The Parthenon stands proudly as the centerpiece of Centennial Park, Nashville’s premier urban park. The re-creation of the 42-foot statue Athena is the focus of the Parthenon just as it was in ancient Greece. The building and the Athena statue are both full-scale replicas of the Athenian originals. Since the 1930s, the Parthenon has continued to host changing art exhibitions in its galleries and to educate both Nashvillians and visitors about the legacy of the ancient Greeks and their impact on American civilization. The Nashville Parthenon is owned and operated by the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation, a Department of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.
The Parthenon in Nashville is the world’s only exact-size and detail replica of the original temple in Athens, Greece. When Tennessee celebrated its 100th year of statehood with the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville took advantage of its nickname “Athens of the South” and built the Fine Art Building as a copy of Athens’ most famous building and the epitome of Greek classical architecture. Although built to be temporary, as were all the buildings of the Centennial, the Parthenon crystallized for Nashvillians their image of themselves and their city and they were loathe to tear it down at the conclusion of the exposition. The exterior coating, sculpture and decorative work were made of plaster and soon deteriorated. Repeated patching kept destruction at bay for several years, but in 1920 the city was forced to a permanent solution: tear it down or rebuild it in lasting materials. The decision to rebuild involved local architect Russell Hart and, as consultant, architectural historian William Bell Dinsmoor.
The roof, expanded walls and load-bearing columns were made of reinforced concrete, the novel new building material of the twentieth century; the brick walls and non load-bearing columns of the 1897 building were retained and incorporated into the new construction. For the permanent surface treatment Hart selected a cast concrete aggregate, using a formula developed by John Earley of Washington, DC. This material was used for all exterior surfaces as well as the roof tiles, decorative work and sculpture. The firm of Foster and Creighton were the general contractors for the rebuilding. Sculptor George Julian Zolnay, who had created the pedimental sculptures on the 1897 Parthenon, returned to make the metopes of the Doric frieze. Nashville sculptor Belle Kinney and her Austrian-born husband Leopold Scholz were hired to create the permanent pediment figures. To assist them in creating figures as close to the original as possible, the Park Board purchased from the Victoria and Albert Museum a set of casts of the original marble fragments. Work on the exterior of the building was completed by 1925.
The Parthenon built for the Centennial was not a replica on the inside; its interior was a series of galleries for exhibiting the enormous collection of paintings and sculptures borrowed from Europe and throughout the United States for the Exposition. The permanent structure, however, was to be a compete replica and as accurate as scholarship would allow, recreating the camber of the horizontal lines, the inclination of columns and walls and the entasis of the columns. Due to various financial crises, work continued haltingly until its completion in 1931. When the doors were opened to the public, two major elements were still missing: the great statue of Athena in the naos and the Ionic frieze on the exterior. Donations for the Athena accumulated over the years and in 1982 the Park Board commissioned Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire to recreate the 42ft statue for the interior. This monumental task took almost eight years. The statue was finally unveiled on May 20, 1990, generating much excitement and a renewal of interest in the Nashville Parthenon as an icon of the city. Additional money was raised during the next 12 years, and in 2002 the statue was finally completed with gilding and painting.