Interesting Places to Visit
Nashville Parthenon (Nashville, Tennessee)
By Richard Grigonis —Last updated February 12, 2013
While driving through Nashville, Tennessee, you may come across a sign for the Parthenon. The Parthenon? Although we call Nashville “Music City, USA” (a phrase adopted by its Chamber of Commerce in 1978) because of its association with the music industry, the city also does call itself “The Athens of the South,” so at first you think that perhaps some enterprising fellow has opened a theme bar, such as Legend’s Corner (Nashville’s premier Country honky-tonk bar) or Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Eastern front of the remarkable replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee. Entrance is at street level, between the two sets of stairs pictured here.
(Photo © Richard Grigonis)
The signs, however, direct you to spacious Centennial Park just west of downtown Nashville and across the street from Vanderbilt University. There you will see a lake with ducks, gardens, picnic tables and picnickers, kite-flyers, frisbee-tossers, and, oh yes, the park’s centerpiece: The world’s only full-scale, detailed replica of antiquity’s most famous building, the Parthenon. The original Parthenon in Greece was the greatest architectural project of the Age of Pericles, erected between 447 and 438 B.C. (with some additional work continuing until 432 B. C.) by the legendary Greek sculptor Phidias, who called upon Ictimus and Callicrates as his architects.
Looking at the south side and east pediment of the Nashville Parthenon in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee. Entrance is at extreme right. (Photo © Boykov | Dreamstime.com)
Nashville’s Parthenon and Centennial Park are the only remnants of the classically-themed Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1896 (actually held in 1897), a spectacular celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s admission to the Union as its 16th state. That occurred back in the days when the seat of the U.S. administration was still in Philadelphia. (Tennessee was the last state admitted to the Union during George Washington’s presidency.)
But why this emphasis on ancient Greece? As Ellie Shick writes, “Most Nashvillians don’t know why a full-scale replica of the ancient Greek Parthenon in Athens was built in Nashville or why it’s a symbol of our city.”
front view of Nashville Parthenon (in accord with ancient Greek buildings, the side facing east is considered the front.) The modern entrance is at street level, leading to the city's art museum and gift shop. (Photo © Richard Grigonis)
“The most important reason Nashville is called the ‘Athens of the South’ lies squarely in the city’s early commitment to education, which is a Greek ideal,” according to Susan Ford Wiltshire, co-author of the book, Classical Nashville: Athens of the South (Vanderbilt University Press, 1996). (See the accompanying sidebar on the left, “The Greco-Roman World’s Influence on Nashville—and America.”)
Nashville was first known in the early 1800s as “the Athens of the Southwest” and “the Athens of the West” since the town was situated on America’s western border. (See the sidebar at left.) By the time of the state’s Centennial celebration, however, the frontier was gone and Nashville had long been known as “The Athens of the South.”
closer view of the entrance to the Nashville Parthenon The modern entrance is at street level, leading to the city's art museum and gift shop. (Photo © Richard Grigonis)
In parallel with Nashville, Lexington, Kentucky, founded shortly before Nashville, also called itself “The Athens of the West” and then “The Athens of the South.” (In its early days, Lexington was, next to New Orleans, the wealthiest city west of the Allegheny Mountains.)
Moreover, Bardstown, the county seat of Nelson County, Kentucky, was also called “The Athens of the West.” As Savoy Bard wrote in the March 22, 1908 issue of The Washington Post (p. 109), “It was there that was located the famous Jesuits’ College of St. Joseph, whence were graduated so many eminent Americans; and when that institution was at its zenith, Bardstown was the seat of more learning, more culture, more eloquence than any other community between the Allegheny Mountains and the setting sun. It was here that a King of France spent some years of his exile. Rowan and Hardin headed the bar, and Pope, Wickiff, Grigsby, Chapese, and Guthrie were their learned and brilliant associates. John Hays, a prodigious genius, was another who survives in tradition as the greatest orator the western hemisphere has produced. Joseph Holt was yet another orator, little, if any, inferior to Marshall or Menifee.” (Currently, Bardstown calls itself “The Bourbon Capital of the World”™ and has trademarked the phrase.)
Bardstown, Kentucky, like Nashville, Tennessee, also called itself The Athens of the West. Today, however, it promotes itself as “The Bourbon Capital of the World,” because of the Kentucky Bourbon festival held there and the many local distilleries such as Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Heaven Hill.
Even Jacksonville, Illinois, in the late 19th century referred to itself as “The Athens of the West,” partly because it had established both the oldest institution of higher learning in Illinois as well as the oldest chartered institution for the education of young ladies west of the Allegheny Mountains, run under the patronage of the Methodist Church.
In any case, Nashville made credible its title of “Athens of the South” following the Civil War by founding several colleges and universities of regional and even national prominence, such as Vanderbilt and Fisk Universities. Within Nashville itself there also appeared such local colleges as Peabody College, Ward Belmont College, David Lipscomb University, Roger Williams University and Meharry Medical College. (And today, if you peruse the Yellow Pages of Nashville phonebooks, you will come across many companies having the name of Athens embedded within their titles.)
Jacksonville, Illinois, also claimed the title of The Athens of the West, since, among other things, it had founded the oldest institution of higher learning in Illinois. Here is a photo of Nicols Park in Jacksonville, circa 1900.
As Ohio State Senator W. T. Clarke said in a June 1897 speech delivered while visiting the Tennessee Centennial Exposition with President McKinley, Nashville was a capital of learning, “having the largest scholastic population in any city in the country; four female seminaries; three colleges for the education of the colored people, including Fisk University, the singers of which have established a worldwide reputation. Vanderbilt University, with her endowment of over a million dollars, three medical schools, three schools of pharmacy, two law schools, three large dental schools, the largest in the United States, and a complete common system for white and black, with their population increasing in the last quarter of a century fifty percent.”
Since Greek Revival architecture was favored by the South for its public buildings after about 1830, there would be nothing surprising about it appearing as the dominant style of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.
Seeds of an Idea from an Unlikely Planter
In ancient Greece, surprisingly, great public buildings were normally built without spending public funds. The city-state or prominent individuals would pay for them. Imagine a great politician paying for the construction of a temple to curry favor with the voting public. An exception to this tradition was the Parthenon in Athens, which served as more as treasury of Athens and the Delian League of Greece than as a temple to Athena Parthenos, the “Virgin Athena” who sprang fully grown from the head of her father, Zeus. This event, remarkable even by mythological standards, occurred when Zeus, suffering from a terrible headache, asked Hephaestus (god of fire and forge) to hammer his head open. Hephaestus obliged and Athena sprang out of Zeus’ head in full armor. (The German word Kopfgeburt, or “head birth,” may be dervied from this mythological tale.)
The patroness of Athens, Athena represents the highest order of spiritual development and the gifts of intellect and understanding—though Athena Parthenos also represents the “warrior maiden” aspect of the deity, one of clever strategic intelligence, rather than the pure bloodlust and slaughter represented by the god Ares. The name for the Parthenon is derived from this and translates into English as, “the house of the maiden.”
The Acropolis in Athens, approximately 400 B.C.
Pure in body, mind and heart, Athena symbolizes the human desire for wisdom. The Parthenon’s colossal statue of Athena by Phidias, as impressive as it was, was not a sacred artifact, but “a gold reserve” of 44 talents of pure gold that was removable and could be melted down into coinage if a supreme emergency occurred. (A Greek, or Attic talent, was about 26 kilograms or 57.32 pounds, so 44 talents would equal about 1144 kilograms or 2522 pounds.)
(In fact, the gold plates were melted down. The Athenian general Lachares seized control of Athens in March of 300 B.C. with the aid of a mercenary force known as the Peiraikoi. Lachares established himself as tyrant of the city and, desperate to pay his troops and finding the Acropolis largely denuded of its treasures, in 297 B.C. he stripped the gold plates from the statue and used them to strike gold coins to pay his troops. As the Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias later wrote of Lachares, "we know no tyrant who proved so cruel to man and so impious to the gods.")
Ruins of The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, currently undergoing restoration. (Photo courtesy Jeff Keni Pulver.)
The building of the original Parthenon in Athens roused controversy not just in Athens, but throughout Greece, for it was built using money from what it was designed to protect: the Delian League’s treasury–the war chest for the mutual protection of the 173 or so Greek-City states comprising the League. This was seen as a gross example of an abuse of power by the Athenian ruler Pericles.
Opposition to building the Parthenon was so strong among some Greeks that they ridiculed the building as an alazon (“pretentious”, “deceitful” or “falsely boastful”) woman. However, the Parthenon was indeed built and was immediately recognized as an architectural masterpiece. Similarly, there would be controversies surrounding the planning and construction of the Parthenon’s replica in Nashville.
The first glimmerings of support for a Tennessee Centennial Exposition occurred during the Centennial for the founding of the settlement of Nashville, in 1880. Here we see Walter Goater’s illustrations of the event for an 1880 edition of Leslie’s Weekly, a newspaper. Upper illustration has the caption: “Opening of the exposition in the new building on April 24th.” Lower illustration has the caption: “Hon. John M. Bright delivering the historical address from the steps of the capitol.” Illustration is available here on eBay.
The idea for holding a grand Tennessee state centennial celebration dates back to the successful Nashville City Centennial of 1880, where the idea was bandied about a bit.
The matter was nearly forgotten until the coming of James Douglas Anderson (1867–1948), who was a journalist, attorney and newspaper editorial writer of Madison, Davidson County, Tennessee. A staunch Southern Democrat, Anderson opposed social change, believed in the superiority of the white race, the “purity” of which he felt should be kept as pristine as possible.
Commemorative plaque that reads: “Nashville Centennial 1780–1880. The Centennial Exposition on this site in 1880 from April 23 through May 30 marked a century of progress since the founding of Nashville. There were parades, oratory, music; historical, art and commercial exhibits; theatrical performances, and “the grandest display of fireworks ever seen in Nashville.”
To Anderson, the North’s “inhumanity to South” during the Civil War was one of history’s worst cases of man’s inhumanity to man. He also thought that Abraham Lincoln was a hypocrite and a scoundrel; Anderson's articles in Tyler’s Quarterly stating his beliefs on the matter, each titled Abraham Lincoln, Demigod, were eventually collected into a book-length manuscript in 1941.
A satiric writer of sarcastic bent, Anderson would go on in the 20th century to ferociously oppose woman’s suffrage, labor unions, the League of Nations, federal aid to public schools, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the proposed repeal of the poll tax, and an imagined ongoing deterioration of society (he was in favor of Prohibition). He was also capable of writing less vituperatively about thoroughbred racing horses, agriculture, Tennessee history, and his boyhood home in Sumner County.
James Phelan (1821–1873) wrote an account of how Tennessee gained its statehood in 1796. the story, written for schoolchildren, so moved attorney James Douglas Anderson (1867–1948) that he began a letter writing campaign to newspapers urging the celebration of tennessee's centennial in 1896.
On Thursday, August 4, 1892, Anderson was just across the Tennessee border in Kentucky, attending a county election in the town curiously named Number One. He happened to pick up a damaged (backless) copy of James Phelan’s School History of Tennessee. When Anderson returned home, he read Phelan’s account of Tennessee’s admission to the Union on June 1, 1796. It gave him an idea. On August 10, 1892, Anderson wrote letters to various Tennessee newspapers suggesting the state of Tennessee should be the first state in the Union to celebrate its centennial, which was coming up in 1896. Anderson proposed that six cities—Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Columbia, and Jackson—compete for the privilege of staging the celebration.
Anderson wrote: “Tennesseans should celebrate the occasion by holding a centennial exposition. They should do this because, being a patriotic people, they love and revere the memory of their brave ancestors who suffered privation, endured great hardships, and endangered their scalps for the great benefit of their descendants.”
Another reason for holding such a celebration was economic. Tennessee was among the poorest of the states, and Anderson thought that such a centennial would “rebound to the pecuniary benefit of the State, and keep alive State Pride.”
But America at that time was heading into a depression that reduced trade severely in the latter half of 1893 (it was also known as The Panic of 1893), a economic downturn in a league with the depressions of 1838 and 1873. It was an economic collapse so bad it spurred the wealthy Ohio quarry owner and populist Jacob Coxey to lead an “army” of 400 members of his organization, the Commonweal of Christ, to march on Washington, D.C. in April 1894 to demand that the federal government help the unemployed. (When he attempted to read a speech on the Capitol’s steps, Coxley was arrested for walking on the grass.)
For two years the idea of a Tennessee Centennial celebration, as Anderson later wrote, “existed on oral wind and printers’ puffs.”
After discussing the idea of a Tennessee Centennial Exposition with local civic groups, Col. William Crawford Smith (1837–1899) made a formal proposal to the Nashville Commercial Club on November 17, 1893. Smith would later become the architect of the Nashville Parthenon.
Then, at a meeting of the Commercial Club of Nashville on November 17, 1893, a formal proposal for Nashville hosting a centennial exposition was put forth by architect and Civil War veteran Colonel William Crawford Smith (1837–1899). Smith had drawn the plans for the Robertson County Courthouse in Springfield, Tennessee and is credited with organizing the Tennessee National Guard. Smith would later lead the 1st Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, U.S. Volunteers in the Spanish American War (he died in Manila of an internal hemorrhage brought on by heat exhaustion).
In making his proposal, Colonel Smith expressed hope that such an exposition would stimulate the economies of Tennessee in general and Nashville in particular. At that time the whole state of Tennessee was in an economic panic (America as a whole was still in the midst of the Panic of 1893) and Colonel Smith, in his formal statement to the Commercial Club, proposed an exposition “to divert the attention of our own people, if possible, from the general depression, but setting one foot on some enterprise and will interest them especially in behalf of our own State, and that will tend to enlist their aid and cooperation in furthering the interests of the city of Nashville in Particular.” (Smith, as it turns out, became the architect of the Nashville Parthenon.)
George Harrison Armistead (1861–1950), wrote an early series of newspaper articles championing the idea of a Tennessee centennial Exposition.
On January 1, 1894, George Harrison Armistead (1861–1950), former secretary of Nashville’s Commercial Club, became editor-in-chief of the Nashville American, a leading Democratic newspaper and ancestor of Nashville’s present-day primary daily newspaper, The Tennessean. Armistead also wrote a barrage of articles championing a Tennessee centennial exposition.
On January 22, 1894, the Commercial Club took its first formal action, appointing committees and adopting resolutions in favor of a centennial celebration. Committees were also appointed by the Nashville Board of Trade, the Historical Society, the Art Association, the Tennessee Press Association, and the Southern Engineering Association, and the result of these consultations was the formation of a larger formal centennial committee for the project and the election of officers.
1897 Photo of Nashville Parthenon in its setting among other buildings at the TEnnessee Centenntial Exposition.
Plans & Money
On January 24, 1894, the General Centennial Committee was formed. The chairman chosen was James Marshall Head (1855–1930), attorney, former surgeon of the 34th Tennessee regiment and future mayor of Nashville (1900–1903). The General Centennial Committee opened up lines of correspondence with the mayors of Tennessee cities, with the chairmen of county courts, with industrial and commercial organizations, and historical, agricultural and horticultural societies, and with associations having as their mission the advancement of science, art and manufacturing.
An address was issued to the public and newspapers were liberally supplied with items concerning the movement. In particular, in 1894, James Marshall Head became chief editor of the Nashville American, in which he had long owned a controlling interest, and he used the paper's influence to promote the holding of the centennial exposition. Head’s law firm, Champion & Head (later known as Champion, Head & Brown, one of the best-known law firms in Tennessee) would later be given charge of all legal matters connected with the Exposition.
James Marshall Head (1855–1930), attorney who was elected Chairman of the General Centennial Committee on January 24, 1894.
After the appearance of Head’s initial article formally proposing the celebration, the Nashville American solicited the opinions of prominent figures in Tennessee and other states. The idea of a Tennessee Centennial Exposition met with favor everywhere: Governors of the southern states endorsed the concept as did the press not just of Nashville but the rest of the South too.
As a consequence of the enthusiastic reception with which the exposition idea was received, the various civic bodies of Nashville decided to call a state convention of all mercantile and business bodies, and all other organizations and individuals wanting to participate, and to have the great venture formally inaugurated as a state affair, if the convention should so decide.
Special edition of the Nashville American celebrating the upcoming Centennial and fancifully depicting Lady Tennessee, a symbol for the state, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Nashville Parthenon is illustrated in the background. (newsPaper can be found in the Metro Nashville archives.)The convention was held in Nashville on June 19, 1894, where citizens from every section of Tennessee presented and discussed all the relevant information and determined to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Tennessee’s admission into the Union. James M. Head called the well-attended meeting to order. W. A. Henderson of the Henderson & Overton Railroad was made temporary chairman. Dr. R. A. Halley, B. Kirk Ranking and J. W. Frierson were made secretaries, and the committees were appointed. The Hon. R. J. Morgan was made permanent chairman and the temporary secretaries made permanent.
During the convention, a report by the Committee on Resolutions formulated the general outline of a plan for celebrating the Centennial on purely patriotic grounds, and making the displays largely historical, but having in view the material wealth of the state and its undeveloped resources.
Major A. W. Wills was named the Director-General of the first, ill-fated “Committee on Centennial Celebration.”
It was resolved that a standing committee be appointed to arouse interest in Tennessee’s history and make preliminary plans for an exposition, to be known as the Committee on Centennial Celebration.
The plan adopted at the convention provided for holding the exposition at Nashville in the autumn of 1896; it also designated the 16 departments, and recommended for officers the following people: Nathaniel Baxter, Jr. (1844–1913) of Nashville as President, W. A. Henderson of Knoxville as Second Vice-President; Major A. W. Wills of Nashville as Director-General; William C. Smith of Nashville as Director of Works; T. T. Wright of Nashville as Secretary; the Treasurer would be elected by the directors; Frank Goodman of Nashville, Auditor; James M. Head as Chairman and T. J. Tyne of Nashville asGeneral Counsel. T. T. Wright declined the office of secretary, and elected in his place was Colonel Joseph Buckner Killebrew, A. M., Ph.D. (1831–1906), who was Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture, Statistics and Mines from 1871 to 1881, and industrial and immigration agent for the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. Tennesseans residing in other states were invited to participate too.
Nathaniel Baxter, Jr. (1844–1913) was the first president of the original “Committee on Centennial Celebration.” born in Columbia, Tennessee, Baxter later became a Senator from Davidson County, Nashville, Tennessee. He joined the Confederate Army at the age of 16. fighting in many battles including the battle of Franklin, he was twice wounded during the Civil War, and discharged with the rank of captain. He became a lawyer, businessman (President of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company), Speaker of the Tennessee Senate in 1911, and a member of the Board of Trust of Vanderbilt University. His wife, Laura Lavender Baxter, was a Daughter of the American Revolution.
The directors immediately went to work, and Tennessee newspapers commented favorably on the whole operation. On July 24, 1894, further decisions were made. At a meeting of the Executive Committee held September 6, 1894, the committee on site was appointed. It definitely was time go ahead with an actual Centennial Exposition and raise money through subscription to build it. It was during that July that a charter was obtained for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition Company, capitalized at $500,000, and subscriptions for stock were sought.
The people of Tennessee also petitioned the Davidson County Court and the Tennessee State Legislature for financial help. The first substantial aid came from Davidson County (in which county Nashville is situated) in November 1894, when the Davidson County Quarterly Court voted the credit of the county to the extent of $50,000 to the Exposition stock. The schools took an immediate active interest, which continued right until the Exposition’s opening. The women enlisted at the state convention also were enthusiastic about working on the great enterprise. Extensive plans were ready at the beginning of 1895. Also in early 1895, Col. Joseph B. Killebrew, A.M., Ph.D., addressed the Tennessee General Assembly with a speech entitled “The Centennial Exposition: Its Necessity and Advantages.”
Over the Hurdles
But raising the funds progressed far more slowly than was initially expected. The directors had petitioned the Tennessee State Legislature for a contribution of $350,000, and they even sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., in December 1894, to urge Federal aid for the project. But funding from the Tennessee State Legislature got bogged down in typical bureaucratic nonsense and it adjourned without voting so much as a dollar to celebrate the anniversary of its own existence. Moreover, the bill in Congress failed. Congress also adjourned without making a wished-for appropriation.
Early attempts by the Directors of Tennessee CEntennial to petition the Tennessee State Legislature for a contribution of $350,000 met with failure. (Seen here is an early photo of the Tennessee State Capitol.).
At this point a sort of turning point occurred. The citizens of Nashville had such a great interest in the exposition that they made up their minds to hold the event themselves, whether the State of Tennessee or the Federal Government aided them or not. Many folk who had doubts about the immense project’s feasibility became ardent supporters of it. In the end their Tennessee pluck triumphed, but the people of Nashville had to bear the burden almost alone.
After many persuasive discussions with Tennessee state legislators, the Legislature at last passed laws enabling counties to make appropriations to construct and outfit displays of their own at the exposition, and to enable the city of Nashville to subscribe $100,000 to the enterprise, provided that it won a majority vote of Nashville’s legal voters.
It was now July 1895, a year into fundraising, and the subscriptions amounted to only $62,635, including the $50,000 given by Davidson County.
A mass meeting was set for the evening of Monday, July 8, 1895, to determine the exposition’s fate. Headlines blazed: “Centennial or Not? Subscribers must decide this question Monday night.” The Nashville American asked: “Shall we go on or Quit?” It was the second great turning point in the history of the exposition. A passionate, patriotic speech was delivered at the meeting by the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, the Honorable Tully Brown, member of the Nashville bar, United States Attorney for the Tennessee Middle District, and son of ex-Governor Neill S. Brown. The July 9, 1895 edition of the Nashville American later recounted that Brown “made one of the strongest and most patriotic addresses that ever fell on listening ears.” As Brown finished his appeal, news arrived that the Nashville City Council had passed a bill submitting to a vote of the people the proposition for Nashville to subscribe $100,000 to the capital stock of the Exposition.
