Long before Greek gyros, Greek yogurt, and big fat Greek weddings, our country was influenced by Greek culture. So much so that in 1897 a full-scale replica of the Athenian Parthenon was erected in Nashville as the centerpiece for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition.
The Parthenon is nestled in Nashville’s historic Centennial Park located on West End and Twenty-fifth Avenue North, just west of downtown. The land was originally purchased by John Cockerill in 1783 for his farm. Years later, after the Civil War, it became the state fairgrounds and later was converted into a racetrack known as West Side Park. Construction for many of the elaborate buildings for the Centennial Exposition began in 1895. The cornerstone for the Parthenon was laid October 8 of that year.
Tennessee became our nation’s sixteenth state in 1796. Its name is taken from the Cherokee word Tanasai , the name of a small village in the area. In the 1840’s a well-known educator, Phillip Lindsey, thought that Nashville should encourage the ideals of a classical Greek education. It was his hopes that the city would be known as the Athens of the West. While the title never gained popularity, decades later Nashville was given the name “Athens of the South.” It would continue to be known as such until the arrival of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930’s when the name “Music City” took hold. Even today in Nashville’s Yellow Pages several businesses have a reference to Athens.
Under this Athenian influence, the Centennial Exposition committee settled upon the idea of erecting a temporary brick, wood, and plaster full-scale replica of the Parthenon as a centerpiece for the state’s historic event. The exposition opened on May 1, 1897, and before the gates closed on October 30, it attracted some 1.8 million visitors, including President William McKinley.
In 1898 all of the other buildings on the exposition grounds were demolished. The Parthenon, never intended to be permanent, alone survived. In 1902, the city created Centennial Park out of the abandoned Exposition fairgrounds. By 1915 the plaster façade of the Parthenon was crumbling and its replica pediment sculptures were removed. A few years years later, the city of Nashville decided that the iconic structure was worth saving and rebuilt the structure with aggregate concrete on the same foundations. These renovations were completed in 1931, and the Parthenon was reopened once again to the public.
However, inside, something was glaringly missing. It wasn’t until 1982 that the city commissioned the local sculptor Alan LeQuire (http://alanlequire.com/biography.shtml) to create a statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos. The original, housed in the Parthenon on the Acropolis in ancient Athens, was unveiled in 438 bc. She was sculpted by Pheidas, perhaps the greatest sculptor of classical antiquity. He created her with white ivory skin covered in gold clothing.
Then in 2002, after numerous local fundraising events which included nickel and dime drives by school children, tourist fees, and private commercial donations, enough money was raised to buy the eight pounds of gold required to adorn Athena with her impressive gilded garments.
Today the Parthenon’s interior is painted to resemble as closely as possible the presumed colors of the original. Plaster replicas of the Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles) located in the east room of the main hall are direct casts of the originals which adorned the pediments (non-structural elements over windows and doors) of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis. The originals were purchased by the British government in 1816 and are on display in the British Museum.
The Parthenon Museum houses a very impressive James Cowan art collection. Cowan was a successful New York insurance executive who amassed over 700 paintings in his lifetime. In 1897, Cowan was invited to participate in the Centennial Exposition. He was so impressed by the people he met that he donated a large portion of his art collection to them. Twenty-one crates of original works of art ranging from neoclassical to impressionism arrived anonymously from New York City in 1927. It was only after his death three years later that his identity was revealed.
Centennial Park is Nashville’s premier city park. Covering over 132 acres, it includes a one-mile walking trail, Lake Watauga, the Centennial Arts Center, vast sunken gardens, and an impressive herb garden. The park is host to a rich schedule of events that includes everything from classical Greek plays, cultural events, family gatherings, and weddings.
As you walk about Centennial Park taking in all of the incredible sights and sounds of this wonderful Nashville setting, be sure to swing by the courtyard adjacent to the herb garden. Who knows, you may catch a glimpse of someone’s big fat Greek wedding. Opa!