Once a cattle town on a spur of the Florida East Coast Railroad, Kenansville is a small rural community boasting a few well-preserved buildings that date back to the early 1900s. One of these buildings is a hotel emblazoned with the name of one of Elvis Presley’s most famous singles, “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Back in 1915, the building that is now the Heartbreak Hotel opened under the name Piney Woods Inn. As the town’s population dwindled, the hotel fell into disrepair. In 1955, James W. Webb, a reverend from Orlando, bought the building, fixed it up, and painted it red. Webb reportedly said that he had heard kids calling it “the Heartbreak” because of its rundown state, and the new name stuck.
In 1956, Elvis released his song “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was a breakout hit. There are many stories about how the track got its name, and according to some, Elvis was inspired by a stay in the Kenansville hotel. But while the track does have an association with Florida, the musician never personally stayed there.
Songwriters Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden collaborated on the track, and Elvis added finishing touches. Music historians believe that it was inspired by stories from Texas and Florida: One about a man jumping from a hotel room window in Tampa, and another about a career criminal and artist named Alvin Krolik who was shot while robbing a liquor store in El Paso. Krolik reportedly wrote an unpublished autobiography prior to his death, which he described as “the story of a person who walked a lonely street.” This line reportedly inspired Durden in writing “Heartbreak Hotel.”
While Elvis never visited or was inspired by Kenansville, the Heartbreak Hotel stands as a testament to the legacy of his music. New owners have taken over the building, which is undergoing extensive renovations including a fresh coat of paint—the name “Heartbreak Hotel” remains in large letters on the side.
Know Before You Go
Kenansville is home to a handful of historic buildings besides the Heartbreak Hotel. Notable sites of interest include the Kenansville Bank and the Kenansville School building.