NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Just to the west of downtown Nashville is one of the city’s premier parks, with over 100 acres of grassy lawns and a large pond.

However, before it was known as Centennial Park, the land was home to the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, which lasted for six months between May 1 and October 31 in 1897.

Although a year late, the exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s entry into the union in 1796. More than 50 white, neoclassical structures devoted to agriculture, commerce and other divisions were erected during the exposition.

Nashville Parthenon 1897
Memphis building (a pyramid) at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, 1897. The Parthenon and another building are visible in the background, and Lake Watauga in the foreground. (1897)

Each building was full of different types of exhibits showcasing various products and inventions, which were subsequently entered into competitions. In addition, there were several rides and games where the Centennial Dog Park is today.

At the center of it all was the only building from the exposition that still exists today, said Lauren Bufferd, who serves as the director of Nashville’s Parthenon.

Nashville Parthenon at night
General view of Tennessee Centennial at night — Electric Effect by Moonlight. Features Parthenon and Pyramid, with Commerce building in the rear. (1897)

“We had visitors coming from all over the country. Railroad terminuses were here and close to the park, and there was everything,” Bufferd said. “There was food, there was entertainment, there were public concerts and performances, and then of course there was the Parthenon.”

‘Why is this here?’

The Parthenon has since become a staple of the Nashville experience, often eliciting questions like “Why is this here?” Rather than representing a Greek population in Nashville like Bufferd said some have guessed, the temple is more symbolic.

Souveniers from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition on display at the Parthenon. (WKRN photo)

“Nashville was known as the ‘Athens of the South’,” Bufferd said. “The state had public education so early, and people in Nashville just thought of themselves as progressive, democratic, and all of the things they kind of imagined the classical world embodied.”

However, during the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, the Parthenon looked a bit different compared to modern day. Like the other structures, the original full-scale replica of the Parthenon was intended as a temporary exhibit and was constructed of brick, wood and plaster.

Detailed view of the Parthenon, showing the original Athena sculpture to the left. (Courtesy: Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1897)

Inside, the walls were covered with paintings hung from the ceiling to the floor. A large statue of the ancient Greek goddess Athena created by Enid Yandell could be found just outside of the temple. At the time, Bufferd said it was the largest statue to ever be constructed by a woman.

“No one knows what happened to it either,” Bufferd said. “It’s one of the mysteries of the Parthenon that we are always looking at. There’s quite a bit of information about her in the state archives, but no one knows what happened to that sculpture.”

Ups and downs of reconstruction

At the close of the Centennial Celebration, all of the buildings were demolished. However, Bufferd said the Parthenon was so beloved that Nashvillians protested its removal. The temple was left standing after 1897, but over the next 20 years it began to deteriorate.

Nashville Parthenon Statues
Interior of the Parthenon during construction. Shows pieces of statuary on work tables. (Circa 1897)

It’s plaster facade began to crumble; ivy began growing up the columns; and the pediment sculptures had to be removed so they did not pose a danger to the visitors below. By 1915, the Park Board decided to initiate plans to reconstruct the Parthenon.

Russell Hart, the architect behind the reconstruction, studied ancient building in order to make Nashville’s temple resemble the original as closely as possible, and work on the exterior of the building began about six years later in 1921.

Fragments of plaster from the original Parthenon on display at the museum. (WKRN photo)

“They pulled the plaster that was constructing it off and they put steel reinforcements in; they clad the building with that kind of colored concrete that you see out there now,” Bufferd said.

In 1923, the exterior reconstruction was almost complete. However, that same year, a tornado caused extensive damage to the structure, which exhausted the project’s budget and work on the interior was delayed for another five years.

The Park Board resumed construction in 1928, and the building was officially reopened to the public about three years later. However, it was still lacking a monumental part of the Parthenon as it is today — the massive statue of Athena.

Bringing Athena to the temple

Bufferd said the project had always included plans for what is now a 42-foot-tall statue of the ancient Greek goddess. However, Depression-era lack of funding forced Nashville’s Board of Parks to put the project on hold.

This 42-foot-tall statue of the ancient Greek goddess Athena sits at the center of Nashville’s Parthenon. (WKRN photo)

“So, for many, many years there was a small Athena, like a replica of what they hoped. It wasn’t until the last part of the 20th century that our Athena was built,” said Bufferd, who added that the project was funded entirely by dollars and dimes dropped in a donation box by the statue.

Before the current 42-foot-tall statue of the ancient Greek goddess Athena was constructed, this smaller statue stood in her place. (WKRN photo)

Today, Bufferd said the sculpture is the tallest indoor statue in the western world. The Greek goddess stood as a plain white statue for 12 years before a gilding project took place, which included painted details on her face, wardrobe and shield.

While many people think of ancient statues as plain, white marble, Bufferd said most statues were actually full of color. The original statue of Athena likely would have been embellished with gold and jewels to make her seem more “sparkly and exciting.”

“She’s a great example of what the sculptures probably looked like,” Bufferd said. “We might think it’s too gaudy, too flashy, but color has been used in art since the beginning of art, so there’s no reason to imagine that the Greeks were any different.”

The Parthenon today

Nashville Parthenon
Life size replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee (Source: Adobe Stock)

The Parthenon continues to bring an average of 370,000 visitors through the doors each year, with over 2,300 middle schoolers visiting the museum just between January and March 2023.

Something Bufferd said many visitors don’t at first realize is, just like its earlier form, the Parthenon is home to an extensive art collection. In fact, the Parthenon is considered Nashville’s oldest museum.

Art on display at the Parthenon in Nashville. (WKRN photo)

The Parthenon’s permanent art collection consists of 63 works, all oils on canvas painted by American artists, dating between 1765 and 1923. The Parthenon also has temporary exhibitions, with the most recent exhibit showcasing work by Tennessee artists.

With many significant artifacts and collections, Bufferd said she still sees the Parthenon as a symbol in Nashville, representing “civic pride and taking pride in where you live.”

It also offers a look back into Nashville’s history, which is something Bufferd said she hopes to see more locals taking part in as she estimates that nearly three quarters of visitors each year are tourists. To find out more about current events and exhibits at the Parthenon, click here.

“By engaging more with our local history, and learning more about our city, maybe we become more active participants in whatever scene we’re drawn to, whether it’s art or politics,” Bufferd said. “You’re learning a little bit more about your history.”