In the 5th Century, B.C., human wisdom and culture flourished along the shores of the Aegean and Ionian Seas.
However, the Hellenist society, along with its greatest orator Pericles, could not have imagined the monolith they built on the Acropolis above Athens would not only become one of the great ‘wonders of the world,’ but would also be replicated almost 2,500 years later and nearly 6,000 miles away in Nashville, Tenn.
“When the state of Tennessee decided to celebrate its first 100 years of statehood with a world’s fair-type exposition, Nashville offered to build the art building for the fair and chose to build it as a copy of the Parthenon to reflect the city’s nickname, ‘Athens of the South,’” said Wesley Paine, Parthenon director.
The ‘Athens of the South’ nickname was given to Nashville in the 1840’s by educator Philip Lindsay who wanted to encourage the city to become an education center for philosophy, classic Greek education and Latin.
“All the buildings for the exposition were built to be temporary,” added Paine. “By the time the exposition closed in Oct. of 1897, however, Nashvillians had fallen in love with this building [Parthenon] that represented their city, their aspirations, their ideal, and there was an outcry of protest at the idea of its being demolished.”
However, according to Paine, by 1920 repair or demolition of the Parthenon had become an urgent matter.
“Fortunately for us, the decision was made to make the building permanent,” Paine stated. “So art galleries were created on the lower level and the interior of the original Parthenon was re-created in the space that had been galleries during the Centennial. The project took 10 years and the re-built Parthenon opened in May of 1931.”
Paine noted over 1200 works of art from all over the world were exhibited in the Parthenon during the Exposition.
“The exhibition of art has always been part of the purpose of the Nashville Parthenon, so the museum’s mission is three-pronged: to interpret art, the ancient civilization that built the Parthenon in Greece, and the late-19th century American civilization that built an accurate replica,” she stated.
Paine added that the museum now encompasses the entire building, not just the lower-level galleries.
“During the re-building in the 1920s, a man named James M. Cowan gave part of his collection of American art to the city of Nashville to be housed at the Parthenon and form the nucleus of a permanent collection,” she said. “A portion of the Cowan Collection is always on view and we change exhibitions in the East Gallery every 4-6 months.”
Paine said that money collected from admissions and sales in the museum store go into Metro Nashville’s General Fund.
“It is Metro’s budget that funds the operation of the museum, so those monies collected indirectly support the Parthenon,” she added. “Much of the programming is funded by The Conservancy for the Parthenon and Centennial Park, a not-for-profit, 501c3 membership and support organization. You can go to www.conservancyonline.com for more details.”
The Nashville Parthenon and the original Athena Parthenos have a few things in common.
The first is they both look similar, although the original building in Greece has been damaged quite a bit due to wars and ‘father time.’ Secondly, the Nashville Parthenon houses a 40 foot plus tall statue of a gold-leafed Athena, however the original statue, almost equal in height,created by Pheidias, was made of expensive and precious ivory and gold. Rumor has it the Byzantines took the original Athena statue to Constantinople [Istanbul] and she was destroyed along with much of the city by a public mob in 1230 A.D. Thirdly and oddly enough, both Nashville and Athens lie near the 37th parallel. Finally, both Parthenon’s are huge attractions to visitors every year and sit in the middle of world famous cities that currently pride themselves on wisdom, culture and the arts.
With the replica being full-scale in size compared to the Athenian Parthenon, the greatest difference between the two is the Parthenon in Nashville sits on a lush, green strip of land known as Centennial Park and the original sits atop a huge rock, famously known world-wide as the Acropolis.
Centennial Park, in and of itself, is a huge attraction not only to Middle Tennesseans, but also to visitors from all over the world.
“Centennial Park is the site hundreds of activities during the year,” said Paine. “I attribute the popularity of the Parthenon and Centennial Park largely due to its accessibility being centrally located.”
“The Parthenon is a huge factor to the park’s popularity, but the Parks Department has programmed well over the years by holding symphony and big band concerts, plays, pageants, movies and craft fairs,” she added.
Paine said that despite all the art and culture involved that has been part of the Parthenon’s history, many people simply just love being at Centennial Park passing time in their own relaxing way be it frisbee throwing, sunbathing, picnicking, walking, running or playing with their dog at one of the two dog parks.
“Both dog parks are adjacent to each other on Flag Pole Hill,” said Paine. “There is one park for small dogs and another for big dogs.”
“The area is very Family-friendly and the area surrounding us sports some wonderful restaurants,” Paine added.
Centennial Park once housed three small lakes on the property, with one of them named Lake Watauga.
Lake Watauga, which sits in front of the Parthenon, is the only lake that remains on the grounds and has an interesting history, somewhat akin to the Parthenon itself.
Nashville founders, General James Robertson and Colonel John Donelson came to Nashborough [Nashville] from the original Lake Watauga region, which lies just east of Elizabethton, Tenn., a town rich in history and known as the ‘City of Power’ and the ‘Birthplace of American Democracy.”
Not only has Nashville’s city leaders over the years pulled from the wisdom and culture of the Greeks, but they have also pulled from the power and the spirit of exploration and democracy of the original settlers [Robertson and Donelson] to make the Parthenon and Centennial Park one of the finest art, culture and greenway destinations in the Southeast, if not the nation.
A reason for those who love the arts, culture, wisdom, the outdoors and Nashville to say, “Opa, ya’ll!”