The officers tendered their resignations, believing that those who had subscribed should have the right to elect new directors, and the hall had become so crowded that in response to a demand for more room, the meeting marched to Watkins Hall (normally an entertainment performance venue), swelling in size as it went. Once the meeting was reconstituted and continued there, a committee of nine to consider the question of reorganization was appointed, new hope appeared to be infused in the undertaking, and the meeting reluctantly adjourned.
Major John Wilson Thomas, Sr. (1830–1906) the remarkably capable and highly respected President of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition Company. (Photo from The National Magazine: an illustrated monthly, Volume 5, October 1896–March 1897.)
Off and Running Again…
Within two weeks the subscriptions had now reached $165,000. A meeting was called on July 22, 1895, and an immense audience assembled at the Union Gospel Tabernacle. (A huge building constructed from 1888–1892 by the Rev. Sam Jones and steamboat captain Tom Ryman at a cost of $100,000, the Tabernackle was renamed Ryman Auditorium in 1902 and later became the home of the Grand Ole Opry.)
At the huge meeting the crowd heard the report of the committee of nine on reorganization. Its Chairman made a report that showed careful study, outlining necessary changes, nominating a new Board of Directors and suggesting for membership in the Board of Directors people eminently qualified for the offices to be filled, whose election they heartily recommended. Amid “breathless silence” these names were read. At the head of the list stood the name of the suggested new President of the Exposition Company, an accomplished, congenial gentleman named Major John Wilson Thomas, Sr. (1830–1906), who also was president of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway.
Contemporary illustration of Maj. John W. Thomas, who received no salary as President of the Tennessee Exposition Company (But was president of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway).
(Frederic Starr, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago, described Thomas as “somewhat stout, of medium stature, with a cheerful and hearty way that takes well.”) The report was received amid thundering applause, and was unanimously approved. Thomas magnanimously said he would accept the office, but only under the conditions that his election should be unanimous, that he receive no salary, and that he should be given “ample authority” to enable him to carry out the work proposed. He also immediately brought on board an efficient secretary, Charles E. Currey, on the same “no-salary” terms.
Additionally, Van Leer Kirkman was elected First Vice President (his wife was President of the Woman’s Board); W. A. Henderson as Second Vice President, John Overton, Jr. (also of the Henderson & Overton Railroad) as Third Vice President, W. P. Tanner as Treasurer, and Frank Goodman as Auditor.
Samuel J. Keith (1831–1909), president of the Fourth National Bank from 1882 until his death in 1909, owned several properties throughout Nashville, served on a number of civic committees, and was a classic 19th century “civic capitalist.” Although America’s banking industry was a risky business in the wake of the Civil War, Keith’s Fourth National Bank had deposits totaling over $2 million by 1892 and was the sole Nashville bank to sail intact through the bank panic of 1893. Not surprisingly, Samuel Keith was named the chairman of the finance committee.
These efficient and frugal band of directors served throughout the preparation and existence of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. When the directors were not in session, President Thomas and an executive committee had charge of all affairs, and all of those committee members also served without compensation.
Mrs. Van Leer Kirkman, President of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition’s Woman’s Department. Her husband was the Tennessee Centennial Expositon Company's First Vice President. (Photo from The National Magazine: an illustrated monthly, Volume 5, October 1896–March 1897.)
The new group of directors worked out splendidly, and nearly $1.1 million was raised for the construction of the great Exposition.
One piece of the jigsaw was still missing, however. A new director-general of the Exposition was needed. (The previous occupant of the post, A. W. Wills, became Commissioner-General of Administration.) A week later, on July 30, 1895, they elected to that position Major Eugene Castner Lewis (1845–1917), a former Louisville & Nashville Railroad engineer and sales manager and later general manager of the Sycamore Mills of the DuPont Powder Company. Lewis, who would become General Manager of the Nashville Terminals (he became a force behind construction of Nashville’s Union Station, built in 1900), President and finally Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad in 1910, was a highly cultured and successful business executive of Nashville, as well as an architect and lover of art.
Major Eugene C. Lewis (1845–1917), the Director-General of the Exposition, who was the chief proponent of both constructing the Nashville Parthenon and making it the centerpiece of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. He would later leave his imprint on the entire Nashville Park system.
Frederic Starr, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, described Lewis as “...a little man, slender and unassuming. Many give him the reputation of gruffness and severity, but certainly the many strangers who have had to deal with him during these last months have not found him so. He listens kindly, thinks rapidly and clearly, decides promptly. From common workingmen I know that as an employer of labor he is thoughtful to a degree, and much loved by his employees.”)
As one historian wrote, “Lewis was a dreamer but one who tended to make dreams a reality.” Despite Lewis’ poor health, he is credited having created what was called “a magnificent White City” on the Exposition grounds. Now a consulting civil engineer, Lewis was given a leave of absence by the DuPont Company and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, two of his clients, to accept the responsibility as the director-general.
Members of the revamped Tennessee Centennial Exposition Executive committee on the steps of the Administration Building. From Left to Right: First Vice President Van Leer Kirkman, President John W. Thomas and Director-General Eugene C. Thomas.
It was decided to build the exposition about two miles west of downtown Nashville on a tract of 200 acres of blue grass land in West Side Park. The park was originally part of a 640-acre farm, purchased in 1783 for 50 cents an acre by pioneer John Cockrill. In the fall of 1784 he married Ann Robertson Johnson, widow of Nehemiah Johnson and sister of Nashville co-founder James Robertson. Their land at Cockrill Springs marked the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace, or “Old Natchez Trace,” an ancient Native American path used by the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and other southern tribes that runs about 440 miles (710 kilometers) from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, linking the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. (A Natchez Trace Marker was placed at West End Avenue, facing Centennial Park, at the junction of the old Wilderness Road from Knoxville and the Natchez Trace Road to Natchez, Mississippi, built in 1807.) The land was later used as a staging and assembly area during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, then became known as West Side Park when it opened in 1887. Easily accessed by all the streetcar lines as well as by the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, the park was the site of the Old Fair Grounds where the Tennessee Agricultural Association had sponsored fairs in 1879 and 1884. Harness racing had also occurred there through the fall season of 1892, whereupon it moved to Cumberland Park in 1893.
At Top: Pre-1897 West End Avenue entrance to West Side Park, Nashville, Tennessee, the site of the Tennessee centennial Exposition of 1897. This entrance was demolished and replaced with a more elaborate structure, seen below it.
The first call for 10 percent on subscriptions was made, payable on September 1, 1895. On September 12 Director-General Eugene C. Lewis outlined his plans—already set in motion a few days before, interestingly—for the former West Side Park. On this site, Lewis envisaged an arrangement of neoclassical buildings among Venetian-like lagoons. Since Nashville had taken on the moniker, “Athens of the South,” Lewis thought the best symbolic representation of the exposition would be a replica of the Parthenon at the Exposition's center, with the other buildings clustered around it and a lake to reflect it to visitors. (Note: A replica is a high quality copy of an artwork, generally made by the original artist. A reproduction is a copy made by someone else, often for mass production. Thus, although we refer to the Nashville Parthenon as a replica of the one in Athens, technically they did “re-produce” it, though not for mass production, obviously.)
Herman Justi, the Exposition’s chief of the Promotion and Publicity Department and future editor of The Official History of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, later wrote, gushingly: “So lucid, comprehensive, and admirable was this well considered scheme that the executive committee at once adopted his plans by a unanimous vote... as an expression of confidence in the powers of the creative genius who had undertaken the stupendous work.”
Thus, although the Centennial Exposition as a whole would basically call attention to the state’s industrial and technological progress, the Parthenon, in its role as Fine Arts Pavilion, would lay at the heart of the Exposition. In an unpublished paper, Metro Historical Commission Executive Director Ann Reynolds writes: “In contrast to the manufacturing, industrial, and utilitarian character of the North, the South had long seen itself romantically as the heir to the classical legacy of fine arts, even as it sought the wealth of capitalism.” This sensibility was manifest in Nashville and particularly in the Centennial.
a bright, energetic entrepreneur who became an officer of the Nashville Trust Company, Herman Justi was the Tennessee Centennial Exposition's Chief of the Bureau of Promotion and Publicity. Justi knew all of the prominent citizens in Nashville. in 1884 he had founded the Round Table Club, then, in November 1887, he had founded the literary society known as the Old Oak Club when he called about 10 gentlemen (a group of friends who had been associated together in an eating club) to Meet in the Watkins Institute. Resembling a European Salon, the club’s members—who included newspaper editors, foundry superintendents, lawyers, and professors from Vanderbilt and the University of Nashville—gathered to engage in discussions and listen to papers such as “The Race Question in America.” (Photo from The National Magazine: an illustrated monthly, Volume 5, October 1896–March 1897.)
Herman Justi, in his The Official History of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, observed: “The exaltation of the Parthenon at Nashville was no mere accident… It is the symbol of a great recovery in American life, a reinstatement of Art as the Crown of Commerce.”
Three years after the first newspaper writings by Anderson urging a Centennial celebration, excavation and construction finally took place for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in the old West Side Park, which during the event was renamed Exposition Park.
Laying on of the cornerstone of the Parthenon on October 8, 1895. groundbreaking had actually begun earlier, on September 10, 1895. (Photo is Plate 43 of the Report on the United States Government Exhibit at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville, 1897 By United States. Board of Management of Governmental Exhibit, Tennessee Centennial Exposition, 1901.)
Construction in the park commenced September 10, 1895. Director-General Lewis had contemplated constructing the Parthenon on the hill northwest of its present location; however, such a location only vaguely resembled the Acropolis, and older visitors and maimed Civil War veterans would have trouble ascending the path and steps to reach it. Instead, soil and rocks excavated to create Lake Watauga was piled at the Parthenon site to give it a slight elevation.
The Parthenon’s cornerstone was laid (with all the appropriate lavish ceremonies) on October 8, 1895—indeed, the formal dedication of the whole Tennessee Centennial Exposition took place on that day. Nashville’s new mayor of that year, the bearded and bespectacled William Marshall McCarthy (1841–1899), a Reform Democrat who was an avowed anti-Catholic and Prohibitionist elected with strong American Protective Association backing, issued a proclamation declaring a public half holiday, and officially invited the people of the State of Tennessee to participate in the event. The business houses of the city were decorated, and there was a street parade, ending at the Exposition grounds. Three orations were delivered by distinguished speakers, including then-Governor Peter Turney.
Finally, the cornerstone of the Parthenon Fine Arts building in the center of the park was set into place. Mrs. Evelina DeBow Thomas, wife of Centennial Exposition President Maj. John W. Thomas and daughter of J. D. B. DeBow of the influential antebellum publication DeBow's Review, tapped the cornerstone three times with “a beautiful gavel of gilded steel, with a blue ribbon tied about the handle.” The use of a gavel to symbolically tap the stone in place derives from the cornerstone ceremony of Freemasonry. Normally the stone is first checked using the ancient tools to ensure it is square, plumb (straight) and level, and then the cornerstone is consecrated with corn or grain, wine and oil, the Masonic symbols of prosperity, health and peace. Moreover, a genuine Masonic cornerstone would have been dated both 1895 A.D. and 5895 A.L. or Anno Lucius—Latin for “year of light,” the approximate time from the beginning of the world as calculated by Bishop James Ussher in 1658.
Thomas then dedicated the Parthenon with these words: “I dedicate the building, of which this is the cornerstone, to the honor and memory of those heroic men and women who braved the perils of frontier life and in 1796 founded the State of Tennessee.”
Music was furnished by several brass bands, and infantry and artillery salutes were fired by the Tennessee State militia. Low rates were given to visitors arriving by rail, and arrangements were made to accommodate 10,000 people.
Plaster version of the Nashville Parthenon under construction, 1897. construction on The building had reached the roofline by march 1897.
On October 10, 1895, the city of Nashville voted the $100,000 at the much-anticipated election for that purpose, with only 488 votes being cast against the proposition. Moreover, the bonds were sold at a premium. The city issued $100,000 of 4.5 percent interest-bearing bonds, to run for 20 years, from January 1, 1896 and these bonds realized $102,689. Subscriptions to fund the Exposition continued to pour in during the winter of 1895 and spring of 1896. Exactly 284 employees of the Phillips & Buttorff Manufacturing Company subscribed $4,985; the employees of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, $16,496, and later on subscribed an additional $7,500. Then 42 employees of the William Gerst Brewing Company subscribed $2,625. Forty employees of the Nashville Banner gave $1,440. The Edgefield & Nashville Manufacturing Company gave, from 107 employees, $1,205. These subscriptions came from small wage-earners.
Centennial Plus One
Despite the great progress of the enterprise, preparations were not complete on the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s statehood, on June 1, 1896. There were many factors involved in causing the organizers of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition to miss the true date of the state’s centennial: One was the beginning of the U.S. Presidential election. Another involved delays in planning caused in part by a national financial panic resulting from a drop in national silver reserves and market concerns on the effects it would have on the gold standard. More importantly, there was the fact that the venture had grown in scope from merely a celebration of the entrance of Tennessee into the Union to a national and then an international event. The number cities and counties coming forward with pavilions and exhibits had doubled in recent months.
The Exposition’s original humble beginning was simply to show to the world the vast resources of the state of Tennessee and to reveal the treasures of its rich land. Inspired by the Bible, some of its promoters quoted, “A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.” (Deuteronomy, 8:9).
There was a Tennessee Ventennial celebration on June 1, 1896 nonetheless, which lasted for two days. Officials opened and dedicated Centennial Park. The celebration began with a 16-gun sunrise salute from Capitol Hill, as Tennessee was the 16th state admitted to the Union.
“By 6 A.M., the streets were packed and jammed with visitors,” The Nashville American reported. “But the rain came in torrents for hours, and the people had to seek shelter.”
The parade, scheduled for 9 A.M., was postponed hour-to-hour on account of the weather, as the Centennial board met repeatedly to decide whether or not to hold the parade. The city of Nashville collectively held its breath as messengers from hotels and stores ran to the read bulletins on The Nashville American’s newspaper office billboards hanging in front of the building.
Finally it was decided to hold the parade at noon, regardless of weather conditions. “Blasts from the buglers' trumpets announced the soldiers were moving,” recalled The Nashville American. “The rain ceased. The clouds scattered. Blasts from the bugles soon reached the whole city... The whole populatoin sprang to life.”
The grand parade of 10,000 people (on foot, in carriages and on horseback) attended by 125,000 onlookers, started from the Public Square and made its way through eight miles of muddy Nashville streets to the Centennial Exposition grounds. Mounted officers, cavalry units, the infantry, the Marine band, Governor Robert Love Taylor, distinguished guests and Centennial officials, all streamed through Nashville to the Centennial grounds. There, a flag raising took place with a salute of one gun for every state in the Union.
Although the Tennessee Centennial Exposition was not yet ready, Nashville did celebrate the Tennessee Centennial with this spectacular parade through eight miles of Nashville streets on June 1, 1896.
Ceremonies at the Exposition grounds included speeches by the governor and other political leaders in the Auditorium on the Exposition Grounds, with the Honorable John M. Lea presiding. (The only two buildings complete on June 1, 1896 were the Auditorium and the Woman’s Building.) The principal speaker for the occasion was Jacob McGavock Dickinson, Assistant Attorney General of the United States. Other speakers were Alfred Alexander Taylor, a lawyer, former U.S. Congressman and future governor of Tennessee (just like his brother, Robert Love Taylor), and Edward Ward Carmack, attorney and editor of the Memphis Commercial. (After a heated battle with Malcolm R. Patterson for Governor in 1908, Carmack would be gunned down in Nashville on November 9, 1908 by Robin Cooper.)
The attending military organization, including 5,000 federal and state troops, closed the exercises in the afternoon of the second day with a “sham battle” in the Shelby Bottoms area (also called “Shelby Flat” in the newspapers) of the Nashville suburb of Edgefield, east of the Cumberland River. Of this, Dr. Wesley Emmett Gatewood wrote in his journal, “A crowd variously estimated from 50,000 to 100,000 swarmed all over the bottoms and hills on both sides of river. There were 12 companies of cavalry and 1700 infantry. The effort was said to be a great success. At times the din was terrific.”
The officials had announced that it was evident that the exposition would not be ready for the Centennial on the most recently announced opening date of September 1, 1896. Instead, the opening of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition had to be postponed until May 1, 1897.
The plaster version of the Nashville Parthenon nearing completion, on the grounds of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, 1897. (Photo from The National Magazine: an illustrated monthly, Volume 5, October 1896–March 1897.)
On June 8, 1896, disbursements had reached $204,354.83, and to complete the work then under contract $106,926.86 was needed.
In July 1896 the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad Company, through its President, Milton Hannibal Smith (1836–1921), made a cash subscription of $25,000, followed by another $25,000 cash subscription from President John Wilson Thomas of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway (NC&SL), (who was also president of the Centennial Exposition Committee), in addition to more than $10,000 in transportation already given. Moreover, by the close of the Exposition, the L&N had given $30,000 in service and the NC&SL gave $65,000 in service. Teh aggregate contributions of other railroads, in cash and service, was $9,000.
This policy of aid by the railroads continued throughout the Exposition. This was for two reasons: first, potentially millions of people would travel to the Exposition via rail; second, although Nashville businessmen had taken the lead in planning the Exposition, the railroads saw it as public relations opportunity to assuage widespread public hatred of the railroad monopolies.
In states such as Kentucky and Tennessee, railroads at first received support from state courts and state legislatures as well as an enthusiastic public. As long ago as 1839, Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals George Robertson had proclaimed the new technology of railroads to be “the parents of progressive improvement.” Railroads were given special privileges and monopoly powers, creating America's first powerful industry.
Kentucky's largest railroad, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, or L&N, received its charter from the Kentucky General Assembly on March 5, 1850 to construct a railroad line between the two cities. It finally began regular service between Louisville and Nashville on October 31, 1859.
When the Civil War broke out, the Union needed to move its armies and supplies quickly by rail. In January 1862, the U.S. Congress authorized President Abraham Lincoln to seize control of the railroads and telegraph for military use. The operation of any military-seized rail lines was entrusted to a new War Department agency called the U.S. Military Rail Roads (USMRR) under General Daniel McCallum. In practice, the USMRR restricted its authority to captured Southern rail lines, dealing more diplomatically with the Northern railroads.
The L&N Railroad worked quite well with its Northern conquerors. Unlike other southern railroads, it prospered throughout the war and avoided any serious damage and re-emerged in 1865 unscathed. Its business strategy was to dominate both southern commerce and regional transportation, and to insert itself directly into the political process with extensive and lavish lobbying efforts. Moreover, the charter of the L&N granted it extraordinary power to initiate right-of-way legal proceedings to condemn any lands (and its resources) necessary to build the railroad. It also created an uproar among farmers and merchants with its practice of charging more for short-haul freight versus long-haul and interstate freight. The L&N acquired other railroads (it had purchased the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway in 1873), it evolved from a local Louisville-owned regional line into a large interstate railroad in during 1870s and 1880s and in 1881 fell into the control of New York financiers and foreign investors.
All of this was causing concern among farmers, many Democratic politicians, and businessmen. It was the genesis of today's popular conception of “evil big business corrupting government,” and it led to a protracted battle involving state regulation of the railroad industry and the railroads' own “liquor, food and flattery” lobbying efforts, eventually climaxing with the assassination of the populist Kentucky Governor William Goebel in 1900.
Thus, the railroads saw its support and promotion of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition as a major public relations coup. It is no coincidence that all of its major officers were current or former railroad executives: Centennial Exposition President Major John W. Thomas, Sr. was president of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway (NC&SL), Director-General Major Eugene Castner Lewis was NC&SL’s chairman of the board and originated the idea for the Parthenon, the expo's most lasting monument, and Colonel Joseph Buckner Killebrew, A.M., Ph.D, was the industrial and immigration agent for the same railroad, was in charge of the railroad exhibits and handled a great deal of publicity for the Exposition throughout the southern United States. This multitude of railroad representation and sponsorship of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition was explained away by the Nashville Banner as simply a matter of expertise by the directors in resolving the “plain, sensible question—How shall we make two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before?” Railroads, the newspaper said, more than any other agency, pointed the way to “interlocking our interests more and more with those of other nations, in the van of civilization.”
A railroad spur was constructed from downtown Nashville’s terminal to the Centennial grounds, the railroads offered discount fares and excursion lines to the Exposition, published regional advertising in niche publications such as the Confederate Veteran. The Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway sent a decorated railroad car through Tennessee and advertised the Exposition in 1896–1897. The car attracted so much attention along its route that people would travel up to 20 miles to see it.
In the latter half of 1896 there were so many applications for space at the Exposition that it compelled enlargements of several of the buildings. Visiting delegations from the large cities came, and were so pleased with what they saw that they went home and inaugurated efforts that resulted in construction on the Exposition grounds of attractive special buildings representing them.
A renewed effort to extract funds from Washington, D.C. resulted, on December 19, 1896, in the appropriation by Congress of $130,000, of which $30,000 was for a Government Building at the Exposition and the $100,000 remainder for exhibits in the building. The appropriation came on the condition that a previous subscription by private parties of $500,000 be achieved. As only $473,000 had been subscribed, the management scurried to obtain an additional $27,000. The generous people of Nashville again reached into their pockets and by December 30, 1896 the requisite amount had been subscribed.
