Guest Posts North Memphis

The Holiday Inn Great Sign

Many of you have asked us about the Holiday Inn sign. Today, we’re pleased to bring you a guest post exploring the history of this iconic sign by Caroline Mitchell Carrico, Exhibits Design Coordinator at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. Without further ado, we present the Holiday Inn sign…

“GreatSign” by JMG717 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1951, Memphis businessman Kemmons Wilson took a vacation that changed how Americans hit the road. He drove his family to Washington, D.C. at a time when the quality of roadside accommodations varied greatly at motor courts and independently owned motels. The Wilson family found overpriced, unattractive and cramped roadside lodgings that offered few amenities and charged extra for each child. Kemmons decided to create a motel with a phone in every room, air-conditioning, swimming pool and a restaurant on site where kids would stay for free.

Kemmons Wilson in 1972, courtesy Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

One year later, the first Holiday Inn opened on August 1, 1952, on Summer Avenue. The motel lobby was a bright mixture of hunter green walls, red furniture and chartreuse curtains. The one story buildings were arranged around a pool, rooms were $6 a night and kids did indeed stay for free.

1950s Holiday Inn furniture, courtesy Memphis Pink Palace Museum

Wilson needed an eye-catching draw to bring motorists to his enterprise so he spoke with Harold Balton of Balton Sign Company. Balton had his in-house artists Gene Barber and Roland Alexander design the original Holiday Inn “Great Sign.” The first sign cost $13,000, and it was Wilson’s only real advertising for his first location. The 50’ tall green and yellow sign featured a yellow arrow with orange bulbs to draw drivers to the hotel office. The marquee had interchangeable letters so that the manager could welcome individuals and groups to the hotel.

Close up of the Great Sign, courtesy Memphis Pink Palace Museum

Wilson and his business partner Wallace Johnson soon began offering franchise rights. Franchisees invested the capital to put up a hotel according to the Holiday Inn’s corporate specifications for design, service and maintenance. The franchise owner got the right to use the Holiday Inn logo and benefited from national advertising campaigns.

Holiday Inn stock with Great Sign as part of the official seal, courtesy Memphis Pink Palace Museum

President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system was a boon to the franchise model because potential owners were able to purchase land at new interstate exits to increase their visibility. As the chain expanded, Great Signs went up around the country and became a central aspect of the Holiday Inn brand. By the 1960s, there were over one hundred Holiday Inns.

Small version of the Great Sign, courtesy Memphis Pink Palace Museum

In 1982, the Great Sign was replaced with a smaller, plain green sign. The company felt that it was an icon of the 1950s that no longer suited their needs. Kemmons Wilson called the decision “a hell of a mistake.”

“Kemmons Wilson grave Memphis TN 2014-03-29 002” by Thomas R Machnitzki ( – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is the Exhibits Design Coordinator at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She writes about the museum’s collection at

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By Caitlin L. Horton

Partner-in-crime for entrepreneurs and community builders getting their message out with thoughtful design and marketing.

4 replies on “The Holiday Inn Great Sign”

My dad worked on the site preparation of the first Holiday Inn there on Summer. He said that Kemmons would walk around the jobsite during the worker’s lunch hour selling Holiday Inn stock for $5 each. I asked him why he didn’t buy some. He said that $5 bought a lot in 1952 and he figured that the family needed that $5 for more immediate needs. He always regretted not getting in on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn boom-days. Later, in the mid ’60s, Holiday Inns developed a concept for a prefabricated motel pod that could be trucked to the site and lifted into place atop precast concrete “Tees”(not unlike golf tees)with customer parking being underneath the units. The first prototype was constructed at the corner of Lamar and Semmes and was known as the Holiday Inn, Jr. The complex had a 6-8 stool grill just off of the check-in desk area where customers could get food & drink like one might find at a Toddle House or Pancake House. Here’s the best part, the rooms in the mid-’60s were only $8.75/night. Being an architectural student at the University of Arkansas, I thought the concept was solid & spot-on. Why it never caught on is something that I never heard about. A huge U-Haul operation sits on that corner today.

My grandfather was Roland Alexander. I found an old photo online somewhere of him and Mr. Barber looking at the drawings or a model of the Holiday Inn sign back in the 1950’s but I can’t seem to locate it now. My grandfather passed away in 2018 at the age of 91. He was a character and painted big Happy Birthday banners for his great grandchildren which we still have. I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

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