It was nerve-wracking and a bit frightening. But I have to say, people were coming in droves. They loved it, and here we are today" (via YouTube).

The mansion underwent some changes both before and after Elvis Presley moved in

Priscilla Presley explained that it was very important to her that even though Graceland was going to be opened to the public, it needed to retain the feel of being Elvis's home. She didn't want it to be sterile or too museum-like and she refused the idea of putting plexiglass up to separate the public from the rooms and the decor, trusting that his fans would not be destructive. She said in the Graceland interview, "I think the spirit of Elvis is there, people feel that spirit, and that's why they respect it" (via YouTube).

When Elvis Presley bought the estate in 1957, it already had the name Graceland, per Forbes. Still, the inside wasn't the same as the iconic mansion that can be toured today. Presley made a number of changes, turning the home into an eight-bed, eight-bath mansion with five staircases and 23 rooms in total (via History). Intriguingly, Presley's aunt continued to live at Graceland until her death in 1993. While she lived there, the kitchens and her room were not part of the tours.

Additionally, as reported by Architectural Digest, some of the mansion's decor was changed before Graceland opened to the public. One such change was in the living room, which was converted from its more gaudy 1970s design back to how it was in the 1950s. The satin and red shag pile additions were removed and replaced with items that resembled midcentury style. Interestingly, the peacock stained-glass panels from 1974 were kept, adding a kitsch sense of grandeur to the room.

The parts of Graceland that the public can see have been expanded over the years

Since its opening, more parts of the Graceland estate have become available to view, including an exhibition complex, a car museum, and, perhaps most intriguingly, Elvis Presley's private jet (via Architectural Digest). Named "Lisa Marie" after his daughter, Presley's jet features a luxurious 24k gold sink in the bathroom. Nowadays, you can even stay at Graceland — sort of. The Guest House at Graceland sits near the original Graceland estate and contains a theater with live music performances true to the spirit of its owner's musical origins.

Thanks to Presley's name, Graceland receives upward of 600,000 visitors per year, according to Graceland's website. Forbes reported in 2018 that it was the second most visited house in America after the White House. Though the opening of the estate was a clear success, as Priscilla Presley shared in the Graceland 40th anniversary interview, "We didn't know at all if we would even have any guests. We had no idea. We were really concerned about if anyone would show up." Of course, plenty of people did show up and continue to do so, proving that Priscilla's goal of turning Graceland into a tourist attraction was a successful endeavor.