Early Color lithograph of imagined aerial view of Tennessee Centennial Exposition grounds. In this early version of the Exposition's layout, the Memphis pyramid is not near the Parthenon, but across lake Watauga. (Chromolithograph by The Henderson Litho. Co., Cincinnati, 1897, from Library of congress.)
The struggle with the Tennesse Legislature was harder and less successful. At first $350,000 had been asked for, but at the session early in 1897 it was decided to ask for only $100,000. After a bitter struggle with the opponents of the measure, the State of Tennessee, through its representatives at the last minute voted $50,000. Of this, only a part was available, for $30,000 was used to purchase the Agricultural Building, and the rest used to placing the State exhibit and in the expenses of administration. (When opening day arrived, disbursements were $555,183.28 and receipts $555,609.03.)
The press of the country gave the Exposition an unusual amount of attention from the beginning, and the cost of advertising it was nominal in comparison to the cost of the Exposition itself. For more than a year beforehand every effort had been made to secure the meeting in Nashville during 1897 of as many of the great bodies and conventions as possible, and the list of “special days” was the longest ever by any exposition up to that time. Everybody from the Winter Wheat Millers (June 9) to the Cotton-Seed Crushers of the South (July 16–17) to Stenographers (August 3–5) to the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo (August 18) had their conclaves at the Centennial grounds.
the list of “special days” at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 was the longest ever by any exposition up to that time. Seen here in the top image, for example, is a Souvenir Button for "Nashville Day," September 11, 1897. Below it is an image of the admission ticket for that particular day.
According to Major Lewis’ plan, the centerpiece of the whole Centennial Exposition would be the Parthenon replica, representing Nashville-Davidson County and functioning as the Exposition’s Fine Arts Building. This would involve creating a facsimile of the exquisite Greek structure of Doric order, which took the form of a parallelogram, 228 feet long, 101 feet wide and 86 feet high from the top of the building’s platform to the gable. The Parthenon, designed by Col. Smith, was constructed by the contractor Edward Laurent at a cost of $34,611.
Such was the obsession over the structure’s detail that Lewis requested and received from King of George I of Greece architectural and archaeological studies, photographs, and drawings of the original Parthenon in Athens. Also examined were drawings of the original Parthenon’s pediments made by the French diplomat Jacques Carrey in 1674, about 13 years before the 1687 explosion of stockpiled Turkish gunpowder by a lucky shot of a Venetian cannonball. The detonation heavily damaged the structure, blowing off the entire roof and demolishing the interior walls, along with most of the columns of the north and the central section of the south flank, accompanied by their associated entablature blocks and sculptured metopes. Moreover, Carrey’s drawings also proved valuable when historians examined a group of statuettes of the Roman period from Eleusis in Greece, some of which are copies of Parthenon statues.
Drawings made by Jacques CarrEy in 1674 of the left and right sides of the Parthenon’s east pediment. The Pediment should depict the birth of Athena full-grown from Zeus’ head, but those important figures were removed, probably at the time that the Parthenon was converted into a Christian Church Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in the 5th Century A.D. Artists working on the modern Nashville Parthenon had to make an educated guess as to the positioning of the figures. (Bibliotheque National, Paris.)
Even so, a great deal of the Parthenon’s east pediment was missing by the time Carrey made his drawings, which, according to the 2nd Century Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias, depicted the birth of Athena. This was a serious loss, since the figures of Zeus and Athena comprised the centerpiece of the sculptural composition over the temple’s main entrance. (Those two central figures were probably removed when the original Parthenon was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in the Fifth Century A.D.) Thus, the west pediment figures were simply reproduced on both ends of the Nashville building. The west pediment shows the contest between Athena and Poseidon to become protector of the city of Athens.
(The city’s founding myth is that, the king of Athens, King Cecrops desired a patron deity for his city-state. Athena and Poseidon both wanted this position, almost went to war, but of course the wise Athena suggested that they should hold a contest. With King Cecrops as the judge, the contest was that the god to present the best fits would be rewarded with the city itself as the grand prize. At the Acropolis, Poseidon lifted his trident and struck the earth with it, creating a spring that unfortunately turned out to be too salty. Athena, in turn, planted an olive tree, a much more useful gift to the Athenians. She was declared the winner, became the protector of the city (polis), much of the Greek world worshiped her as Athena Polias (Ἀθηνᾶ Πολιάς “Athena of the city”).
Jacques Carrey’s Drawings of the left and right sides of the west pediment (Depicting the Contest between Athena and Poseidon) of the Parthenon as it appeared in 1674. (Bibliotheque National, Paris.)
Centennial Publicist Herman Justi, who was also editor of The Official History of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, wrote of the Nashville Parthenon: “In size, in detail is believed to be, a recreation of what of what Ictinus built and Phidias adorned. All the best authorities were carefully studied, and Penrose, whose investigations seem to have been the most thorough, and whose conclusions appear the most probable, was religiously followed by the accomplished architect in charge.”
Ensuring that the Nashville Parthenon would survive the elements and resemble the one on the Acropolis in Athens was initially a rather dicey affair. Whereas the original building in Athens was fashioned entirely of fine Pentelic marble—indeed, it was the largest building ever made of marble—the Nashville version had its outer coating and sculptures made of an exterior-grade plaster called “staff.” A French invention dating from 1876, staff is generally a mixture of powdered gypsum or plaster of Paris, with a small portion of cement, glycerin, and dextrin. Water is added until the mixture attains the consistency of molasses, whereupon the staff can be cast in molds and can assume any shape.
Thus, simply making the Nashville Parthenon have the same surface color and texture of the Acropolis Parthenon would be a neat trick in itself. As it happens, by the use of yellow ochre and brown in mixing the staff, a rich, creamy, old marble tint could be achieved that was pleasing to the eye and similar to the original building. The pediment sculptures adorning each end of the Parthenon were also done in staff plaster, but the roof was made of metal and had a skylight, unlike the roof of the original Parthenon in Athens, which had a roof covered with large overlapping marble tiles: flat ones called tegulae, and semi-cylindrical, half-pipe-like tiles known as imbrices that were laid over the joints between the tegulae. (Some believe that the roof of the Acropolis parthenon was made of marble tiles sliced so thin they became translucent.)
Floor plan of the Parthenon in Athens (top) and its replica in Nashville as it is today. In the first (1897) version of the building, the reproduced statue of Athena was not present, but added in the later part of the 20th Century.
David Lowenthal remarks, “So ‘authentic’ is their replica, Tennesseans brag, that the Greeks would have to study the correct details in Nashville in order to rebuild the original. But the authenticity ends outside the portico.” The 1897 building was an exact replica solely of the Parthenon’s exterior.
The interior of the original Parthenon was divided into two rooms. The east room, called the naos, was 93 feet long and 63 feet wide and had a two-story colonnade around three sides. The naos of the original Parthenon housed a colossal statue of Athena Parthenos, the maiden warrior aspect of the goddess Athena. The west room, 44 feet long by 63 feet wide, within which may have been the treasury storage area, was the parthenon or “virgins’ chamber.” It housed treasure of Athens and the Delian League. In the original Parthenon, the wall between the naos and the treasury room was solid, but sometime during its later use as a Christian church and mosque, alterations to the building were made, creating doorways that connected the two rooms.
The Nashville Parthenon’s interior had no statue of Athena in the naos and its floor plan was simply divided up into a series of three large exhibition spaces for displaying paintings and sculpture from around the world, described as “the most valuable works of art ever exhibited in the South, and one of the best loan collections ever seen in the United States.”
As for the rest of the Exposition, it was patterned somewhat after the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, consisting of classically-inspired buildings. (The Illinois Building was a scaled-down reproduction of the Columbian Exposition’s Administration Building.) Indeed, the dozen or so major exhibit buildings comprised the core of what was nicknamed the “White City,” a reference to the famous White City of the Chicago extravaganza. As the pinnacle and center of the Exposition, the Parthenon was the first building to be fully erected. Construction of 36 other buildings followed.
The buildings at the park’s center were devoted to civic pride. These buildings included the U.S. Government Building, the History Building, the Auditorium, and the two most impressive structures: One was the Parthenon which represented Nashville, serving as the Art Pavilion. The Nashville Parthenon faced east as does the original in Athens. Theodore Cooley, chief of the fine arts department, scoured the scene and collected a fine collection of paintings and statuary by then-modern artists. The Parthenon’s neighboring rival was the Memphis/Shelby County Pyramid. Just as Nashville had designed its pavilion to resemble the Parthenon owing to its moniker of “The Athens of the South,” so too did Memphis honor its Egyptian name by constructing its pavilion in the form of a large pyramid, a smaller scale version of the great Pyramid of Cheops (“Khufu,” in Egyptian) on the Giza Plateau in Egypt.
The Nashville Parthenon's chief architectural rival during the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 was the Memphis/Shelby County Pyramid, seen here. (Note Parthenon in background).
Buildings situated along the central grounds’ eastern flank included Minerals and Forestry, the Negro Building, and the Machinery Building. The large Agriculture Building fronted by cotton and tobacco fields marked the northern boundary of the central park area. Continuing south along the western flank of the central grounds, visitors saw buildings devoted to Transportation, Education and Hygiene as well as the Children’s Building, the Woman’s Building (modeled after the Hermitage, the Tennessee home of President Andrew Jackson) and a clubhouse for gentlemen. Behind the Parthenon was the Commercial Building, and behind that were the wooded hills. Turning to the east one could see meadows and woodlands in the distance, and, rising above, the State House of Tennessee. The faux Rialto bridge in the park thus in a way symbolized a connection between the present and the past.
Early Color lithograph of imagined aerial view of Tennessee Centennial Exposition grounds. In this early version of the Exposition's layout, the Memphis pyramid is not near the Parthenon, but across lake Watauga. (Chromolithograph by The Henderson Litho. Co., Cincinnati, 1897, from Library of congress.)
Closer look at the early color lithograph at top reveals that the Memphis Pyramid was originally planned to be situated across lake Watauga from the Parthenon. Show below it is a later lithograph where the pyramid is shown in its proper position, as verified by the photo at the bottom. (The upper Chromolithograph is by The Henderson Litho. Co., Cincinnati, 1896, from Library of congress; the Middle image is from a painting that hung in the downtown Nashville Library.)
Exhibition buildings were also provided by states (including New York, Texas, and Alabama), cities, such as Knoxville, and fraternal organizations such as Woodsmen of the World, Knights of Pythias, and the Red Men housed in an imposing wigwam. Highly-regarded restaurants were also scattered about the park. Tents of military personnel and fields for athletic events and battle reenactments lined the eastern edge of the park, the site of the modern-day Centennial Sportsplex.
the Nashville Parthenon was not the only attempt at accurately reproducing a structure from classical greece at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Here we see the history Building, which is a replica of the Erectheon, placed at the same distance from the Pantheon as the original erectheon is from the Parthenon in Athens. LIke the Nashville Parthenon, the architect of the History building was William C. Smith.
Surrounding the Parthenon itself were the exhibit halls of Commerce, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, Machinery, Negro, Minerals & Forestry, Women, Children, History, the Auditorium, and the U.S. Government. A number of these buildings at the Exposition were based on ancient originals. It is said that the only “exact” replica of antiquity was the Parthenon. However, the History building was an attempted close replica of the Erectheon, a companion building of the Parthenon, which was placed at the same distance from it at the Exposition as was the original on the Acropolis at Athens. (William C. Smith, architect of the Nashville Parthenon, also desitgned the History building.) Valuable historical collections were housed and displayed in this fireproof building, with displays by the Confederate Veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Colonial Dames and the Daughter of the American Revolution, and the collections of Robert T. Quarles and General Gates P. Thurston, consisting of rare assemblages of state historical relics, maps, and a set of artifacts of the ancient mound builders.
Although the Nashville Parthenon was the “Crown Jewell” and centerpiece of the Exposition, it was not the largest building on the park grounds. That honor belonged to the Commerce Building, which was about 591 by 256 feet with wings 150 feet wide, a central pavillion two stories in height (the second story forming a gallery 141 by 160 feet), with a dome rising to a height of 175 feet. It was built at a cost of $40,000.
The Logansport [Indiana] Journal of October 3, 1895 enticed its readers with a description of the plan of the grounds and scope of the then-contemplated exhibits:
“The general plan on which the Tennessee Centennial Exposition is being constructed shows that Director General Lewis is an artist as well as a skilled engineer and architect. The centre of attraction will be an imaginary line through the middle of the enclosure. At the extremity nearest the city, in a delightful grove of maples, will be Tennessee’s own exhibit by counties. From this the visitor will mount a broad flight of steps, with great curving balustrades adorned with statuary. Crossing an ample esplanade, he will go over a bridge built on the design of the Rialto at Venice, and spanning an arm of the lake. Before him will stand the statue of Athena with a lofty terrace and the white Parthenon for a background. Continuing through or around this building, his path will lie between two long rows of lofty, fluted columns, ending at a drive I front of the Commerce Building, where every device that can be classed as belonging to the useful arts of mankind will be exhibited. From here the visitor may turn to the right and examine seriatim the displays in the Machinery, Agricultural, Transportation, Minerals or Forestry buildings, or turn to the left and view the Children’s Building, the Woman’s Building, the Electrical and Horticultural buildings, or attend some of the meetings in the Auditorium. From an of the edifices the lake, with its flashing gondolas, and the plaza, with its military encampment or stock show or bicycle races, as the case may be, can be seen.”
The Birth of Centennial City
In order to control the crowds at the Exposition it was seen that some sort of municipality would be necessary. This led to the last great political struggle that came not long before the opening day, in the effort to incorporate the Exposition and its 190 “active” acres in Exposition Park as “Centennial City,” a unique, short-lived municipality. (A limited corporation, the charter ended at midnight on December 31, 1897.) “Like the little kingdom of Monaco, it was beautiful, artistic, and given up largely to the pursuit of pleasure,” wrote the editors of Appleton’s Annual Cyclopædia and Register of Important Events for 1898. Centennial City would have its mayor (Norman Farrel) and board of aldermen. It would have its own post office, situated in the Government building and known as the “Centennial Station of the Nashville Post-Office.” Its clerk-in-charge, assistant clerk and five mail carriers saw service from May 20, 1897 until November 15, 1897.
Centennial City’s police force, the Centennial Guard, never had less than 88 officers on duty in one day, and occasionally as many as 135. The police force also acted as a fire department (they put out a few restaurant blazes in 1897), and their numbers could be increased, if required, to 1000 men. Colonel Eastman Gaither Currey (1865–1930) was Commandant of the Centennial Guards. (Currey would later be the 1st Lieutenant and Adjutant in the Second Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Infantry that fought in the Spanish-American War, later captain and quartermaster in the 27th U.S. Volunteer Infantry in the Phillipines.) The Centennial guards had to be between the ages of 21 and 35, at least 5 feet 10 inches tall, and meet the physical requirements of the U.S. Army. The guards did an excellent job of maintaining order. The only serious incident took place in May 1897, when a drunken contingent of between 75 and 100 Civil War veterans who had served in the Union Army's former 5th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment, unofficially known as the “Louisville Legion,” attempted to take charge of the Vanity Fair amusement area but were stopped by the guards.
Centennial City published its own weekly newspaper, The Centennial News, which remained in service for almost a year. Although Herman Justi was in charge of the Bureau of Promotoin and Publicity, Director-General Maj. Eugene C. Lewis actually directed Centennial promotion for over a year, informing the newspapers of the world as to the details of each newsworthy event he had arranged, and attracting reporters from the likes of The New York Times, The New York Sun, The Chicago Times-Herald, The London Times, and other newspapers in Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, Washington, and various European cities.
That’s not to say that Herman Just wasn't busy. He had six assistants, all of them working in the Press Building, “a comfortable little Queen Anne cottage” near the center of the Exposition grounds, lit with no less than 94 new-fangled incandescent lights and sporting “all the facilities, including a porch from which reporters had a good view of all parades.” From there came the weekly newspaper and a steady torrent of press releases, pamphlets and what we would today called “media kits,” all distributed to the worlds press associations and newspapers.
One major bone of contention in the creation of Centennial City involved the sale of beer, wine and liquor on the Exposition grounds, which was provided in a bill for the incorporation of Centennial City introduced in the Legislature. Although none of the Executive Committee members were involved in making or selling liquor, directly or indirectly, the bill was denounced as the work of brewers and distillers. Nashville, after all, stayed a “dry” town until 1967.
At the time, the laws of Tennessee forbade sale of spirituous or malt liquors within four miles of a school, except within an incorporated municipality, and the Centennial Park is just outside the city of Nashville, with schools and universities around it. The Executive Committee took the view that, having invited the people of the world to join in the great celebration, as the host they must allow for “the tastes and customs” of their guests, and so beer and wine might be sold under proper restrictions. The opposition to the measure was said to be bitter and persistent, but finally it became law. Centennial City was incorporated and was allowed to sell beer and wine but no hard liquor, even though Jack Daniel’s had won the gold medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago four years earlier, in 1893.
Bonds were prepared for $220,000 and a loan was obtained that kept the treasury replenished. This was paid off before the Exposition closed.
Countdown to the Opening
Shortly before opening day, Professor R. L. C. White prepared a list of 100 questions on Tennessee history and called it his “Centennial Dream.” It was published in The Nashville American, March 7, 1897, as well as other newspapers. White offered rewards for correct answers.
Also, as opening day approached, the Tennessee Centennial Association published the Official Guide to the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition and City of Nashville, which described in detail the wonders visitors could see. Readers of the Guide were advised to take a “six-day tour” that featured displays in the Mineral and Forestry buildings, the Parthenon, Little Egypt, the Vanity Fair amusement area, and so forth. Hotel rates for room and board were quoted at from 2 to 4 dollars per day, carfare was 5 cents, and individual meals cost 25 cents.
Just before the opening, it was decided that the work of the director-general was too much for one man, even the capable Eugene Lewis, so a director of affairs was elected: Dr. William Lofland Dudley (1859–1914), who had served as a Commissioner of the annual Cincinnati Industrial Exposition from 1881 to 1885. A distinguished scientist, lecturer, and since 1887 head of the Chemistry Department at Vanderbilt University, Dudley, amazingly, had also become Dean of Vanderbilt’s Medical Department (now the School of Medicine) in 1895.
“A Day Forever Memorable in the Annals of Tennessee”
April 30, 1897 was “cold, wet and dreary, a type of the day of the brief blackberry winter,” wrote a reporter for the New York World. In fact, there had been constant rain for a week, delaying work in every one of the Exposition’s departments. Over 4,000 men worked feverishly to put the finishing touches on the Exposition ground. The next day, May 1st, the highly anticipated opening day of the great Tennessee Centennial Exposition, had a morning “that opened cold and cloudy; with indications of rain, but a stiff wind carried the clouds away and by the time the streets became populous the sun peeped out from the clouds.” The New York Times reporter called the weather “bright and cool.” The inclement weather had prevented the removal of the flowers and plants from the greenhouses, but the roads and walks, shrubbery and grass were described as being in excellent condition.
Broad Street looking west from Market Street (now second Avenue) on May 1, 1897, the opening day of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The parade would start here and then march down broad street to West End Avenue, the to Capital Avenue, and then to the CentenNial Park.
The Exposition grounds were opened for the reception of visitors at 8 A.M., but back in the city of Nashville, crowds thronged the streets by 9 A.M. and awaited the parade that was to commence at that time, but it was delayed. As The New York Times reported, “the inclement weather which prevailed yesterday and until early this morning interfered with the arrangements for the parade in honor of the visiting Supreme officers of the Ancient Essenic Order, yet it was a most creditable affair and manifested their appreciation of the opening of the exposition.”
Front page of the Nashville BAnner for Saturday, May 1, 1897, Opening DAy of the great Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Note the prominence given on the page to the Exposition's centerpiece, the Parthenon.
The exposition organizers wanted to avoid a enormous parade that could get out of control, so they allowed a “small procession” (still quite large) led by a detachment of mounted police followed by just two of the city’s fraternal organizations: First the local divisions of the Uniform Rank Knights of Pythias, then the officers of the Tennessee Ancient Essenic Order. (There were many members of the Knights of the Ancient Essenic Order about, as the Supreme Senate Knights of the Ancient Essenic Order were holding their second annual conclave in Nashville May 1–3.). They were followed by the Legion Band of the First Tennessee Battalion, Company A of the First Tennessee Regiment of Knoxville, Company A of the Ohio National Guard of Norman, Ohio; the Sponsor of the Ancient Essenic Order and Maids of Honor, arrayed in costumes of white, in a tally-ho; Senators and Knights of the Local Senates and Supreme officers, and visiting Knights.
Logo of the Knights of Pythias.
The procession formed on the public square and marched through College Street to Market, Market to Union, Union to Summer, Summer to Church, Church to Spruce, Spruce to Broad, and thence to the Centennial Exposition grounds. The public buildings and hundreds of business houses and private residences along the line of march and every other portion of the city were adorned with the National colors and other beautiful decorations.
Tennessee Governor Robert Love Taylor and his staff travelled in open carriages to Exposition grounds. The Legion Band of Knoxville and the Knights of the Ancient Essenic Order formed a 3,000-man guard of honor to escort Governor Taylor, his full staff and some important state and city officials. They passed through the streets to the Exposition grounds, where a morning of oratory and volleys of cannon awaited.
Once arriving at the Exposition grounds, those in the procession joined with the thousands of other visitors in inspecting the attractive buildings and well-manicured landscape, the result of an expenditure of $1,101,246.40, with $167,000 of that coming from the railroads. It was all built with area workers, unlike the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895, which had saved over $100,000 by exploiting chain-gang labor to excavate about a million cubic yards of earth during its early months of construction.
Photo from Stereopticon of the 6000–capacity Auditorium of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress.)
