Cover image: Admiral Benbow. Matchbook cover from the Admiral Benbow Inns c. mid-1970s. Public Domain.
In 1961, restaurateur Allen Gary and his business partner George Early opened the first Admiral Benbow Inn motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The two-story motel – the first in Grind City – was beautifully designed in the “Jamaican-style” – a fusion of the straight sleek lines of mid-century modern and Spanish Revival architecture.
From an early brochure touting itself as “Memphis’ most luxurious motor hotel”, the Admiral Benbow featured “red carpet dining” in the Benbow Room where guests could enjoy “steaks, seafood, and other dishes skillfully prepared by…the Admiral Benbow chef.” Nightlife included the Red Lion Lounge with “an intimate, convivial” atmosphere where you could have a nice conversation with somebody over your favorite beer or cocktail. Guest stayed in “spacious rooms” with “extra length beds” and amenities like TV, wall-to-wall carpeting, individually controlled temperature, and tiled bathrooms.
The motel was an immediate success with an occupancy rate at a steady 95% most nights. (There were days it even reached 100% as shoppers rented rooms for the afternoon, leaving the rooms ready and available for guests at night.)
It was so successful, in fact, that Gary and Early built two more Admiral Benbow Inns in Memphis. Eventually, there would be around 18 of the motels built around the nation, mostly in the South.
So, if the Admiral Inns were so successful, why aren’t they still around today? Well, that story begins with Allen Gary.
Gary was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1931, but later found himself living in Memphis. As a young man, Gary worked as the manager of a carhop known as the Pig-n-Whistle. Later, he moved on to manage the Fortune’s Belvedere, a posh ice cream parlor and restaurant located on the southwest corner of Union and Belvedere.
With restaurant management experience under his belt, Gary would team up with George Early and open up their own restaurant. Aptly named The Stable because it was located in an 18th century horse stable, the successful Civil War-themed restaurant featured all kinds of food and drinks from a menu written in the parlance of the times.
The restaurant was so successful, in fact, that Gary and Early opened up another restaurant called “The Admiral Benbow Inn”, this time with a nautical theme. It took its name from an inn with the same name mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
However, much like Colonel Sanders and the McDonald’s brothers, Admiral Bowman was based on a real person. John Benbow (1653-1702) served as an admiral in the British Royal Navy and had a long, storied career at sea fighting Barbary pirates and the French. Anyway, he’s something of a legend in the UK with many inns and drinking establishments bearing his name lining the country’s coastlines. Still, it’s unclear why Gary and Early decided upon that name to call the restaurant.
Be that as it may, the restaurant was successful and the two business partners opened up a few franchises around the Memphis area.
… and Lodging
The restaurant also helped Allen Gary get a position on the Board of Directors for Holiday Inn that Kemmons Wilson had opened in Memphis in 1952. Part of Gary accepting the position was that future Holiday Inns would have Admiral Benbow Inns as their featured restaurants. What’s more, Gary and Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson were friends outside of business as well. Both were young men when they came to Memphis – Gary from Mississippi and Wilson from Arkansas – and they even went to Central High together, though Wilson was a year ahead of Gary.
However, Gary and Early were an ambitious duo. In 1961, they decided that the motel business couldn’t be that much harder to run than the restaurant business. As a result, Gary resigned from his board of directors position, then the two entrepreneurs demolished the stable and built the Admiral Benbow Inn. This time they would open it as a motel instead of a restaurant (though, as mentioned before, the motel did feature a restaurant known as the Benbow Room).
After the motel became successful, Gary and Early built two more Admiral Benbow Inns in Memphis – one near the airport in 1963 and one on Summer Avenue next to Imperial Lanes bowling alley around the same time. Much like Holiday Inn did, the plan was to franchise Admiral Benbow Inns all across the country with a goal of 100 motels by 1970. Those plans would never come to fruition, however.
Adrift and Sinking
Unfortunately, Allen Gary passed away in 1964, and with no one at the helm, the business was eventually sold to cafeteria giant Morrison’s. At the time, there were around 18 Admiral Benbow Inns, mostly in the South. Even more unfortunate than Gary’s death, however, was that Morrison’s seemed to know more about the cafeteria business than the accommodations business. One by one, the motels were closed and shuddered.
One of the first to be franchised, The Admiral Benbow Inn in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was also one of the last motels standing. It was only recently demolished in the late summer of 2022.
Still, there is one Admiral Benbow Inn still standing in Jackson, Mississippi. These days, however, it is a retirement community fittingly called the Admiral Benbow Apartments.
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