At 9:30 A.M. the members of both houses of the State Legislature, their wives, and General Ignacio Garcia, Postmaster General of the Republic of Mexico, and suite assembled at the Union Street station of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway and were conveyed in special trains to the terminal station at the west side of the Exposition Park, where all rendezvoused at the Administration Building. A procession of these invited guests made their way from the Administration Building to the Auditorium, along the way meeting up with Governor Robert Love Taylor and staff, and a great body of the Essenic Knights. This formed an even bigger procession to the Auditorium. The Governor and staff entered first, followed by the invited guests and then the Essenic Knights, their strange uniforms attracting considerable notice form the crowd.
Opening Day ceremonies in the 6000–capacity Auditorium of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Seated on the platform are, from left to right: Gov. Robert Love Taylor, former U.S. Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson, ennessee Centennial President Maj. John W. Thomas, Exposition Director-General Maj. Eugene C. Lewis, and heads of the departments and other officials. The Bellstedt and Ballenberg Band of Cincinnati, Ohio, was seated in the orchestra pit. Patriotic music was played until the Exercises began at 11 A.M.
The opening ceremony was announced for 10 A.M. but did not actually begin until 11 A. M. Hardly were the guests seated on the platform before the whole 6,000-person capacity Auditorium was filled, while a vast multitude remained outside, unable to gain admission, and had to resign themselves to listen to the patriotic music played by Bellstedt & Ballenberg’s military concert band of Cincinnati, esconced in the orchestra pit within.
On stage in presence of the vast audience was the Governor of Tennessee, the Honorable Robert Love Taylor, Chief Justice David L. Snodgrass and others of the Tennessee Supreme Court and members of both houses of the State Legislature. Other distinguished citizens of Tennessee and other states were also present, such as the Honorable Adlai E. Stevenson and party, Missouri Governor Lon V. Stevens and his wife.
The Tennessee Centennial ceremonies were opened with a dedicatory prayer offered by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Frank Gailor (1856–1935), coadjutor bishop of Tennessee who was about to become the third bishop of the the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee in the Episcopal Church (he served from 1898–1935). Gailor Also served as the eighth chancellor of the University of the South (Sewanee) from June 23, 1908, until his death. In 1916 Gailor was elected president of the House of Bishops, and at the 1919 General Convention he was elected president of the National Council of the Episcopal Church. He served in this position until 1925, when the Episcopal Church's first elected Presiding Bishop began a six-year term.
Interestingly, in an age where the great orators could spend hours delivering long-winded speeches, the ceremonies attending the opening of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition were quite simple. The ceremonies were opened with a dedicatory prayer offered by the Right Reverend Thomas Frank Gailor (1856–1935), coadjutor bishop of Tennessee who was about to become the third bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee in the Episcopal Church (he served from 1898–1935).
After “America” had been played “in a most impressive manner,” the President of the Tennessee Exposition Company, Major John W. Thomas, once again arose and received cheers and applause from those assembled in the Auditorium. He then delivered a brief address, in which he first presented two gavels of historic interest. Of the first he said: “The gavel with which this vast assembly is called to order is made from a limb of the peach-tree [actually, a beech tree] upon which Daniel Boone inscribed these words: ‘Daniel Boone, kill bar, on tree, in year 1760.’” The other gavel was made of wood taken from the building in which met the first Legislature of the State of Tennessee. After he had spoken, there followed loud and continuous cheering. The band then struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” amid tumultuous cheering and waving of hats and handkerchiefs.
A popular figure on the lecture circuit when not in political office, The fiddle-playing Tennessee Governor Robert Love Taylor (1850–1912) was A son of Nathaniel Green Taylor, minister and Indian Commissioner under Andrew Johnson, and Emmaline Haynes Taylor, who was a sister of the confederate senator Landon Carter Haynes. “Our Bob” as he was known to his fans, served three terms as governor of Tennessee, having won his first term by defeating his brother Alf in the famous Tennessee “War of the Roses” campaign of 1886. He died while in office as U.S. senator. (Photo is plate 1 of the Report on the United States Government Exhibit at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville, 1897 By United States. Board of Management of Governmental Exhibit, Tennessee Centennial Exposition, 1901.)
The next address was by Tennessee’s Governor, the Honorable Robert Love Taylor. (“Of medium stature, somewhat slender, he wears side-whiskers and an iron-gray mustache, and is a kindly-looking man,” wrote Frederic Starr.) As Taylor advanced towards the front of the platform, Frederic Starr later noted that someone in the audience cried out, “Our Bob!”—the favorite nickname of the popular Taylor, who was then serving his third term in office. The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported that day (page 7), that as Taylor approached the platform to speak, “the crowed rose as one man, and it was several minutes before his excellency could proceed with his address.” When Governor Taylor finished speaking, the band struck up “Dixie” and then “the very earth seemed to shake with the thunders of applause. It was a sight never to be forgotten,” reported the Gazette.
Morgan Cassius Fitzpatrick (1868–1908). an attorney and Newspaper editor, From 1895 to 1899 he was a member of the State House of Representatives, serving as Speaker in 1897; he was also State Superintendent of Public Instruction (1899 to 1903) and Chairman of the Democratic Party's State Executive Committee. Fitzpatrick was elected to represent Tennessee’s 4th District in the 58th Congress and served one term, from 1903 to 1905. He was not a candidate for renomination and held no other public office before his death in Nashville at 39.
When the crowd finally quieted down, impromptu speeches were then given by Chief Justice Snodgrass of the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the State Senate, the Speaker of the House, and Nashville Mayor William M. McCarthy. Frederic Starr was of the opinion that, “Plainly the favorite of the four with the crowd is the Speaker of the House, Morgan Fitzpatrick. He is a young man, but much in earnest, and fearless. It is certain that he has a strong hold on his people, and his simple and direct remarks went to the heart.”
Interestingly, many newspaper accounts of the event skip over these four speakers. Perhaps there was a reason for a genteel reporter of the era not to recount some of their speeches. As a journalist for the New York World later observed, “The speeches by President Thomas, Governor Taylor, speakers Fitzpatrick and Thompson and Mayor McCarthy were in the happiest vein, but the remarks of Chief Justice Snodgrass, of the Supreme Court, being of a personal and political nature, threw a damper over the crowd, and furnished the only unpleasant incident of a day full of pleasure.”
Just a year earlier, on January 9, 1896, a Grand Jury had returned an indictment against Chief Justice David L. Snodgrass for felonious assault. (On December 16, 1895 he used a pistol to fire two shots at and wounded in the arm an attorney, Colonel John R. Beasley, at one time a candidate for governor, who had written a disparaging newspaper article about Snodgrass.)
In any case, these later four speakers had taken up considerable time with their speeches, but the next, by the Exposition’s Director-General, Major Eugene C. Lewis, would fortunately be brief. Lewis stepped forward to great applause “that shook the very firmament,” reported the Gazette, “and it was at once seen that Tennessee had looked upon the work of her gifted son and saw that it was good.”
“I have been preparing my speech for twenty-one months,” Lewis said initially, and began with his address. As recounted by Frederic Starr, the speech appears to have been shortened considerably from the original, though the newspapers claimed that he read it in full. In it he lists the 18 parts of the Exposition (Art, Agriculture, Commerce, Children, Education, Electricity, Forestry, History, Hygiene, Machinery, Minerals, Promotion and Publicity, Military, Negro, Public Comfort and Woman’s) and said the following: “First to be selected as the building to contain the art collection, and the Parthenon was chosen as the model. Coupled with this decision was the determination to truly and precisely adhere to all the lines and lineaments of the ‘gem of all architecture,’ and it is fair to say that this selection and this determination fixed the standard which marks the excellence of the Centennial Exposition of Tennessee… It is with great pleasure, sir, that I present to you the keys.”
At this moment, Director-General Lewis symbolically turned the keys to the Exposition over to President Thomas as one would turn over the keys of a city to a celebrity.
After receiving the keys, President Thomas said: “Ladies and Gentlemen—I will now dictate a telegram: ‘To the President of the United States of America, Washington, D. C.: The people of Tennessee send greetings, and request that you now put in motion the machinery of the Tennessee centennial exposition.’”
Silence suddenly ensued.
This was the big moment. Prior to this, a teeming crowd of 50,000 restless, enthusiastic visitors had continued to cram into park anticipating the moment when President William McKinley (1843–1901) was to officially open the Tennessee Centennial Exposition from Washington, D.C. Similarly, a smaller throng of distinguished persons jammed into the telegraph room of the White House (the “Executive Mansion” as it was called in the days prior to Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency) to witness the formal opening of the Exposition. Among those present were several members of the Cabinet, the Tennessee delegation in Congress, representatives of the Committee on Arrangements, who came for the purpose, Commissioner of Pensions H. Clay Evans and some of the resident Tennessee colony in Washington.
Presdient William McKinley around the time he officially opened the Tennessee Centennial Exposition via telegraph from the White House.
A Western Union telegraphic circuit direct to the Exposition grounds was set up by way of Richmond, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina—a little more than 700 miles in length. The circuit was left open in such a way that the closing of circuit by pressing the operator’s key in the White House would start the machinery in all of the Exposition’s principal buildings. Finally, on completion of the preparations, the appointed hour had arrived. Exposition President John W. Thomas had dictated the telegram to President McKinley in Washington.
Upon receiving the message, at 12:13 P.M. (1:13 P.M. Washington time), President McKinley at the White House stepped from his room to the telegraph room and the desk containing the telegraph instruments. Then, guided by the attendant in charge, McKinley placed the index finger of his right hand on the button attached to a regular Morse telegraphic key. This action closed the circuit, sending a signal to Nashville and setting into motion the Centennial Exposition machinery.
In this illustration from the New York World, At 12:13 P.M. May 1, 1897 (1:13 P.M. Washington time) President McKinley at the White House pressed a button that sent a signal along a telegraph wire to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville, starting up all of the machinery in the buildings there and thus officially opening the great event to the public.
At this point there are two versions of what happened next. In the seemingly correct version, as reported by Starr (and others), the crowd “heard the clicking of the instrument at the touch of President McKinley’s hand in Washington [a minute and a quarter after Washington had received the telegram from Nashville], followed almost instantly by the shot of cannon outside.” A cannon was fired on the Exposition grounds to signal to the crowd that the machinery was all working properly and the Exposition was now open. In another version of the story, the signal sent via telegraph by President McKinley actually caused the cannon to fire as well as activating the machinery. Whatever the case, Nashville did telegraph a return message to McKinley: “People wild; gun went off; all right; bands playing; whistles going; everybody shaking hands.”
“President Thomas Declares the Fair Open,” part of an engraved drawing by W. A. Rogers entitled “The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition—Scene on the Opening Day,” published in Harper's Weekly, May 1897. Available here on eBay.
Once the machinery had started and the cannon fired, John W. Thomas said: “I now declare the Tennessee Centennial Exposition open to the world.”
McKinley then sent the following message to John W. Thomas:
“I congratulate the people of Tennessee upon the successful opening of their Centennial Exposition, and I wish for it the greatest possible success.”
The band played “Hail Columbia,” and the opening ceremonies were concluded. The morning clouds and mist had dispersed and the sun was now shining.
This also completed the ceremonies, so far as President McKinley’s participation was concerned. Before returning to his office, McKinley told those the Tennesseans present in the room that he was pleased at being able to formally open the Exposition, though he regretted his inability to be present at Nashville. At the same time he announced his expectation of attending the Exposition before its close.
McKinley and his wife, in their first extended tour out of Washington, did later attend the Exposition festivities along with the White House Cabinet on June 11th (designated Ohio Day) and 12th (designated Cincinnati Day), with speeches delivered at the Cincinnati Building. (McKinley was from Ohio.) William Waller wrote that the arrival of President McKinley and his wife at the Expositon was called the “gayest day in the gay nineties.” (While attending a similar “President’s Day” event at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz. McKinley’s death a week later thrust Theodore Roosevelt into the U.S. Presidency.)
After the great booming of the cannon indicated that the machinery had been successfully started by President McKinley, the audience in the Auditorium walked to the Moretti Fountain near the Woman’s Building, with Governor Taylor escorting Mrs. Van Lane Kirkman, president of the Woman’s Board (“Like so many women of Tennessee,” wrote Frederic Starr, “she is of large figure and impressive appearance. She is a blonde, and dresses magnificently. She is graceful in social functions, and able in business and executive affairs.”) Arriving at the fountain, Director of Affairs Dr. William L. Dudley presented the fountain’s sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti, to Mrs. Kirkman, and Moretti handed her the key with which she turned on the fountain’s water supply and thus started it up. A formal reception held by the Board of Lady Managers ensured at the Woman’s Building throughout the afternoon. Opening exercises then occurred at 1 P.M. in the Children’s Building, which was erected with contributions from Tennessee school children.
After the cannon sounded the opening of the CEntennial, the audience in the Auditorium walked to this "Electric Fountain," with Governor Taylor escorting Mrs. Van Lane Kirkman, president of the Woman’s Board. Upon arrivng at the fountain, Director of Affairs Dr. William L. Dudley presented the fountain’s sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti, to Mrs. Kirkman. Moretti then handed her the key with which she turned on the fountain’s water supply, thus starting it up.
For the rest of the day, crowds roamed the park grounds and visited the exhibits and the dedications of other buildings including the Knoxville Building. All major buildings opened that day, but the formal opening of several took place over subsequent weeks, such as the Women’s Building (May 3) the Parthenon (May 9), and the Government Building (May 17).
As the New York World reporter noted on May 2nd, “The Government Building will not be opened for several days. The Negro Building has only a few exhibits placed; there is much to be done in the Agriculture Building and all to be done in the Hygiene and Education Building. Only one section of the Art Gallery is now open, but all the exhibits practically are placed in the Women’s Building. In the Children’s Building, in the Mineral and Forestry Building, in the Machinery Building, in the History Building, in the Transportation Building, in the Railroad Building, in the Commerce Building and absolutely no outside work is undone. The grounds are perfect and complete, beautiful beyond description. There are splendid walks with beautiful blue grass and beds of flowers with fountains on land and in lake. The lakes, too, are alive with swan, wild geese, duck and pelican, but with gondolas from Venice, as well as the discordant sounds arising from the section devoted to Vanity Fair, make needless any investigation as to whether that section is in full blast.”
In the afternoon and evening of that first day there were concerts by Bellstedt and Ballenberg’s band.
One highpoint of the opening day festivities was the evening illumination of buildings throughout the park. (The Electrical Department had been organized on July 1, 1896, with J. W. Braid as chief and J. W. Pentecost as superintendent.) As was the case in the earlier Chicago World’s Fair, electric lights illuminated and outlined all major structures, to spectacular effect. (The first electric light had come to Nashville in 1882.) At 7:00 P.M. a signal was given from the main flagstaff, and an arc of lights illuminated the Centennial Exposition to the astonishment of the crowds unacquainted with large displays of electric lights, then a novelty that only the wealthy could afford. (One wonders what they would have thought of today’s Times Square in New York.) The Exposition was illuminated by 18,382 incandescent lights, ranging from two to 300 candlepower, used for both outside decoration and inside illumination. The Parthenon had 390 lamps affixed to it. There were also 458 arc lights distributed over the Centennial Park and buildings to give the best overall illumination possible. One impressive lighting feature were the arc lights hung on the main flagstaff, 210 feet from the ground. This cluster of lights was used as a signal for turning on all of the Exposition’s lights, and was operated form the powerhouse, which was situated three-quarters of a mile away.
The use of electric lights was lavish at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.
There were even powerful searchlights mounted on the giant 200+ foot-tall seesaw at the Vanity Fair amusement area. The sweeping light beams these great lamps could be seen 30 miles away.
A powerhouse was located three-quarters of a mile away from the park’s main flagstaff. Boilers producing 2,500 horsepower were used to supply steam to the pumps and engines that drove the machinery exhibits and electrical generators. There were 15 dynamos were in the main plant but, interestingly, despite the eight miles of underground electrical lines laid by the electrical staff of 77 men the previous autumn, many small generators were used around the park instead of a few very large ones, probably to provide for redundant sources of power, thus supporting something akin to “fault resilient” operation of the lighting and machinery.
As the bands played, the evening reached a climax with a fireworks display by the A. L. Due Fireworks company of Cincinnati, Ohio, that era’s masters of the pyrotechnic art.
Six Months of Fun and Frolic
In the days that followed, visitors walked along winding, graveled roads bordered by buildings, beautiful flowers, fountains, and lakes. Most of the buildings were made of wood plastered with “staff” exterior-grade plaster to resemble pale gray stone.
Enid Yandell (1870–1934) in her Paris studio, sculpting a 25-foot tall statue of the Athena Pallas which was placed in front of the Parthenon in Nashville for the Tennesse Centennial exposition.
Visitors could easily travel to the park via double track trains and trolleys, which deposited their passengers at terminals on the north and southeast entrances. (Nashville first saw mule-drawn streetcars in 1865, but they were replaced by electric trolleys in 1889.) There were few if any taxicabs, as the first automobile was driven in Nashville just a year before, in 1896.
Visitors entering the main gates on the south (near the present-day entrance to the park) passed Lake Katherine. (Named for Governor John Sevier’s wife, whas was Lake Katherine is now the low area near the southeast corner of the present park.) Three additional lakes dotted the landscape: Lake Watauga (the only lake still in existence) offered gondola rides and could be crossed by a fair copy of Venice’s Rialto Bridge; Lily Lake (filled with every obtainable variety of water lilly, now the site of the park’s sunken flower garden northwest of the Parthenon); and Lake Sevier (to the east, behind the present-day Centennial Sportsplex). In addition, shade arbors, fountains and statues enhanced and beautified the park grounds.
Enid Yandell (1870–1934) in her Paris studio, sculpting a 25-foot tall statue of the Athena Pallas which was placed in front of the Parthenon in Nashville for the Tennesse Centennial exposition.
One of these statues was in front of the Parthenon. Although the interior of the Exposition’s Parthenon was not graced by a representation of the goddess, there was a large statue of Pallas Athena outside the east entrance of the Parthenon. Miss Enid Yandell (1870–1934) of Louisville, Kentucky, an American sculptress who studied with Auguste Rodin and Frederick William MacMonnies, sculpted the statue in her studio in Paris, France. It was modeled
after Fröhner's Pallas de Velletri, which is in the Louvre, Paris. Yandell's statue, made of plaster, was said to be the largest statue ever sculpted by a woman up to that time.
Pallas Athena was sculpted in Paris, shipped by rail to Amsterdam in three sections, then tied onto the deck of a steamship and sent to New Orleans. Finally, it was shipped by rail to Nashville. The statue was 25 feet high and occupied perhaps the most conspicuous location in the park. It was mounted on an 18-foot-tall pedestal, making the total height 43 feet, approximately the height of the Athena Parthenos statue inside the original Parthenon at the Acropolis.
At the time the largest sculpture done by a woman, the 25-foot athena Pallas sculpted by Enid Yandell stood on an 18-foot-tall pedestal in front of the Nashville Parthenon..
(Yandell was also commissioned by the Filson Club of Louisville to produce a 9-foot statue of Daniel Boone. A plaster cast was shown on the Exposition grounds. Unlike the Athena statue, the Boone figure was later cast in bronze in 1906 for display in Louisville, Kentucky. The Daniel Boone sculpture survived the “Super Outbreak” of tornadoes on April 3, 1974, and it now resides in Cherokee Park, Louisville, Kentucky. Another casting of the Boone statue made in 1967 can be found on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky.)
Even closer to the Parthenon was another, smaller statue, a bronze of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, planned for four years and sculpted by Giuseppe Moretti of New York. The statue, almost entirely paid for by the Exposition's Executive Committee, was unveiled by Vanderbilt University Chancellor James Kirkland on Monday, October 11, 1897, preceded by a long procession of students and followed by a eulogy for the Commodore, who had died 20 years earlier, in 1877. (When the Centennial Exposition closed shortly thereafter, the statue was moved to a point directly in front of the steps of Kirkland Hall—then known as Old Main—at Vanderbilt University, facing east. In 1949, the grassy esplanade in front of Kirkland was completed—the campus' new main entrance—the statue was moved onto the esplanade and turned to face north, toward West End Avenue, but still in front of Kirkland. Finally, in 1986 the Commodore was moved to its fourth and current location, at the esplanade's northernmost end, still facing West End and greeting guests at the university’s main entrance.)
The statue that was closest to the Nashville Parthenon during the 1897 CEntennial Exposition was this one of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, planned for four years and sculpted by Giuseppe Moretti of New York. The statue is now situated by the main entrance of nearby Vanderbuilt University.
Meanwhile, within the Parthenon, the interior looked nothing like the original in Athens, having been organized as a series of rooms for the display of art. Indeed, it was the largest collection of fine art that had ever been brought together in one place in the South. There were 967 paintings and nearly 200 pieces of sculpture in the collection, besides architectural drawings and other works in allied fields of art—a total of 1,172 pieces from all over the world. Art Department chief Theodore Cooley knew many preeminent artists in the country, and he had a knack for persuading the best private galleries to lend painting to the Exposition and even to assist him in assembling the collection. More than 5000 letters were written over 18 months to various galleries and individuals.
Supervision of the hanging of the paintings and installing the sculptured in the Parthenon was given to artist Henry Leon Roecker (1860–1941) a Burlington, Iowa-born son a Methodist preacher who had studied at the Academy of Design (forerunner of the Chicago Art Institute) and the Royal Academy of Art in Munich. However, the work of receiving and displaying the artwork was not completed until 10 days after Exposition opened.
It was said that the art catalog for the Exposition was a work of art in itself.
The jury of art awards was composed of F. Hopkinson Smith of New York, Thomas Allen of Boston, and Halsey C. Ives of St. Louis. Amusingly, a prize was awarded to the painter of the picture declared “most popular” by a ballot of all visitors. The winner: An 1894 painting entitled Heels over Head received an overwhelming plurality of the vote, painted by John George Brown (1831–1913), born in England in 1831 but who had moved to New York in 1856. Brown liked to paint the street boys of New York selling papers, shining shoes, or clowning around with his fellows, imbuing them with a cute ingenuousness that may have been lacking in his original models, but which appealed to the sentimental, infrequent museum-goer of the 19th century. As art historian Charles Henry Caffin wrote in The Story of American Painting (1907), “…there are few collectors in this country who have not at some time or other owned a ‘Brown’; still fewer who have not in the course of their artistic development disposed of it.”
John George Brown's painting, "Heels over head" was voted most popular by visitors to the nashville parthenon during the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.
The highfalutin objets d’art of the Parthenon—along with all of the buildings, exhibits and concessions—had to compete in popularity with the most exciting section of the park, called Vanity Fair, “So replete with strange people, strange sights, and strange noises,” as described in the Official Guide to the Tennessee Centennial. At any other fair or exposition, it would be called “the Midway,” a term borrowed from the name of the original “Midway Plaisance” amusement park of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which was situated midway between Chicago’s Washington and Jackson Parks.
Situated west of Lily Lake in the northwest corner of the Exposition grounds beyond the line of the Commerce and Transportation buildings (later site of the HCA Data Processing building), Vanity Fair was certainly the section most favored by children, as it was stocked with nearly 30 unique attractions, rides and shows.
One of the most extraordinary nightly performances was that of a nationally known high-wire performer calling himself Professor Arion. His real name was Frank Donahue. Each night he astonished visitors as he walked and then rode a bicycle without a net, across a live 500-volt electric trolley wire strung high above the crowd. The electricity was used to illuminate his costume and bicycle: The bicycle was festooned with 30 light bulbs and Donahue’s suit was studded with similar lights that were powered by wires concealed in his clothing. He was said to be a brilliant sight. On the second night of his performance, Donahue fell, suffering severe burns. Nevertheless, he continued to perform throughout the six-month Exposition, but later died while performing his act when he fell from a 75-foot wire on the night of August 1, 1897, at the Ridgewood Amusement Park on Long Island, New York.
As immensely entertaining as it was, the Tennessee Centennial Exposition was also promoting the preponderance of natural wealth in the State of Tennessee in an effort to entice investment from mining and industrial interests. The directors of the Exposition regularly wined and dined northern capitalists. At one such dinner there was in attendance Stuyvesant Fish (1851–1923), president of the Illinois Central Railroad, and Colonel John Jacob Astor IV (1864–1912), one of the wealthiest businessmen in America. (“There were more than $200,000,000 represented at that dinner,” Killebrew later recalled.) At the dinner, Astor expressed interest in the idea of making cylindrical or “round” cotton bales, where a layer or “bat” of cotton is wound on itself so that the cotten tends to hold itself and each added layer compresses the inner layers, making for a highly compressed and, despite its shape, space-saving bale of cotton. (This would later be perfected by the American Cotton Company in 1902.)
The Party’s Over…
Visitors attended the park over a six-month period, from May 1, 1897 to October 30, 1897. The Exposition ran its course without a single serious casualty or instance of fraud. A legal dispute involving workers from W. Spain's Palace of Illusions and MIrror Maze, a castle-like building in the Exposition’s Vanity Fair amusement section, led to the case of J.B. Ellison v. W.P. Spain, which was fought for years, ending up in the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Even with the delayed opening, The Tennessee Centennial Celebration was a success, though not a spectacular one. Season tickets were sold to 2,786 attendees, and 703 awards were handed out exhibitors. The single day of highest attendance was John Thomas Day, on October 28, 1897, with 98,579 visitors arriving from train from around the state and the South. Justi's Official History of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition claims this number accounted for 98.5 percent of Nashville’s population at that time, though other sources claim that this large figure was actually 17,714, more than the population of Nashville. (Some sources give a figure of 63,055 visitors.) The day was also known as Presbyterian Day and Atlanta Day. Fairgoers on that day would also have been entertained by the “sham battles”—Civil War reenactments—that were held.
Attendance before and after the official Exposition opening amounted to an extra 107,135 which brought the total of visitors attending the park to 1,786,714—far fewer than the 27 million who attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago over an equivalent six-month period in 1893. It was also a lower attendance figure than that of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, which had received 19,694,855 visitors.
CAPTION: General View of Grounds looking North. (Photo: Plate 41 of the Report on the United States Government Exhibit at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville, 1897 By United States. Board of Management of Governmental Exhibit, Tennessee Centennial Exposition, 1901.)
Officials had originally hoped that 2,000,000 people would visit the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. One explanation for the shortfall was that a yellow fever epidemic killed nearly 500 people out of 4,000 cases reported in the states of Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. This probably scared off both Southerners and Northerners from attending the Exposition, as all of whom probably remembered (or were aware of) the 1878 yellow fever epidemic where 100,000 cases of fever led to about 20,000 deaths, 6,000 of which occurred in Memphis, Tennessee.
As reported by historian Don Doyle, in his book, Nashville in the New South, early Nashville Chamber of Commerce advertising had boasted that thousands of people from throughout the world would come to Nashville via the railroad and that “millions of dollars will be shot through her channels of trade like a golden stream. Nashville will be by the end of the century one of hte greater cities in the United States.” However, unlike the majority of such world’s fairs and international expositions, the Tennessee Centennial Exposition did not lose money, although the final accounting (perhaps a bit on the creative side) came up with a direct profit of less than $50.
Souvenir silver spoon from the 1897 Tennessee Centenntial Exposition. note the image of the Parthenon.
Even so, whereas the Chicago and St. Louis events became major milestones in the history of the entire United States, the Nashville exposition failed to galvanize the nation’s collective interest and imagination. The Tennessee Centennial Exposition, as great as it was in the history of both Nashville and Tennessee, really can be placed in the same category as the many elaborate international expositions held throughout the South between the years 1885 and 1910: The New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Exposition of 1885, with its 1,158,840 fairgoers; the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 with its 1,286,863 attendees; Omaha’s Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898; the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition held in Charleston, held 1901–1902; the Jamestown Tercentenary Exposition of 1907; and Knoxville’s Appalachian Exposition of 1910. Each fair presented an image of a “Reconstructed,” patriotic, New South driven by progress in general, and commerce and industry in particular.
(Admittedly, smaller fairs and expositions to promote the arts and manufactures as well as the economic development of southern cities occurred even earlier, such as the yearly Cincinnati Industrial Exposition held between 1870 and 1888, itself a continuation of the annuals fairs and industrial exhibitions sponsored by the Ohio Mechanics Institute between 1838 and 1860.)
Historian John Bodnar comments that in the years subsequent to the Civil War, these fairs “speeded the process of reunification while preserving something of regional pride.”
Monuments to the Monument-Makers
In the aftermath of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, a monument was erected to the leaders of the Exposition in 1904.
Top: View of the John W. Thomas monument shortly after its construction. Middle and Bottom: Old postcards showing John W. Thomas Monument in relation to the Nashville Parthenon.
President John W. Thomas then died in 1906 and received his own memorial, a 10-foot pedestal of solid white marble, designed by Enid Yandell and erected by employees of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, in 1907. A bronze plaque gives a brief biography of Thomas:
John W. Thomas
A Native of Nashville
Forty-eight years in the service
of the Nashville, Chattanooga &
St. Louis Railway;
President for twenty-two years.
President of the
Tennessee Centennial Exposition,
which resulted in securing
to Nashville this park.
A worthy man in all the lines of life,
An efficient man of affairs,
An upright and eminent citizen,
A Christian and a gentleman.
A friend and a brother
This memorial is erected by the employees of the
Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway
Tomb of Eugene C. Lewis, who was a great proponent for both building the Nashville Parthenon and developing Nashville's Centennial Park as a popular destination for both local residents and tourists.
As for Director-General Eugene C. Lewis, the man who pushed so much for the construction of the Nashville Parthenon, he continued to work to develop Centennial Park as a preminent Nashville destination, along with Shelby and other parks. Upon his death in 1917, Lewis was entombed in a pyramid-shaped crypt in Nashville’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. A scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the tomb is guarded by stone sphinxes, each about 3.5 feet tall and set on a short path leading to the pyramid. Embedded in the walkway between the two sphinxes is a bronze arrow pointing toward true north to show that the pyramid is not only shaped like the Great Pyramid, but also has exactly the same celestial alignment. Set into the side of the crypt is a triangle-shaped plaque placed there by Lewis’ children. The plaque is inscribed as follows:
IS PLACED HERE
IN LOVING MEMORY
OF OUR FATHER
MAJOR EUGENE C. LEWIS
BORN JUNE 21, 1845 DIED FEB. 13, 1917
A MAN WHOM POSTERITY WILL KNOW
AND HONOR BY HIS GOOD WORKS
HE GAVE FREELY OF HIS TALENTS THAT
HIS FELLOWMAN MIGHT ENJOY MORE
ABUNDANTLY GOD’S GREAT GIFTS OF NATURE
HE WAS A LABORER IN HIS BUILDING OF A LIFE
WHICH LED TO THE ATTAINMENT OF THE HIGHEST
IDEALS — TRUTH — HONOR AND PURITY
NOW THE LABORER’S TASK IS O’ER
NOW THE BATTLE DAY IS PAST
NOW UPON THE FARTHEST SHORE
LANDS THE VOYAGE AT LAST
FATHER IN THY GRACIOUS KEEPING
LEAVE WE NOW THY SERVANT SLEEPING
Legend has it that, around 1990, vandals broke into the Lewis’ crypt and stole his skull. (It was later allegedly recovered from a trash dumpster down the road.)
A photo of Eugene C. Lewis today hangs inside the Parthenon in a pictorial display of the Exposition.
A Permanent Home for an Impermanent Building
Within two years of the Centennial Exposition’s close, all of the buildings had been demolished with the exception of three: The Parthenon, The Alabama Building and the Knights of Pythias Building, the latter of which was purchased in 1900 by Joseph L. Parkes, Jr., then dismantled and moved about 45 miles south of Nashville to Franklin, Tennessee in Williamson County, on Boyd’s Mill Pike, today’s Highway 96 West. (Parkes allegedly bought and moved the wooden and glass-domed structure to impress a woman he was courting.) Renamed Centennial Hall and still a private residence, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Since the Nashville Parthenon was originally built of exterior-grade “staff” plaster, wood, and brick, it was doubtful that anyone could realistically expect the structure to permanently function as Nashville’s fine arts museum, but the cost of demolishing combined with its popularity with residents and visitors alike led to its continued existence for 23 years.
Legend has it, as recounted by Louise Littleton Davis in her book, Nashville Tales, that on the evening of the final day of the Exposition, Saturday, October 30, 1897, as the last of the fireworks sputtered out over the Parthenon, Tully Brown, the civic leader and orator, asked the crowd, “The Question is: Are these grounds to be a monument to the Exposition? Are we going to make this a public park?”
The cheering crowds answered with, “Yes! Yes!”
“Who will be the man to strike the first blow to the Parthenon?” asked Brown.
“No! Never!” the crowd shouted back.
And so Nashville's Parthenon continued to stand. After the Exposition closed, its former Director-General, Eugene C. Lewis, with the assistance of former President Thomas, petitioned to allow the Parthenon to remain standing in West Side Park. In 1901, Nashville’s first Board of Park Commissioners convened. Many members of this independent body had previously served on Centennial Exposition committees. It was an era when cities championed the idea that they should provide lush, green, picturesque public parks so that urbanites could both commune with nature and enjoy active recreation.
To circumvent any financial obstacles (and as a result of a litigation settlement with city government), Percy Warner, a member of the Board of Park Commissioners and owner of the Nashville Railway and Light Company, purchased the first 72 acres of West Side Park for $125,000 and gave it to the Park Board on December 22, 1902. (Percy Warner had originally planned to subdivide the land and sell it piecemeal, but he instead became a great supporter of Nashville parks.) The Board of Park Commissioners built a swimming pool, stocked Lake Watauga with fish, planted flower gardens and shrubs, built drives and walkways, and opened the park to the public in May 1903 renamed as Centennial Park.
Postcard of the entrance to Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee, probably around the year 1910.
As Nashville’s first large public park, the Park Board scheduled Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and other forms of cultural recreation. Around 1910, the Park Board began appropriating funds for the Nashville Art Association to purchase artworks on the city’s behalf, to be exhibited in the Parthenon.
Alligators in the Park
Within Centennial Park remained the small artificial Lake Watauga, named after Watauga County in North Carolina, an area from which many of Nashville’s early settlers emigrated.
Lakes inevitably attract fishermen. The Park Board soon stocked the lake with bass and by the 1940s had constructed a casting pier. Fishing tournaments were also established and continue to this day.
Amazingly, shortly after the park was opened, Lake Watauga was briefly home to two Florida alligators. The giant reptiles were likely donated to the city by Major James Geddes, the superintendent of the Nashville Division of the L&N Railroad. Geddes often vacationed in Florida, occasionally bringing back live alligators. Some of Geddes’ gators were ensconced at Nashville’s Union Station train depot, in concrete pools built at track level. They were arranged on either side of the tracks so that passengers on trains going either north or south could look out of the railroad car windows and see them. At the first signs of winter, the creatures were moved to a tank of warm water in the boiler room inside Union Station.
As for the alligators in Centennial Park’s Lake Watauga, one would guess that they would have frozen solid during the winter, because the lowest temperatures for the city each winter averages between minus 10 degrees and 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The gators did manage to hang on however. They were eventually removed, but not because they had harmed any park visitors. Instead, the gators were devouring all of the lake’s ducks and geese. Once the beasts were removed, however, a waterfowl population explosion took place in the park. The Park Board then cleverly came up with the idea of selling the birds to Nashville shopkeepers who in turn sold them to local families for Christmas dinner.
Sidney Mttron Hirsch and The Fire Regained
Of the many events staged in the old, slowly deteriorating plaster Parthenon were the Spring Pageants of 1913 and 1914. The 1913 pageant’s immense theatrical production of The Fire Regained used a cast of about 600, and attracted audiences from surroundings states, who traveled to Nashville with specially discounted rail tickets. For a moment Nashville indeed looked like the “Athens of the South.” The Fire Regained had a mythological storyline.
Text of "The Fire Regained," by sidney Mttron Hirsch, staged at the Nashville Parthenon in 1913.
In the present age of motion pictures, it is difficult for audiences today to envision the kind of outdoor visual spectacles which were held in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both of these shows featured extraordinary displays a diverse as chariot races, huge dance numbers, the release of thousands of doves and set pieces that shot flames, all set against the backdrop of the Nashville Parthenon.
The Atlanta Constitution of May 5, 1913 (page 9) reported that, “An elaborate Greek pageant will be produced in Nashville this week, beginning tomorrow night. The play is the work of Sidney M. Hirsch, a local author, and is entitled 'The Fire Regained.' The pageant will have as its background a reproduction of the famous Greek Parthenon and will be staged outdoors at Centennial Park. Five hundred persons, the majority of them women and girls, will be in the cast.”
The author, Sidney Mttron Hirsch (1883–1962), eccentric autodidact and scion of a prominent Jewish family in Nashville, was an Rosicrucian mystic who never finished his education (he attended a variety of different colleges but never managed to graduate from any of them) and instead ran away to join the U.S. Navy, where he distinguished himself as a boxer—the heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet. During a two-year tour of duty in China, he studied Oriental philosophy, Rosicrucianism, mystical numerology, astrology, and “the more recondite passages of ancient Hebrew texts,” wrote John Lincoln Stewart.
Sidney Mttron Hirsch (1883–1962), author of "The Fire Regained," which became perhaps the most spectacular pageant ever held at the Parthenon in Nashville.
A self-styled Greek scholar, it was reported that he had spent three years in Athens, though in reality he left Nashville to briefly visit Paris, where he did some modeling for Rodin and met Gertrude Stein. From Paris he journeyed to New York, where he also modeled by posing for sculptures for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. It was while in New York that he first tried his hand at playwriting, without much success. However, shortly after returning to Nashville in 1913, he managed to get his verse play The Fire Regained produced for the May Festival, sponsored by the Nashville Art Association and the Board of Trade, and which made good use of the full scale replica of the Parthenon.
As John Lincoln Stewart described the epic in his book, The Burden of Time (page 7): “A cast of 600 spent three months in rehearsal… Professional drivers were engaged to race chariots drawn by four white and four black horses. Huge papier-mâché wings were prepared for the stallion representing Pegasus. Three hundred sheep and 1,000 pigeons were made ready. The railroads reduced their fares for out-of-town visitors drawn to Nashville by full-page advertisements inviting them to see ‘The Flight of a Thousand Doves, the Revel of the Wood Nymphs, the Thrilling Chariot Race, the Raising of the Shepherd from the Dead, the Orgy of the Flaming Torches’.”
The Fire Regained tells a dramatic story concerning the ordeals endured by one of the vestal virgins, guardians of the sacred flame, who has been accused of “disloyalty to her trust”—unjustly accused of having allowed the sacred fire to die out upon the altar sacred to Pallas Athena (Athena was played by Lucy McMillan, wife of Tennessee’s governor) and which was supposed to have originally been kindled by the gods themselves. The young woman is tried by various ordeals such as by the direction of a flight of doves, by a chariot race between white horses and black ones, by being bound upon the back of a sacrificial bull, and by the words of a sacred oracle uttered by its fume-intoxicated priestess.
The stupendous production of The Fire Regained was later staged in Washington, D.C., starting on Saturday night, May 16, 1914. As reported by the May 17, 1914 edition of the Washington Post (page 57), the Grecian pageant drama that “opened auspiciously last night at the amphitheater at Sixteenth and V streets, will be continued every night this week at 8:20 o’clock. The great spectacle will be given in its entirety with its 1,500 participants taking part in the colossal pageant of ancient Grecian times. A monster reproduction of the Parthenon of old Athens has been constructed…”
And as reported by the January 13, 1914 issue of the Washington Post (page 2), Joseph R. Wilson, President Wilson’s brother, had seen the pageant In Nashville, where he was at the time engaged in newspaper work. When he heard that it was to be produced in Washington he wrote to J. M. Frank of Washington, D.C., who, with the author, Sidney M. Hirsch, was promoting the pageant: “I witnessed with great pleasure the splendid performance in Nashville, and I can say in all truth that I have never seen a more elaborate or more beautiful spectacle, or one that was more completely or more brilliantly staged in all its details. The people of Washington and those of other cities in which you may offer this magnificent entertainment certainly have a rare treat in store for them, one they cannot miss.”
As Mark Royden Winchell wrote, “This production created such a stir that the U.S. State Department seriously considered staging it on the Acropolis in Greece as an international gesture of goodwill.” This idea was foiled by the start of World War I.
The performances of The Fire Regained brought Hirsch the celebrity for which he yearned, but he was never able to build upon his success. His next play, for the 1914 Nashville May festival, The Mystery at Thanatos, also had a mythologically-based plot (a copy of the script is on file at the Nashville Public Library), but it was shorter than The Fire Regained and seemed to get better reviews, though financially both it and second May festival were less successful. The Nashville municipal and business communities chose not to hold a May festival in 1915. Hirsch’s later plays such as his one-act The Passion Play of Washington Square was performed briefly in Washington, D.C., then fell by the wayside.
Sidney Mttron Hirsch could very well have remained an obscure 28-year-old aesthete living with his father and stepmother, but by chance his apparent all-knowing worldly sophistication and knowledge of the exotic and esoteric (broad but not very deep), began to attract a group of young intellectuals and poets of Vanderbilt University that expanded into what became known as “The Fugitives” (see sidebar) which met for informal philosophical and literary discussions at the Hirsch family home on Twentieth Avenue near the Vanderbilt campus. It was Hirsch who both suggested publishing the poetry produced by the group and came up with the title for its magazine—The Fugitive.
Deterioration and Renewal: From Plaster to Concrete
Although the Nashville Parthenon was built with a sturdy stone foundation and brick walls, the exterior coating of the structure, the columns and pediment sculptures were made of lath and exterior-grade “staff” plaster. The building was perpetually deteriorating. Municipal crews repeatedly patched and re-patched the exterior fractures, but “repairs” as such were becoming less and less effective and the building continued to slowly fall apart. By the end of World War I, the sculpture had deteriorated badly and the pediment figures had long been removed. Eventually the building posed a safety hazard.
Nashville Parthenon undergoing reconstruction in concrete form, 1925.
The Nashville Park Board commissioners, who bore responsibility since the Exposition grounds had become a city park in 1902, hired local architect to study the problem: Russell Eason Hart (1867–1955) of the firm of Hart, Freeland and Roberts, a 33rd degree Freemason and member of Nashville’s Episcopal Church. The report was not good, resulting in the building being declared a public hazard in the fall of 1919. In 1920, the Park Board made the decision not to expunge the Parthenon from the park entirely, but to have Hart come up with a plan to replace the plaster Parthenon with one made of a more durable material, such as the then-innovative building material, concrete.
Russell Hart not only had to design a historically accurate interior of the Parthenon from the ruined original in Athens, but he also had to figure out the most appropriate building material to use to achieve a permanent structure. Weighing permanence versus cost, marble was obviously too expensive, “exterior-grade” plaster had already proven to be a misnomer. Reinforced concrete would be extremely good from a permanence and cost standpoint, but its surface did not resemble the Athens Parthenon’s fine Pentelic marble in the slightest. Hart decided to use concrete anyway, but he would coat it with a newly patented concrete aggregate formulated by the John Early Studio in Washington, D.C.
John Joseph Earley (1881–1945) had been investigating exposed aggregate concrete concoctions since 1906. Perhaps more than anyone of his generation, he developed concrete as an artistic medium, perfecting the artistic qualities of concrete through experiment and fine craftsmanship and eventually embellishing the exteriors of many buildings of national importance. In 1915, Earley worked closely with the U.S. Office of Public Buildings and Grounds and the Commission of Fine Arts and made a full-size mock-up of a wall section for Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C.
John J. Earley (1881–1945) of the Early Studio (at Left) and his partner, Basil TAylor. Earley figured out how to make the concrete exterior of the Nashville Parthenon look like fine masonry.
When the Commission's Chairman, Cass Gilbert, suggested that an acceptable finish for the walls might be produced by imitating Italian pebble mosaics, it was Earley who developed the technique of mixing the aggregate in the concrete and while the concrete was still “green,” pull off the forms and expose the larger aggregate, then scrub the surface with a wire brush to produce a natural-looking pebble finish. The result was remarkable; instead of the usual cold gray color of concrete, the wall was a creamy tan because the concrete aggregate he used consisted of pebbles dredged from the Potomac River, all of which had a yellowish-brown color.
Moreover, whereas the standard formula for structural concrete in America at the time was a 1:2:4 mix (one part cement to two parts sand and four parts gravel, measured by volume), Earley tended to use a proportion of aggregates of all one size and just enough sand and cement to fill the spaces between them, stumbling upon an optimum maximum particle diameter ratio of 10:1. These proportion gave a nice uniformity and exposed the greatest face area of the pebble aggregate (though he did vary the formula depending on the project).
Earley called the result “architectural concrete.”
John Earley’s architectural concrete was used with tremendous success for the walls, balustrades, benches, urns, and obelisks of not just Meridian Hill Park, but Chicago’s fountain of Time and the mosaic ceilings in the United States Department of Justice building. Because the aggregate could be colored to resemble like the weathered Pentelic marble of the original Parthenon—and even allowed for the inclusion of permanent bright blue and brick red as background colors to the sculpture and portions of the decorative trim (as was the case with the original)—it made sense to use Early’s “pebble mosaic” architectural concrete to coat the surface of the Nashville Parthenon. The Earley Studio relished the idea of tackling such a monumental work that separate structure and finish, and John J. Earley himself carefully attended to the preparation of the extremely accurate molds and formulated the mix that attained the desired appearance.
In the case of the Nashville Parthenon, Earley was able to color-match the Athens Parthenon's existing marble by selecting warm-colored aggregates used in the mix that gave the surface a suitable texture and rich, even tone. To duplicate the brownish yellow oxylate surface of the Athens Parthenon's marlbe, Earley used a mixture of crushed and natural siliceous Potomac River gravel of 1/4-inch size and of brownish yellow hue, along with large armounts of white and pink quartz and a smattering of particles of a dark, brick-red ceramic. The mix’s texture and color uniformity was assured by preparing not just enough aggregate for the whole job, but an additional supply to be placed in storage for future repair and maintenance work.
In terms of the sheer structure, Hart's designs for the new concrete skeleton and other elements were handed over to the Foster & Creighton Construction Company, with Robert T. Creighton as the engineer in charge. Fost and Creighton strengthened the old foundations and erected the structural frame. The Nashville Parthenon's foundation is coursed rubble limestone; the walls are brick masonry; and the roof has steel trusses bearing on steel columns. The sloped roof deck is made of cast-in-place concrete covered by pre-cast concrete roof tiles.
Built as a full-scale replica only on the outside, the Nashville Parthenon’s interior lacked the colossal statue of Athena Parthenos of the original structure, divided instead into a series of galleries for the display of paintings and sculpture. To assist with the new, permanent Nashville Parthenon’s interior design, Hart hired as consulting architect the eminent architectural historian William Bell Dinsmoor, author of The Architecture of Ancient Greece. Dinsmoor had spent much time engaged in archaeological work in Greece and was considered his field’s foremost authority.
Though obviously it was impossible to fully duplicate every detail of the original Parthenon, the architects, artists and builders were determined to make this replica as accurate as was possible given the level of scholarship of the 1920s.
A complete set of casts of pedimental fragments of marble sculptures by Phidias and his pupils, famously known as the Elgin Marbles (after Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, whose agents between 1801 and 1812 removed about half of the Parthenon’s statues that had survived and brought them to Britain), were purchased from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. These casts served as study pieces and reference models enabling sculptors Belle Marshall Kinney (1890–1959) and her husband Leopold F. Scholz (1877–1946) to maintain the highest degree of accuracy as they reproduced the pediment sculptures. Employing Earley’s special concrete mix and technique, the pediment sculptures were cast on site, cured, and finished by removing the molds while the concrete was still “green” and brushing away surface matrix to expose the colored aggregate, and then lifted into their proper positions in the east and west pediments.
Casts of the Elgin Marbles on permanent display in the Nashville Parthenon.
After the molds were made and the pedimental figures cast, the plaster casts themselves became part of the Parthenon’s permanent exhibits in the east room, or naos. (A bit of trivia: In 1897 at age 7, Belle Kinney Scholz’ bust of her father won first prize in the youth competition at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.)
Miniature version of the Nashville Parthenon's West Pediment, on permanent display inside the building.
In the earlier plaster version of the Nashville Parthenon, scholars had no idea what the statures of the east pediment looked like. They only knew that those over the temple’s main entrance represented in some way the birth of Athena full-grown from the head of Zeus. (Those two central figures were removed when the original Parthenon was converted into a Christian church in the Fifth Century.) Thus, the Nashville builders were compelled to merely reproduce the west pediment figures on both ends of the Nashville building, which show the contest between Athena and Poseidon.
Now, in the concrete replica of the Parthenon, the sculptors Belle Kinney Scholz and Leopold Scholz, inspired by a Roman wellhead depicting the birth of Athena, attempted to recreate what they thought the sculptures of east pediment looked like. Where archaeological evidence was lacking, Kinney and Scholz used their research materials in Greek art and their study of live models to create appropriate interpretations of the missing pieces. Scholars today are reasonably sure that they didn’t quite get it right, but it was a heroic effort, based on the best scholarship of the time.
Close-Up of the Nashville Parthenon's East Pediment, sculpted by Leopold Scholz and Belle Kinney Scholz.
Altogether, Belle Kinney and Leopold Scholz produced 54 classic statues that adorn the tympana of the pediments; they also did the reproductions for the Ionic frieze.
The 92 metopes of the original Athens Parthenon (the sculpted marble panels that alternate with triglyphs to form a the Doric frieze running around the outer edge of the building just below the roof line) each related a different mythological story. The 14 East metopes above the main entrance depict the final stages of the Gigantomachy, or cosmogonic battle between the Olympian gods and the Giants. The fight develops around the central figure of Zeus (Plaque No. 8) followed by his chariot. Zeus' brother Poseidon and his chariot is depicted nearby (Plaque No. 6) throwing the island of Nisyros over the defeated Giant Polybotes. In the story, Heracles (Hercules) helped the Olympian gods achieve their victory, though traces of his figure has not yet been identified from remaining fragments. On Plaque No. 14, Helios the sun-god and his chariot rise from the night, signaling that a new era is about to begin. The East metopes are in very bad condition, and identification of most of the figures is unsettled. Those on the southern wall (Plaques Nos. 1–12 and 21–32) present the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs that broke out at the wedding feast of Peirithus, the king of the Lapiths (a battle known as as the Centauromachy), in which Peirithus' friend Theseus, the mythological king of Athens, took part.
The subject of the West metopes is the legendary invasion of Athens by the Amazons. Scholars consider these metopes, showing the Amazons in eastern dress, as a symbolic reference to the wars with Persia.
Since only the metopes on the south side had survived enough ravages of history so as to be amenable to duplication, they were reproduced on all four sides of the Nashville Parthenon. These metopes were initially crafted in clay by George Julian Zolnay (Gyula Zolnay) (1863–1949) of Washington, D.C., a Hungarian and American sculptor called the “sculptor of the Confederacy,”who had done the pediment sculptures for the earlier plaster Parthenon during its construction in 1896–1897.
George Julian Zolnay (Gyula Zolnay) (1863–1949), sculptor who crafted the metopes of the Nashville Parthenon.
Zolnay’s clay metopes were shipped by train to Earley's studio in Washington, D.C., where they were cast in concrete and returned to Nashville to be affixed to the entablature above the architrave.
The structure’s renovations and replacement began in 1920 with the stripping off of the building’s plaster exterior. In reproducing the Parthenon’s exterior and interior in permanent form, the architects and builders attempted to accurately incorporate the subtle curving architectural refinements that the ancient Greeks had incorporated into the original Parthenon. These curves compensated for optical effects of the building’s otherwise straight lines and right angles that would have detracted from its overall appearance. The Greeks apparently understood the optical illusion that two parallel lines appear to bow, or curve outward, when intersected by converging lines. The ceiling and floor of the Parthenon would thus have appeared to bow in the presence of the building’s surrounding angles, so the Greeks added curves to create a “reverse optical illusion” to visually “straighten out” what would have been a physically straight line.
The Acropolis Parthenon's Architectural refinements (Curves) shown in exaggerated form.
In his 1905 book, Grammar of Greek Art, Percy Gardner wrote that, “The whole building is constructed, so to speak, on a subjective rather than an objective basis; it is intended not to be mathematically accurate, but to be adapted to the eye of the spectator. To the eye a curve is a more pleasing form than a straight line, and the deviations from rigid correctness serve to give a character of purpose, almost of life, to the solid marble construction.”
The quirks of human vision compelled the Greeks, in their striving for visual perfection, to add an upward parabolic curve to the long base, or stylobate, the top step (and temple floor) of the crepidoma or stepped platform on which the columns rest. To be precise, The stylobate has an upward curvature towards its center of 2.36 inches (60 millimeters) on the east and west ends, and of 4.33 inches (110 millimeters) on the sides. This was done to prevent the appearance of sagging, direct rainwater out of the building and reinforce the structure so as to resist earthquakes. Normally this surface curvature would cause the columns placed on them to lean outwards, but here again the ancient Greeks were at work, and had made the columns’ axes lean slightly inwards, so that if they continued to extend upward without limit, they would all meet exactly a mile above the center of the Parthenon. (Once source, Ernest P. Moyer, says “…if extended 1.5 miles upward the columns would all meet at a common point directly over the head of the Athena Parthenos! The angle was a ratio of about 50 ft/7920 ft, or about 22 minutes of arc. (Some disagreement exists among different measures. Others say the projection of the columns would meet at 11,500 feet.) Overall error in construction was as low as a fiftieth of an inch."
One analysis of the optical distortions deliberately incorporated into the design of the parthenon. Imaginary lines extending from the nearly vertical surfaces meet at a distance above the structure, though no one is absolutely certain just how.
Additionally, there is delicate entasis of the columns, which means that the columns were made to swell outward so that the largest diameter is about one-third of the way up the shaft instead of at the base. This infinitesimal cigar-shape of the columns corrects the optical illusion of concavity that can result in the case of columns with straight sides. Similarly, to oppose the visual diminishing of the end (corner) columns when they are seen against the sky, they were given a slightly larger diameter. There is also a tapering of the walls of the naos, the east room that contained the gold and ivory statue of Athena in the original building. Finally, it appears that the west front of the original Parthenon was built at a slightly higher level than that of the east front.
It seems that all apparently horizontal and straight lines of the original Parthenon were (and are) not straight but curved upward and all vertical surfaces inclined inward. This is true not just of the Parthenon but of other buildings on the Acropolis. English architect John Pennethorne claimed to have first observed this, but his findings were published after the surveys of Hungarian-born Joseph Hoffer, who served as an official architect of the newly independent Kingdom of Greece between 1833 and 1838. Hoffer mused that the “system of curved lines,” exhibiting a “perfect logic,” had enabled Greek architects “to infuse the lifeless forms of art with a breath of living Nature,” for “Nature avoids the rectilinear and develops its most attractive forms in swelling curves.” Hoffer studied the Acropolis buildings and published his sensational findings in the Vienna Allgemeine Bauzeitung in 1838 (nos. 41, 42 and 43), but his observations were ignored for many years.
Measured at the stylobate, the base dimensions the original Parthenon are 228.0 by 101.4 feet (69.5 meters by 30.9 meters). The cella, or central room space, was 97.8 by 63.0 feet (29.8 meters long by 19.2 meters wide), the widest in ancient Greece. Indeed, the walls of the cella are pushed outward so far that the peripteron or peripheral corridors on the temple’s long flanks had to be narrowed, making the peripteron halls outside the cella narrower in the Parthenon than the side aisles within the cella, a unique reversal of the proportions normally found in other Doric temples. (Indeed, strangely, although the world throughout history has admired the Parthenon, its design was not emulated until the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.)
Inside the Parthenon were two colonnades in two tiers, which supported the roof. On the exterior, the Doric columns measure 6.2 feet (1.9 meters) in diameter and are 34.1 feet (10.4 meters) high. As stated previously, the corner columns have a lightly greater diameter. The Parthenon had a total of 46 outer pillars and 23 inner pillars.
JusT like the Parthenon in Athens, The Parthenon in Nashville has corner columns of a larger diameter than the others to counter the visual diminishing of the corner columns when seen against the sky. (Photo © Mfg143 | Dreamstime.com)
The building of Nashville’s new and structurally improved Parthenon was a start-and-stop affair, since construction could move forward only as quickly as Hart could finish the blueprints and as the Centennial Park Board could make funds available.
Exterior renovations of the Nashville Parthenon were completed in February 1925, but now all funds were exhausted and the interior was still in its original condition—that of a series of three gallery rooms.
In December 1925, an art exhibition was held in the Parthenon and as a result of this show the city appropriated $300,000 to help complete the building’s interior with the expectation that the structure could be used as Nashville’s art museum. Another bill was placed before the state legislature that would have provided an endowment and purchase fund for the Parthenon gallery. Interior renovations began in late 1928 and continued for three years.
The Parthenon finally opened as the city art museum on May 20, 1931, about 11 years after its reconstruction had begun, a year or so longer than it took the ancient Greeks to build the original Parthenon in Athens. At the time some said the Nashville Parthenon is accurate in size to a quarter of an inch; others said three millimeters.
In its first month of operation, the Nashville Parthenon attracted over 10,000 visitors from 46 states and 12 foreign countries.
The front of the Nashville Parthenon and its massive Bronze Doors. (Photo © Evaulphoto | Dreamstime.com)
One extraordinary aspect of the Nashville Parthenon is its bronze doors that weigh 7.5 tons each and measure 24 feet high, seven feet wide and one foot thick. There is one set of doors on the east side and another set on the west (four doors in all). It is the largest set of matching bronze doors in the world. The doors were designed by Russell Hart, using figureheads sculpted by Leopold and Belle Kinney Scholz. Both sides of the doors are divided into three panels. On the outside, the lower panel is decorated with the head of a lion, the center panel has the head of the Medusa, and the top panel sports a ram’s head. On the inside, each panel contains a simple Greek design.
The panels were manufactured by the General Bronze Corporation. (One of the company’s larger foundries was situated in Corona, New York on Long Island and was a former Tiffany foundry.) These doors, installed in 1930, and open and close daily.
A closer view of the Bronze Doors, Designed by Russell Hart, using figureheads sculpted by Leopold and Belle Kinney Scholz. They were added to the Nashville Parthenon in 1930. each one is 24 feet high, 7 feet wide, 1 foot thick and weighs 7.5 tons.
Visitors will notice a semi-circular brass track in the floor under each door to bear part of the load via rollers under the bottom of the doors. This was part of the original design, but these modern doors do not use the tracks—they move quite easily, as they are balanced on steel hinges with ball bearing collars at the top and bottom, unlike the original doors of the Athens Parthenon that, while somewhat lighter (as they were made of wood and supported a bronze overlay), did not have such metallurgical or mechanical engineering sophistication.
Some scholars believe that the eastern doors may have stood open during the day, allowing the sun to light the ancient gold and ivory Athena. (With Greek buildings, the eastern side—the side of the rising sun—was designed as the “front” of the structure.)
Each Bronze Door of the Nashville Parthenon consists of three panels: On the outside, the lower panel shows the head of a lion, the center panel has the head of the Medusa, and the top panel sports a ram’s head. On the inside, each panel contains a simple Greek design.
Although the three galleries of the old plaster Parthenon were replaced with the archaeologically correct west treasury room or “virgin’s chamber” (with its four Ionic columns) and east room or naos, unlike the Parthenon in Athens, the Nashville Parthenon opened in 1931 without a statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos in the naos. Also missing was the Ionic frieze of low-relief sculpture that ran around the top of the exterior of the cella walls under the surrounding colonnade of the Athens Parthenon. The Scholzes drew up a proposal to the Park Board in 1931 to create both the statue and frieze, but financial hardships brought on by the Great Depression postponed such projects until the 1980s.
The Permanent Art Collection
Unlike the Parthenon in Athens, the 1897 Nashville Parthenon had a basement, which, in the 1931 concrete version became the locale to house the long-anticipated museum of fine arts and to provide support facilities.
The Scotch-Irish James M. Cowan, insurance executive of Aurora, Illinois, who gave 63 outstanding paintings by American Artists to the permanent collection of the Nashville Pantheon.
Of course, in order for the Parthenon of Nashville to function as Nashville’s Museum of Fine Arts, it would need some artwork. Sure enough, 63 paintings, all from an anonymous donor, arrived in three shipments, starting with a shipment of 21 crates in April 1927 and ending in 1929. The donor had instructed his shippers to conceal all identifying labels on the crates. The crates had come from the anonymous donor’s agent, the Grand Central Galleries of New York. Situated on the on the sixth floor of Grand Central Terminal, the Galleries were the 14,000-square foot exhibition and administrative space of the nonprofit Painters and Sculptors Gallery Association, an artists’ cooperative established in 1922 by ex-engineer Walter Leighton Clark together with John Singer Sargent, Edmund Greacen, and others. Managed by Erwin Seaver Barrie, it was often the center of major American and international art exhibitions.
As the 63 paintings arrived in Nashville they were collected at Peabody College and, when space ran out there, at the Centennial Club and held until the Parthenon’s completed renovation in 1931.
The earliest work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon is Benjamin Wests' neoclassical rendition of Venus chastising Cupid, Venus and Cupid (1765).
Three years after the shipments began, just a year before the Parthenon was open to the public, the mysterious donor died and was revealed to be James M. Cowan (1858–1930) of Aurora, Illinois. Born in Hernandez, Mississippi, after the Civil War his family moved to Cowan, Tenneesse to escape a cholera epidemic. Having later moved t Selma, Alabama, the family returned to Tullahoma in 1871 (when James was 13) to escape an outbreak of malaria in Selma. As his father's Dr. Cowan practice flourished, the family elected to settle in Tullahoma. Young James became a merchant but an entrancing encounter with Cincinnati, Ohio, during an excursion let to him moving there. He actually spent most of his life in Illinois where he became an extremely successful insurance executive. Cowan began collecting art when he was in his thirties and this turned out to be his real passion.
What is Cowan’s connection to Nashville, and why did he bestow such an superb collection of art in the Parthenon’s basement galleries, you may ask?
another painting in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon is The Wreck by Frederic Church (1852).
How this fabulous collection of fine art came to reside in the depths of the Nashville Parthenon is an interesting, circuitous, heartwarming saga loaded with serendipity; a tale of Tennessee kindness and hospitality rewarded a thousand times over.
The story starts with the philanthropically minded Armour family, founders of the famous meat packing and other enterprises of the 19th Century. (Much of this information can be found in An Illustrated Historical Sketch of Armour Mission: Containing also a Director of the Sunday and its Tributary Organizations, 1905 and an essay published in 1937 in the Armour Engineer and Alumnus by Walter Hendricks.)
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Edwin Howland Blashfield’s, The new Dress (1874).
In 1874, three years after the Chicago fire, the Plymouth Church founded the Plymouth Mission at 31st and State Streets. The mission had a Sunday school in which the wealthy merchant Joseph F. Armour, a member of the Plymouth Church, took an interest and began to support financially. When Joseph F. Armour died in 1881, he left a bequest of $100,000 with instructions that his brother Philip Danforth Armour (1832–1901) establish a Sunday school for the people of the community, for aiding and Christianizing children and youth in a certain quarter of Chicago.
Philip D. Armour added $100,000 of his own and The Plymouth Mission Sunday school became the Sunday School of Armour Mission. When it opened to the public on Sunday, December 5, 1886, over 700 children “crashed the gates” to be members (there was room for 500, though by 1895 enrollment had increased to 2,200). The Armour Mission was a nondenominational organization, there was no organized church on the premises, yet many families and individuals counted themselves adherents to the Mission. There were several separate “departments” and a Kindergarten for the youngest children, a “Directive Force” of 35 officers and 120 teachers, and a 1,600-volume library.
Half of a stereopticon photo by Underwood & Underwood of the Armour Drill Corps. of chicago, 1892. James M. Cowan escorted them to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897 where they performed.
Although by the 1890s James M. Cowan was already a wealthy collector of art, he also found time to be a Sunday School teacher at the Mission. One Sunday afternoon, in 1891, after the Sunday School had been dismissed, Cowan gathered his class of 12 little girls, and six others from different classes, and organized a “Drill Corps“ to assist in an entertainment planned for a future date. No one at the time thought that this little Drill Corps would turn into a permanent fixture at the Mission, and yet in a short time it grew to almost 100 enrolled members.
The 1905 publication, An Illustrated Historical Sketch of Armour Mission notes that, “The Armour Drill Corps played a very conspicuous part in the affairs of Armour Mission and earned a position of distinction in its permanent history.”
Also from the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: The Hilltop by Charles Courtney Curran (1918).
A similar drill corps for boys was first organized in 1891 by Rev. Howard H. Russell, the pastor, as “The Boys’ Brigade of Armour Mission” for military drill—each boy pledging himself not to use tobacco, ardent spirits, or profane language. It was reorganized as the “Armour Battlion,”in November 1893. There were three companies and 150 members.
Meanwhile, with James M. Cowan as its Commandant, the Armour Drill Corps of 100 or so girls, wearing their white dresses, little blue caps (they would later be changed to red) and tin swords, almost immediately began winning awards. As Cowan himself wrote in a Mission publication: “….how they did enjoy the annual Sunday School field day in the public parks. Well do we remember how happy they were when the beautiful flag was awarded to them as the best drilled company of girls on field day, 1892, in Washington Park, and then at the World’s Fair in October, ‘93., how proud they were when the vast audience applauded time and again as they marched and countermarched in the large open space reserved for them between the Administration Building and the Terminal Station.”
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Town Pond—Easthampton by Thomas Moran (1901) .
The Drill Corps also enjoyed an annual two-week summer encampment at some rustic location:
“A new life opened for the Drill Corps when their white tented city was-built in the woods of Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Beulah in the summers of ‘94 and ‘95,” wrote Cowan. “They accumulated a rich and delightful experience as a result of this experiment for such it was— and the bonds of friendship were knit so closely that it seemed in very truth they were indeed all members of one large family.”
Also on display in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Rab and the Girls by Winslow Homer (1875).
“And at ‘Camp Armour,’ Lake Wawasee, Indiana, in the summer of ‘96, it did seem that it would be impossible to again equal in all the coming years the good times enjoyed by the soldier girls,” continued Cowan. “So many jolly hayrick rides! excursions on the lake! delightful boating! bathing! fishing! turtle catching. So many good friends were made at Lake Wawasee who were kind and generous that their names and the happy days at Camp Armour will never be forgotten. “ [The Maysville, Kentucky, Evening Bulletin of Wednesday, July 29, 1896, reported that , “An organization composed of Chicago women, called Armour’s drill corps, is encamped at Conkling Hill, a summer resort, about 16 miles southeast of here. There are about 125 women in camp. It is a religious military order and military discipline is observed.”]
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Albert Bierstadt's Mount Tamalpais (1873).
Even so, “During all these years kind Providence was forming and gradually unfolding a scheme,” wrote Cowan. “Down in the old volunteer State of Tennesee, in the beautiful city of Nashville, that held within itself the names of a Thomas, Lewis, Dudley, Charles, Bourland and Scales; here are a half dozen friends of the Drill Corps that no magician with all his magic can produce again in another hundred years.”
What happened was that Director-General Eugene C. Lewis of the Tennessee Centennial invited the Armour Drill Corps to perform at the Exposition grounds as guests of the management. As exciting a prospect as that was, Cowan and the girls were undecided as to whether or not to make the journey to Tennessee, since in order to visit Nashville that summer they would have to forego their annual summer camp.
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: John George Brown’s The Young Musician (1878).
But then an additional invitation from Tennessee appeared, from Professor Albert Pike Bourland (1861–1927), manager of the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, established in 1882 as a “Chautauqua,” a place where its members and guests still gather in the summer for fellowship and for spiritual and intellectual growth. (The Chautauqua was an American adult education movement in the United States. Chautauqua assemblies were popular in rural areas from the first one in 1874 through the 1930s, but they had almost disappeared by the 1960s. Only 13 are left today. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once said that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”)
The Armour Drill Corps was invited to Monteagle as the guests of Prof. Bourland, Professor of English Literature and Principal of George Peabody Normal College, a part of the University of Nashville, the oldest school in the Mississippi Valley. Bourland, one of the foremost teachers of literature in America, was one of Cowan’s instructors during his stay at that institution.
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Emil Carlsen’s, Still life (date unknown).
The preponderance of initiations “swung the ball” as it were, and an itinerary was drawn up for a tour of Tennessee by Cowan and the 105 members of the Armour Drill Corps.
The Drill Corps was scheduled to appear at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition on June 28, 1897, which was Franklin and Bowling Green (Kentucky) Day and the 29th (Columbia and Maury County Day).
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon:William Merritt Chase’s, Still Life—Fish (circa 1910).
As James M. Cowan later wrote:
June 26-July 4, ‘97. Is there one member of that merry party of 105 that left Chicago Saturday morning June 26th that will ever forget the date?
“What a glorious day it was! So full of bright sunshine and promise that was fulfilled even better than one could ask for.
“Some tears were shed as the train pulled out, only a few, and then the frolic began, and it was a merry old tea party from that time until they rolled into the “Rock City” at 10 o’clock in the evening.
“How that baggaged laden band of soldiers climbed out! All eyes and luggage. Straight for the waiting trolley cars, led by a reception committee and escorted by a platoon of blue coats, and off for Belmont Heights.
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Elliot Daingerfield’s, Leda and the Swan (date unknown).
The Drill Corps was headed to Belmont Heights because accommodations for the girls were ready for them at Nashville’s Belmont College for Young Women, founded in 1890 by Susan L. Heron and Ida E. Hood. (Emulating the women’s colleges of the Northeast, the school was established on a 15-acre site centered on Belmont, the antebellum estate of Adelicia Hayes Acklen Cheatham, built in 1850.)
Cowan continued with his travelogue:
“‘See Paris and die,’’ is an old saying. See Belmont and live, say the soldier girls of Armour. Climb up the tower and look over the sleeping city and brilliantly illuminated Centennial Exposition; walk through the twenty acres of beautiful grounds; inhale the fragrance of the magnolia, the roses, the climbing flowers, and then next morning—sit under the great oak trees on the grass and be happy, whether you are wise or otherwise. Now place one hundred charming girls, Armour Drill Corps girls, all wearing jaunty red caps and dressed in white, here and there about under the shade trees, and you have a picture of ‘our quarters’ while in Nashville.
in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Sanford Robinson Gifford’s, Autumn in the Catskills (1871).
“One must expect in that land of flowers and sunshine some warm weather, but there was evidently competition and strong rivalry between the weather man and the Centennial management. The warm hospitality and kindness showered on the Corps by the exposition people was matched by old Sol in all his fierce energy. The more fiercely the sun shone the greater the supply of cool and refreshing ices placed at the disposal of the warriors, and the greater kindness and courtesy shown by those delightful friends, the management.
“How thoroughly the soldier girls did enjoy it.
“The two concerts given in the Auditorium and the drills and dress parade given by the Corps seemed to afford immense pleasure to the thousands who assembled day after day.
The Cove by Jonas LIe (Date Unknown), Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon.
“From the visit through ‘Vanity Fair,’ luncheons on top of the Woman’s Building and at the Club House, to the medals, specially struck off and presented by the directors in charge of the Government exhibit, and the beautiful flowers presented by Director General Lewis to each member of the Corps at dress parade, everything was planned in such perfect good taste and executed so smoothly and with such excellent judgment, that the pleasant memory of those days will abide with us throughout all time.
“May it be the good fortune of the Armour Drill Corps to enjoy the hospitality of kind friends, so noble hearted and true, each year.”
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Hovsep Pushman’s, The Rose of Shiraz (circa 1919).
On Wednesday afternoon, June 30, 1897, James Cowan and the Drill Corps made their way to Monteagle, 100 miles farther south, on top of the Cumberland Mountains. The trip and continued hospitality and graciousness afforded Cowan and the Drill Corps affected him deeply, compounded by the fact that the directors of the Nashville-Chattanooga Railroad had decided to transport corps members to the Monteagle Chautauqua grounds free of charge.
Another work in the James M. Cowan Collection at the Nashville Parthenon: Elihu Vedder’s L'Improvvisatrice (Musical Inspiration), 1875.
As Cowan later wrote glowingly of that time:
“Would that this line might be traced by some hand wielding a pen kissed by the Divine fire, and then this story would be told in living words that would flash and burn through all the coming years; of the enthusiastic welcome and the lavish hospitality and boundless generosity of this Southern people to their guests from the north land; of the great bonfires that were built by the road side when darkness came on as the train drew near the mountains; the immense crowds that assembled at each railway station and cheered the soldier girls and bid them welcome to Tennessee; the climb up the mountains; the iron horse puffing and panting like some huge monster in distress; the train winding and twisting from side to side, up, up, ever up, now around some sharp, jagged rock, then through a deep cut in the solid stone, then across a great rent in the mountain side, as it pushed out over a slender bridge, it seemed like a thing of life flying in mid air, but at last they are on top of the mountain, and far down below the flickering lights, the dark shadows, the landscape spreading out before them in the moonlight, convinces the soldiers that they are traveling above the clouds.
Plaque on the grounds of the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, where James M. Cohan and the Armour Drill Corps had a very happy time in 1897, another example of tennessee hospitality that led Cowan to later donate 63 valuable works of art to the galleries of the Nashville Parthenon. The Plaque reads as follows: “Monteagle Sunday School Assembly. MSSA differed from other Chautauquas and is significant in that it was ecumenical from the beginning. Known as the Chautauqua of the South, it has conducted annual assemblies for religious and educational programs without interruption since 1883. In 1982, MSSA was placed in the National Register of HIstoric Places by the United States Departmetn of the Interior. It features outstanding and unusual Victorian and early 20th century cottage architecture on a campus of 354 acres containing more than 160 cottages and 15 public buildings.”.
“Bright and early on Thursday morning the girls were out trying to find the mountain.
“How rapidly the next three days passed! Such a royal time. Long- walks to the brink of the mountain ; drives to the coal mines and points of interest, where they could look away off and almost see half the world it seemed; the daily plunge in the swimming pool; the drills and entertainments.
“Prof. Bourland and the Monteagle people were charming hosts, made the days full of sunshine and happiness for the Drill Corps girls.”
At one point during their stay at Monteagle, some of the girls had an amusing run-in with some local fauna:
Gate leading into the Monteagle Sunday School assembly. It is one of 13 Chautauquas in the world still in operation. Nashville society would spend summers there, and the homes they built there can be rented out during the off season, which begins in August.
“Late one afternoon four of our brave soldiers, who were quartered in the cottage of a resident just outside of the Assembly grounds, were returning from drill when they suddenly discovered a queer little dark colored animal coming toward them. The soldiers halted promptly and ordered the beast to ‘shoo,’ but it refused to shoo, and came straight at them, uttering a very peculiar noise. Stories of wild cats, panthers, wolves and mountain lions flashed through their minds, and they immediately decided to retreat before such an impetuous attack, and instantly broke ranks and climbed pell mell over a nearby fence, and drawing their trusty swords, stood fast. Visions of home and thoughts of loved ones far away came to them during this moment of dread suspense, and they determined to die bravely fighting to the last; but the fierce looking animal failed to climb the fence, and while a council of war was being held a broad shouldered, brawney young mountaineer came along and with his whip drove away the fierce animal, which after all, was but a little pig, and assured the soldiers that it was perfectly harmless, and after escorting them safely to the nearby cottage, laid down on the grass and laughed until all the acorns in that neighborhood were shaken from the trees. He assured the Commandant that he had thought until now that ‘Chicago gals was acquainted with pigs.’”
Cowan and the Armour Drill Corps. were soon to leave for Chicago, but the Tennesseans were not yet finished in their exemplary practice of beneficence toward them. Tullahoma was next on the itinerary. As Cowan writes:
“The Drill Corps left Monteagle Saturday morning [July 3, 1897] on a special train, sincerely regretting that it was necessary to return so soon to the ‘Windy City by the Lake,’ and each one determined that if kind providence would permit they would again visit Prof. Bourland and the Monteagle Assembly at this beautiful summer home on the mountains.
“When the train arrived at Tullahoma, about twenty miles north of the mountains, the cars were detached and side tracked and everybody placed in carriages and driven to the magnificent grove in the public park, where the kind ladies of Tullahoma had prepared a grand picnic dinner spread under the trees, and although the soldier girls were equipped with excellent appetites they could not clear the tables.
“After five hours in this lovely little city of the Tennessee highlands, they were driven back to the train and left for Nashville, where sleeping- cars were waiting that brought them safely home next morning, tired and weary, but very happy.
“The Tennessee Centennial! Monteagle! Tullahoma! Will time ever obliterate the memory of these three mile stones in the history of the Armour Drill Corps?
“On this trip they traveled over eleven hundred miles, through the length and breadth of four great states, made many charming friends, to know whom is a life long pleasure; were the recipients of unbounded hospitality, and returned without an accident or incident of any kind to mar the pleasure of the trip.”
Much of the success of the trip—indeed, of the success of the Armour Drill Corps in general—was ascribed to James M. Cowan’s “faithful and efficient administration as Commandant, to his vigilant, resourceful, enterprising guardianship of its interests that such splendid results and success were attained.”
The Armour Drill Corps continued prosperously until Cowan’s insurance business called him away from Chicago and to Aurora, Illinois, permanently. As the 1905 document reveals, “It is to be always regretted that an organization of such splendid merit could not have been permanent and continued its work of character building, physical development, wholesome and widely extended influences. But, like many a noble movement, its prosperity was dependent upon the personality and leadership of its organizer and when these were withdrawn its progress was checked and dissolution followed.”
Thus, without the extraordinary managerial skill of James M. Cowan, the Armour Drill Corps disbanded.
Still, the remarkable warmth and kindness shown by the hospitable people Tennessee in general and Nashville in particular made a deep impression on Cowan.
This was confirmed and documented in correspondence exchanged between Cowan, Grand Central Art Galleries executives Erwin Seaver Barrie and Walter Leighton Clark, and Nashville city officials between 1926 and 1930. Cowan looked upon Tennessee as his true family home and remembered with great fondness the cordiality and hospitality that was shown him and his female charges by the Tennessee Centennial Exposition management, the Belmont College for Young Women and the directors of the Nashville-Chattanooga Railroad. He also recalled the high caliber of the 1,200 works of art displayed in the Parthenon during the 1897 Exposition.
Writing to Barrie in 1927, he concluded, “This naturally calls for some acknowledgment from me to the people of Nashville, who so generously and willingly gave these children the time of their lives.”
In the mid-1920s, having amassed over 700 works of art and nearing the end of his life, Cowan became aware that Nashville’s Parthenon was being reconstructed as a permanent art museum, and as such needed a fitting collection. Cowan decided to donate a portion of his collection to be housed there. In fact, many pieces were purchased with the Parthenon in mind. Overall, the James M. Cowan Collection of American Art, as it is now known, was selected for the donor by famed art connoisseur Walter Leighton Clark of the Grand Central Art Galleries of New York, who is said to be largely responsible for Cowan’s enormous act of generosity. Cowan’s only conditions were that the city provide a permanent home for the collection at the Parthenon and that he remain anonymous until his death.
The Cowan Collection consists of 51 landscapes, four seascapes and eight portraits in the collection. The works, all oils on canvas spanning the years 1765 (Benjamin West’s Venus and Cupid) to 1923, encompass various styles (Impressionism, Neoclassicism, the Hudson River School, the Luminists, the Symbolists, Barbizon School influences, and Nabis influences), but all of the 57 artists represented are American, and most of them were members of the preeminent art league of the time, the National Academy of Design. The collection includes such outstanding American artists as William Merritt Chase, Frederic Church, and Winslow Homer.
New Renovations, and Athena Finally Appears
In 1963, Nashville reorganized into a metropolitan form of government. The Parthenon in Centennial Park now came under the management of the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation.
On February 23, 1972, the Parthenon was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1982 the Athena Fund was established to raise funds for a recreation of the colossal Athena Parthenos statue. (The Athena Fund later became The Conservancy, a private, not-for-profit organization, serving the Nashville community through stewardship and promotion of The Parthenon and Centennial Park.)
In 1982 seven sculptors submitted proposals to recreate a plausible recreation of the Athena Parthenos statue in the Nashville Parthenon. Though just out of college, Alan LeQuire won the commission because of his skill and devotion to accuracy. (LeQuire attended Vanderbilt University and received his MFA from University of North Carolina, Greensboro in 1981.) Ironically, LeQuire's first mentor, the sculptor Puryear Mims, had fashioned a small-scale sculpture of Athena back in the 1950s as part of a proposal for the Parthenon.
Athena Varvakeion. An ancient copy of the Athena Parthenos in Athens, though scholars believe the original statue did not have a pedestal under the figure of nike.
The original statue of Athena Parthenos disappeared in the 4th or 5th century, when the building was converted into a Christian Church—it was apparently sent to Byzantium, and disappeared. However, some ancient descriptions and Roman copies exist. Alan LeQuire started off by reading a copy of a monograph, Athena Parthenos, a Reconstruction by Neda Leipen, curator of the Greek and Roman Department of the Royal Ontario Museum. Advice came from Professors Brunilde Ridgeway and Evelyn Harrison. LeQuire traveled to Greece to see the ruin of the original Parthenon and meet with Professor George Mylonas, then president of the Greek Archaeological Society. He sought out viewings of Roman versions of the statue, such as the Varvakion.
The original Athena Parthenos statue by Pheidias was constructed using the chryselephantine technique, meaning that it was a composite statue of cast gold (chrysos), and bent ivory (elephas), and other precious materials, assembled in sections onto a wooden armature.
Unlike the original that is gilded in gold, the statue of Athena Parthenos in the Nashville Parthenon was not initially adorned in gold and was instead simply white. that deficiency was remedied in 2006.
The original statue of Athena Parthenos fashioned in antiquity by the great sculptor Phidias was made from gold and ivory. In the Nashville Parthenon, however, LeQuire's Athena was made of less expensive gypsum cement and fiberglass. LeQuire first created a 1:10 scale version of Athena, then a larger 1:5 scale model, both of clay, then spent three years casting a full-sized model out of a composite of gypsum cement and ground fiberglass in molds that were assembled within the Parthenon. Just as the ancient statue had been assembled in sections onto a wooden and metal armature, so too was the Nashville Athena constructed in sections, but LeQuire had the modern advantage of being able to affix the sections to a skeletal steel armature for support.
To be precise, the head of Athena was assembled over an aluminum armature, and the lower portion was fashioned out of steel. Four 10-inch "H beams" rest on a concrete structure that extends through the Parthenon floor and basement down to bedrock, to support the 12-ton statue. LeQuire made each of the 180 cast gypsum-fiberglass panels used to create the statue sufficiently light so that a single person could lift them and attach them to the steel armature.
Distortions were introduced to make the statue’s sections at the greatest distance from the viewer appear natural. He adopted William Bell Dinsmoor’s conclusion that the statue was 12.73 meters, or 41 feet, 10 inches in height, which was only about 14 inches below the bottom of the Parthenon's wooden ceiling beams.
Enlarging the 1:5 scale model and casting the statue took three years. By the fall of 1987 the body had been assembled but the work was only half finished. What remained was to sculpt, cast and assemble the helmet with its griffins, pegasoi, and sphinx, the forearms, the Nike figure that rests on the right hand of Athena, the shield with its figures in relief, and the figures on the base, not to mention a serpent with thousands of individual scales.
The Statue of Athena created by Alan LeQuire was unveiled on May 20, 1990.
Pheidias himself would be impressed with the result.
During this work on the statue, in December 1986, the building was closed for the first major renovation on the its interior since 1931. Architects Gresham, Smith and Partners and contractor Alexander and Shankle labored on the sweeping 20-month renovation until 1988, completely updating the lower level galleries and offices, improved art storage, exhibit preparation areas, the addition of a ground-level entrance to the east end (until 1988 visitors entered Nashville’s Parthenon through the doors at the west end of the building) as well as a new gift shop and expanded restroom facilities, thus bringing the structure into compliance with current museum standards.
Northwest corner of today's Nashville Parthenon.
The exterior was another matter, however. By the early 1990s it was apparent that, while the building was structurally sound, the pedimental sculptures and the decorative work on the roof had deteriorated because of the building methods employed back in the 1920s and early ’30s. At that time, John Early's use of reinforced concrete for the roof tiles, ornamentation and even the sculputres was radically brilliant, but the rods were not made of stainless steel, and they were often close to the concrete's surface. Over time, water seeped into the porous concrete and rusted the rods, leading to further dissolution of the concrete.
Exterior restoration work would also be complicated by the fact that, for environmental reasons, the Potomac River gravel used in the aggregate to match the original Parthenon's color could no longer be dredged. Moreover, when architect Russell Hart's drawings were adapted to vagaries of the actual site, no records of these changes were made.
Coffers in the ceiling of today's Nashville Parthenon.
Even so, an exterior renovation began in 1991 and would not be complete until the fully restored building was unveiled on December 31, 2001.
First a fence went up around the Parthenon. The much-needed cleaning and restoration began when a professional team was assembled to determine what to do about the gradual deterioration of the structure that had occurred in recent decades. Gresham, Smith & Partners began the rennovation process in 1992.
In 1993 the well-known historic concrete restoration experts at Quinn Evans, Architects, of Ann Arbor, Michican, became involved with the restroation project by performing a conditions survey of the severely deteriorated pediments and entablatures. The team there was led by Ilene Tyler, FAIA and FAPT, director of preservation in Quinn Evans’ Ann Arbor, Michigan office. Tyler and architectural conservator Tracy L. Coffing (owner of Cornerstone Conservation Ltd. in Leesburg, Virginia), oversaw analysis and testing of the Parthenon's concrete before drawing up documents to guide the exgterior's restoration, which included recasting over 100 sculptural elements.
The consulting engineers on the project were from Ross Bryan Associates, specialists in designing concrete structural repairs.
The professional team precisely mapped, quantified, and evaluated conditions to develop a set of treatments that would address the deterioration at the roof, pediments, entablatures, and walls of the building.
The actual repairs were executed in phases under the construction management of the Orion Building Corporation, supported by Western Waterproofing, which installed the replicated pieces and performed the repairs and restoration treatments. Laboratory testing of materials, both existing and proposed, was
performed by Erlin, Hime Associates, Construction Material Consultants. These tests included petrography (ASTM C 876), chloride content (ASTM C 1152), compressive strength (ASTM C 39), and freeze-thaw (ASTM C 666).
Testing of the composition of both the coarse and fine aggregates was important, since records of the Earley Studio were lost in a 1950s fire, Earley himself had died in 1946, and his firm, later headquartered in Manassas, Virginia, had gone out of business in 1973.
Analysis of the coarse aggregate indicated that it was a combinaton of crushed and natural siliceous gravel of 1/4-inch size with large quantities of quartz, moderate amounts of chert and sandstone and minor amoutns of diorite and granite. Most particles were dark buff an light gray, hard an angular. Fine aggregate from these same areas was a combination of natural and crushed siliceous sand composed mainly of light gray and light buff-colored quartz. There was also just a trace of Feldspar.
The coarse and fine aggregates were set in a beige-colored cement matrix of Portland cement and tiny quantities of pigment. Most of the original statues and other components were cast using a conventional concrete mix as the body or base material and recast with the Earley special mix for the visible outer 1-2 inches. the buff-colored mix used for the restoration work was a 1:1:3 mix of one part cement to one part sand and three parts pebble aggregate, measured by weight. Crushed ceramic tiles in two graded sizes were used to duplicate the colored detail of the blue and red pre-cast pieces.
The repairs to the exterior envelope included reproduction of the concrete, restoration of extant sound concrete, repair of concealed substrate and structure, exterior cleaning, application of a corrosion inhibitor and a water repellent, and decorative painting of the plaster soffit protected inside the peristyle. (The soffit, the only non-concrete substance of the Parthenon's exterior, is probably a part of the original 1897 plaster Parthenon that had been preserved for posteriety.)
All of the pre-cast and applied-trim elements were produced by J.B. and Sons, Inc., of Hackettstown,
New Jersey. All pediment and metope sculptural pieces were produced by George Kreier, Jr., Inc. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Roof tiles, ridge cap pieces, and decorative acroteria were produced by a cast-stone manufacturer, Architectural Art Stone of Kansas City, Missouri. Cast-in-place repairs at the raking cornice and eaves were carried out on site by Western Waterproofing.
The exterior lighting was upgraded by Faron Bean , P.E., LEED AP BD+C, at the time Director of Electrical Engineering for NJC Incorporated. Bean’s lighting scheme enabled the building’s columns to be illuminated with colors differing from that of the facade, allowing for a varied display of effects for events.
Completion of the multi-year $12 million restoration project was signaled by the official unveiling celebration held on December 31, 2001 (New Year's Eve). New pre-cast gryphon acroteria were placed by crane and steel cables to symbolically "stop off" the project. a gala climaxing in a fireworks display.
There was still one more major detail to attend to on the interior. The Nashville Athena Parthenos statue stood as a plain, white statue for 12 years. The original Athena Parthenos created by Pheidias during the years 449 to 437 B.C. was not white but fashioned using the chryselephantine technique, meaning that it was a composite statue of cast plates of gold (chrysos) 1/16-inch (1.6 millimeters) to 1/8-inch (3.2 millimeters) thick, ivory (elephas), and other precious materials, assembled in sections and attached an armature of wood, metal, clay and plaster. Athena’s clothing and armaments were made up of gold and her face, hands and feet were of carved ivory. Either precious jewels or eye-colored minerals such as chalcedony were used for her eyes.
Athena Parthenos statue undergoing application of gold leaf.
And so, on June 3, 2002, the scaffolding again surrounded the Nashville Athena as work began by a team of 10 people to make it more resemble the original statue of antiquity. Alan LeQuire, his assistant Jenny Gill and an international team of scholars had studied drawings from urns and vases to determine how the huge statue may have appeared in ancient Greece.
Alan LeQuire painted Athena’s skin to imitate the ivory color. Athena’s lips were painted red, and ornamentation on her robe, helmet and shield was also painted. At the same time, a team also began gilding parts of the statue in 8.5 pounds (3.9 kilograms) of 23.75 carat Italian gold leaf. The team of volunteers gilded Athena under the supervision of a female local master gilder named Lou Reed (not the musician, singer and principal songwriter of The Velvet Underground), a local gold leafing specialist and frame restoration as well as the author of A Simple Guide to Gold Leafing.
Artist Alan LeQuire guilding the statue of Athena Parthenos at the Nashville Parthenon.
The workers, who were, among other things, selected for having no fear of heights, trained for the job at Reed’s Custom Framing in Madison. Reed selected just a few specialists from the dozen hopefuls who at the time were taking her classes. For her team of workers she taught a group of 12 people to gild and then chose nine to tackle the nearly four-month project. She also brought in three former students to oversee the project. (Reed died of cancer in 2004.)
The whole team of artists, scholars and gilders was as follows: Alan LeQuire, Lou Reed, Allison Byrd, Amy Calzadilla, Micki Cavanah, Smith Coleman, Patricia H. Coots, Carol Lynn Driver, Jenny Gill, Susan Jane Hall, Susan Harris, Charlotte A. Hester, Shana H. Keckley, Margaret A. Krakowiak, Dennis C. Lake, Patrick J. Paine, Andrew Rozario, Jean B. Spencer and Luke C. Tidwell
The Athena Parthenos statue first had to be scrubbed clean of the dirt that had collected since 1990. The mold release agent left a waxy film on the statue’s surface, which had to be removed by sanding, which also left a fine tooth surface. Because of the sanding, the statue and surroundings had to be vacuumed. Following the cleaning, the team applied shellac with brushes, starting from the top on down. Three coats of shellac were applied on the colored sizing, the adhesive medium to which the gold leaf would later stick. The shellac seals the statue and prevents the size from being absorbed.
The statue of Athena Parthenos in all her glory inside the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee.
The gold leaf sheets start out as lumps of gold that are subjected to an extensive process of goldbeating; the finished leaf forms an unbroken sheet of gold 1/250,000 of an inch thick, one-third the thickness of tissue paper. Each leaf is cut into a three and three-eighth inch square and packaged in tissue-paper books containing 25 leaves. About 65,000 leaves of gold were necessary to cover sections of Athena and the winged goddess Nike, perched on her right palm. Each bold leaf was transferred from its little “coupon book” to the area to be leafed using a tool called a gilder’s tip.
No chemical sealer of any kind was painted over the gold because it was felt that gold is actually more attractive without any sealer over it, since it dulls the shine.
Amazingly, the 2002 gilding project took less than four months, from June 3 until September 5, 2002, and it occurred in an environment without air conditioning or even fans, owing to the drafts that would have blown around the little leaves of gold. Moreover, the team had to work wearing safety harnesses hooked into chains on the layers of scaffolding.
Closer view of Athena and her devoted sidekick, Nike.
And so today, the great statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos stands in the naos or east room of the Nashville Parthenon, cuirassed and helmeted. The three crests of Athena’s helmet are supported by mythological creatures: On the left and right a Pegasus (winged horse) and in the center a sphinx (half woman, half lion). Her aegis, or armored breast plate Athena wears on her shoulders is said to have magical powers. Given to her by Zeus, the Aegis makes Athena impervious to her enemies’ weapons. In the center of the breast plate is the Medusa’s head, given by Perseus in return for Athena’s help in killing Medusa.
To be precise, the Nashville Athena now stands 42 feet, 10 inches (12.73 meters) tall, making her the largest indoor sculpture in the Western Hemisphere. Her weight is estimated at 12 tons. There are 11 snakes represented on Athena’s breastplate, bracelets and belt. Athena’s left hand and arm support a 17-foot (5-meter) shield with its 31 figures in relief, and a 36-foot (11-meter) spear. In her outstretched right palm, gilt with gold leaf, stands a 6-foot, 4-inch (2-meter) statue of Nike, the winged goddess of victory and Athena’s charioteer in her contest with Poseidon to become the patron of the city. Nike holds a wreath of victory with which she prepared to crown Athena.
Athena stands on a five-foot-high marble pedestal. Her sandals are decorated with a scene depicting the slaying of Centaurs, a reflection of scenes carved on the metopes of the Parthenon’s Doric frieze.
Across the front of the marbel base stretches a frieze depicting the birth of Pandora, whose name means “all gifts,” and who is the first human woman to appear in Greek mythology. The bas-relief panels also show the 21 figures of the goddesses and gods present at the birth of Pandora; the figures in order, from left to right are Helios, Hermes, Hera, Zeus, Nike, Dionysus, the three Horai (hours or seasons), Pandora, Hephaistos, Athena, Poseidon, Artemis, Apollo, Ares, Demeter, Hestia, Eros, Aphrodite, and Selene.
Also, the imposing figure of the serpent Erichthonios (also written also written Erichthonius and Erechtheus) the legendary deified king of early Athens, appears to rear its head between Athena and her shield. The snake is also thought to symbolize the people of Athens themselves who, like this creature of the earth, arose “from the soil of Attica [Greece].” Athena’s shield protects the snake, indicating her role in defending the people of Athens from harm.
Recent archaeological research has demonstrated some additional details of the original Parthenon left out of the Nashville version. The most recent evidence indicates the presence of two small windows in the east wall, level with the top of the doors that allowed light along the side aisles, further enhancing the statue. Scholars are now of the opinion that in the original Parthenon there was a shallow pool of water extending from immediately in front of the statue to the fourth column. The water would have reflected light onto the statue and perhaps was also used to increase the room’s humidity, thus preventing the ivory from becoming brittle.
The Nashville Parthenon in Later Years and Today
Despite Nashville’s immensely popular music industry, the Parthenon in Centennial Park continues to be a defining emblem of Nashville. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, has used the iconic building in tourist billboard campaigns as far away as London.
Although not quite as spectacular as Sidney Mttron Hirsch’s 1913 production of The Fire Regained, the huge Nativity scene erected on the south side of the Parthenon every Christmas season from Thanksgiving Eve, 1953 until 1967, was certainly more endearing to the million or so people who came to see it each year.
The annual Christmas Nativity scene on the south side of the Nashville parthenon was a tradition that lasted from 1955 until 1968. The huge display, measuring about 280 feet long and 75 feet deep, was sponsored by Fred Harvey Sr. (1898–1960). Born in Canada, Harvey founded the Harvey's department store chain that existed from 1946 until 1988.
The Parthenon Nativity scene was an inspired gift to Nashville by Fred Harvey Sr. (1898–1960), the Canadian-born founder of the Nashville-based Harvey's department store chain that flourished from 1946 until it was sold to Virginia-based Peebles in 1988. Harvey got the idea for his display in 1950 while touring Europe. He discovered a small, permanent Nativity scene in a Bavarian village near Insbruck, Austria, and it gave him big ideas.
Planning and developing the display took two years. To create the display's figures, Harvey commissioned the Italian-born sculptor Guido Rebechini, a graduate of art school at the University of Florence, at the time living in Chicago. Rebechini had made a reputation for himself by crafting a life-size figure frieze in Montreal's Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as works in Bolivia and Argentina. He would go on to make a six-foot bust of Thomas Edison in the late 1950s.
The annual Christmas Nativity scene on the south side of the Nashville parthenon, daytime view.
Rebechini was assisted in his work on the Nativity scene by Marian Jaulaski, described as his Polish student. The medium they chose for the figures was a plastic-impregnated plastic called alabaster-white celastic set on hard rubber. The figures were executed at the Sylvestri Art Manufacturing Company in Chicago at a cost of $20,000.
The result was a series of 150 or so larger-than-life figures, including those of the Christ Child, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, shepherds, camels, calves, sheep, donkeys and, in the background, a bevy of 12-foot angels and heralds. Scattered among the figures were palm trees sculptured, like the other figures, of fiberglass, celastic and rubber. Several hundred slender, upright tree branches were sprayed with 400 gallons of white paint to create the display's forest and shrubbery.
Manger depiction from the huge Nativity Scene constructed each year on the south side of the Nashville Parthenon each Christmas season from 1955 until 1968. Figures were produced by Italian-born sculptor Guido Rebechini and his student assistant, Marian Jaulaski.
The display was 75 feet deep and streched about 280 feet along the south side of the Nashville Parthenon. A boardwalk 16 feet wide was constructed in front of the display for visitors. Originally illuminated in brilliant white light, starting with the 1955 season, the entire scene was bathed in the ever-shifting white to blue to green to red light of 7,500 colored globes. Moreover, 33,000 tiny “Italian” lights were strung through the trees and blinked to simlulate twinkling stars. There was also a five-pointed blue star, several feet tall, above the manger scene.
The Monday, December 3, 1956 edition of the Nashville Banner newspaper noted the tremendous turnout for the Nativity scene's opening the night before: “Nashvillians by the thousands took part in a pilgrimage Sunday night—drawn to Centennial Park by the beauty of the Nativity Scene… approximately 10,000 people stood on the wide lawn before and at the sides of the display or remained in cars parked in every space. Automobiles turning into roads bringing them to and before the scene, created with their slow-moving headlights the effect of a gigantic candlelight service.”
Close-up of Neon star from the manger section of the Nativity Scene at the Nashville Parthenon.
The collossal display was supported by a two-hour program of Christmas music, played over a stereophonic sound system (that covered the whole park) from a tape recorder that repeated the program automatically, from 8 a.m. –11 p.m.
After Harvey died in 1960, his son, Fred Harvey Jr. continued his father's tradition of adding new figures and making tweaks to the giant display. For example, when a child asked, “Where's the baby lamb?” A baby lamb figure was created immediately. Until 1960, the display had a choir boy figures around the manger, but Harvey thought that was too contemporary a motif, so, at his suggestion, master sculptor Rebccini swapped out the choir boys for praying angels. The choir boys were instead used as (electric) candle bearers in the background near the Parthenon.
Section from the huge Nativity Scene at the Nashville Parthenon.
In that first season following his father's death in 1960, Fred Jr. opened the display with the words, “I felt that continuing the display was particularly appropriate this year in view of the growing tensions throughout the world and the efforts of atheistic political bodies who obviously are attempting to destroy the beliefs the people of this nation have always held so dear and felt so strongly.”
In 1961, Harvey added a reproduction of the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke, copied in Old English script.
When a parking lot was then added near the Parthenon, license plates from nearly ever state in the Union and Canada were noted. Foreign visitors from Europe and elsewhere also made an appearance.
Promotional photo showing visitors to the enormous Nativity Scene at the Nashville Parthenon.
During its 11th annual showing In 1963, it was estimated that the display was valued at $150,000 and that maintenance costs amounted to $6000 a year.
Unfortunately, it was also in 1963 that a very heavy snowfall covered the display, and additional moisture seeped into the statues of 45 humans and 78 animals, freezing and causing damange. Some of these were sprayed with additional fiberlass the following year in an effort to extend their working lives, but their interiors continued to disintegrate. Things were compounded by the fact that Sylvestri Art Manufacturing Company in Chicago was long out of business soon afterwards and so no authorized repairs, technical support, or even reliable guides to proper maintenance of the fixtures were available.
By 1968, the nearly 16 years of winter weather had weakened and deteriorated the statuary to the point where the display was no longer suitable for outdoor use. Restoring the figures or reproducing them would be too expensive. Also, some people feared that a strong wind could catch the wings of the 12-foot-high angels and send them (or pieces of them) flying into spectators.
The Nativity display was sold by the city of Nashville in 1968 to an advertising agency that placed it in a Cincinnati shopping center. For two seasons it could be seen indoors, but then it was declared too badly decomposed and was finally discarded.
Since the mid 1980s, the vacuum left by the departure of the Parthenon Nativity Scene has been filled somewhat by the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, with its outside light display of countless sparkling globes, and interior botanical atriums with water shows synchronized to holiday songs and horse-drawn carriage rides among the decorations. There's even an outdoor nativity scene on display from 5 to 10 p.m. daily on the hotel grounds.
The Nashville Parthenon was also the scene for a staged political rally in the climactic scene of Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville.
The building was also a backdrop for the battle against the Hydra in the 2010 movie Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
The Nashville Parthenon appears in the title and lyrics of the song “Nashville Parthenon” from the album Etiquette by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.
In the evening, the Parthenon in Nashville exudes a remarkable tranquility. (Photo © Dave Newman | Dreamstime.com
Each summer, local theatre productions use the building as a backdrop for classic Greek plays such as Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Antigone, performing (usually for free) on the Parthenon’s steps. Other performances, such as Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, have been held in the interior, at the foot of Athena’s statue.
When visiting the Nashville Parthenon, don’t be fooled by the giant bronze doors and climb the outside steps to get in. Since 1988, the official entrance is on street level on the eastern side below the bronze doors. Still, you’ll see at least several people hunting for what appears to be an obvious entrance, that has a sign over it reading “Entrance.”
Once a visitor is inside, an elevator that takes you to the naos room containing the incomparable Athena Parthenos statue.
There is plenty of parking, which is free.
Centennial Park is Fascinating, Too
As for the rest of the park, its first community center was built in 1916, with a trolley car situated in the playground at its side. Lake Watauga is the only lake left in the park; the others were drained. Lily Lake was drained to form the present-day Sunken Gardens, now used mostly for weddings and tulip viewing. From 1922 to 1949 it was a Japanese Water Garden, home to many aquatic plants. There was a grotto; a statue of Buddha modeled by Nashville sculptor Jack Schwab, cast in concrete by the G. Mattei Plaster Relief Ornamental Company and mounted on a three-foot stone pedestal; several Japanese pagodas; 45 varieties of plants and a small lake stocked with carp (goldfish) and covered in season with water lilies.
Plaque in Centennial Park reads as follows:
THE PARTHENON. The world’s only replica of the Parthenon, epitome of Greek culture, was the central building at Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition, May 1, thru October 31, 1897. The original temple, dedicated to Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom, occupied the most sacred area in ancient Greece, the crest of the Acropolis. A hill overlooking Athens.
Major Eugene C. Lewis, Director of the Centennial, believed that a reproduction of the Greek Masterwork to serve as a tallery of fine arts would inspire a love of beauty and a spirit of excellence. Colonel William C. Smith served as architect and George J. Zolnay, sculptor. Contractor for the building was Edward Laurent with Foster and Creighton contracting for the Foundation.
The reception of the Centennial— it was the first exposition in the Nation to be both an artistic and financial success—and public response to the Parthenon indicated that, although it was made of temporary materials, it should be reconstructed on a permanent basis. Construction was started in 1921, the exterior completed in 1925, but due to the lack of funds, it was not until May 20, 1931, that the Parthenon as it stands today was opened to the public.
Hart, Freeland and Roberts, with William E. Dinsmoor consulting, served as architects. George J. Zolnay, Leopold Scholz and Belle Kinney Scholz, sculptors. Foster and Creighton were general contractors. Others who contributed to the work included John J. Early Company, General Bronze Corporation, John Bouchard and Sons, Herbrice and Lawrence, E. E. Parmer, J. J. Hutchison and Son, J. O. Kirkpatrice, Charles A. Howell, Art Mosaic and Tile Company and A. T. Kanaday.
BOARD OF PARK COMMISSIONERS
(Top Row) Robert M. Dudley, W. R. Cole, Percy Warner, Edwin Warner
(Middle) M. T. Bryan, Robert T. Creighton, Rogers Caldwell, C. A. Craig
Lee J. Loventhal, Charles M. McCabe, J. L. W. Brown
In 1906 a bridge—the first reinforced concrete bridge built in Tennessee—was constructed between the Sunken Gardens and Lake Watauga. Another result of Director-General Major Eugene C. Lewis' interest in reinforced concrete, he also had constructed during the years 1906–1910 a concrete shell that once marked a spring, a mushroom-shaped bandstand, and a concrete ship's prow near 25th Avenue North (the former Fair Grounds Avenue) that greeted visitors streaming through the park's main entrance when it was situated off Elliston Place.
In 1930 the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad bought five 381,000 pound, 4-8-4 “Dixie” locomotives from the American Locomotive Company, designated Class J-2 and assigned numbers 565 through 569. In 1942 and 1943, another 20, Class J-3 Locomotives were purchased and assigned numbers 570–589. These locomotives Class J-3's resembled the Class J-2 except they were heavier, weighing in at 400,500 pounds. The only surviving NC&SL Dixie Locomotive is number 576. It was placed in Nashville's Centennial Park in 1953, where you can see it today.
The Centennial Park swimming pool, built in 1932, was reconstructed as the Centennial Art Center in 1972, with the site of the pool becoming a sculpture garden. The Ice Centennial was built in 1978.
Lastly, you can view an actual F-86 Sabre fighter plane that sits in the park, installed there in 1961. America's first swept-wing fighter jet, the F-86 Sabre Jet in Centennial Park is an L version, which, along with the K version, were all-weather interceptors. At the base of the aircraft is a plaque with the following inscription:
“This F86L Sabre Jet was flown by the the Tennessee Air National Guard from 1957–1960 in support of the USAF Air Defense Command. After being retired from active service it was given to the City of Nashville. It was renovated and mounted in 1982 by these men of the Nashville Air National Guard Unit."
East side of Nashville Parthenon at night as seen across Lake Watauga. (Photo © Dave Newman | Dreamstime.com)
A Fascinating Place
The Nashville Parthenon is an extraordinary achievement. It is a both a tribute to the original Parthenon in Athens (the greatest monument in the greatest sanctuary of the greatest city of classical Greece) as well as a magnificent symbol for Nashville, "The Athens of the South." When in the vicinity, do go visit it!