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Visiting the Parthenon in Nashville – Travel Tips and Intriguing History

Learn why the Parthenon is the one attraction in Nashville everyone must see.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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My jaw dropped the first time I saw the Nashville Parthenon. It was 65 feet tall. It was wrapped with 46 towering Doric columns. Exquisite details were carved into the façade. Why was there a full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee?

My curiosity demanded I go inside the concrete structure. I’m so glad that I did. Inside, I learned about the history and architecture of the fascinating building. I explored an art gallery that I didn’t know existed. And then my jaw dropped again at the feet of a gilded Athena.

How is the Nashville Parthenon not on everyone’s travel bucket list?

The Parthenon is the centerpiece of the 132-acre Centennial Park. The full-scale replica was built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition and preserved as a monument to the “Athens of the South.” And it’s the one thing everyone must do when visiting Nashville.

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History of the Parthenon in Nashville

From 1884 until 1895, the Tennessee State Fairgrounds were about ten minutes from downtown Nashville on a former farm. When the state officials decided to hold a grand celebration to honor the state’s centennial, all eyes turned toward the fairgrounds as the perfect place to host the event.

Nashville was known as the “Athens of the South.” Sarah Arntz, a curator at the Nashville Public Library, credits Phillip Lindsley with the city’s moniker. In 1824, Lindsley arrived in Nashville from the College of New Jersey – now called Princeton University – to lead the failing Cumberland College. Lindsley pushed to rename it the University of Nashville and fought to make Tennessee’s capital the center of higher education in the South, comparing it to the philosophers of Athens, Greece.

The Tennessee Centennial Exposition committee chose a Greek theme for the celebration because of the city’s nickname. In 1895, construction for the celebration began with laying the cornerstone of a recreation of the Greek Parthenon.


Ironically, the exposition was a year late. Tennessee was admitted to the Union in July 1796, but the centennial celebration didn’t begin until May 1897. 18 million people visited Nashville during the six-month exposition, including President William McKinley, who opened the exposition.

Preservation of the Parthenon began immediately following the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The Nashville Railway and Light Company bought 72 acres of the former fairgrounds and donated it to the city. Centennial Park opened in 1903 after the city built a swimming pool, stocked the lake with fish, and built walkways.

But the Parthenon was in trouble.

The building was meant to be a temporary fixture for the centennial, so the walls were plaster. In 1920, work began to rebuild the Parthenon from the ground up. The original brick walls and non-load-bearing columns were kept, but everything else was rebuilt using an innovative new product – reinforced concrete. Molds were made from the original Parthenon, and cast concrete was poured, giving the Nashville Parthenon an unparalleled level of authenticity.

It took 10 years to rebuild the Nashville Parthenon with brick and cast concrete. Interestingly, building the original Greek Parthenon with carved Pentelic marble also took ten years.

In 1931, the rebuilt Nashville Parthenon reopened to the public. It has been a central fixture of Centennial Park, one of Nashville’s best attractions, and one of the most interesting things to do in the South since.


Collections at the Art Museum

The Greek Parthenon was a shrine to the mythical goddess Athena. The Nashville Parthenon is an art museum.

In the early 1900s, James Cowan donated 63 paintings by 19th and 20th-century American artists. Continuing to play on the Greek theme, the young museum purchased 14 casts of the original Parthenon Marbles from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The casts have been on permanent display since 1931.

The collection also includes a 1/10 scale model of the crane used to build the Greek Parthenon. Visitors can see a large diorama depicting the crane hoisting carved marble columns into place.


The Statue of Athena

The most surprising feature of the Nashville Parthenon is the recreation of the Statue of Athena. It was not part of the original Nashville Centennial Exposition or the 1920s renovation.

In 1982, the Centennial Park Board commissioned Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire to create an exact replica of the Statue of Athena. The Vanderbilt University alumnus cast several gypsum cement pieces of the original statue by Pheidias. In the Parthenon, LeQuire built a steel armature to support the components. Eight years after the commissioning, the statue was unveiled.

But the initial Statue of Athena in the Nashville Parthenon was a stark white concrete creation. Additional funds were raised to finish the statue. Master gilder Lou Reed spent four months applying the gilding to the statue. Finally, the statue was completed in 2002.

The full-scale recreation of the Statue of Athena stands 42 feet tall from a raised platform in the Naos Room, the east room of the Parthenon. The two-story cavernous room is 93 feet long and 63 feet wide. And yet, the golden Athena dominates the space.


Guided Tours

Visitors have several monthly opportunities for a guided tour of the Nashville Parthenon and Centennial Park.

The Architecture Tour is the first Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday of each month. The 45-minute tour includes inside and outside of the Parthenon. The tour leaders narrate the fascinating architecture of the full-scale replica.

The Centennial Park History tour is every Wednesday seasonally from May through October. The 30-minute tour includes about a quarter of a mile walking through the park. The tour leaders show archival images of the park during the Nashville Centennial Exposition and transformation into today’s park.


Getting to the Parthenon in Nashville

Centennial Park is about ten minutes east of downtown Nashville, sandwiched between West End Avenue and Charlotte Avenue. 27th Avenue North cuts through the middle of the park, passing the Parthenon.

The large parking lot beside the Parthenon is some of the only free parking in the city. But there are about another hundred parking spaces scattered throughout the park.

The easiest way to visit the Parthenon is with the Old Town Trolley Tour. A one-day ticket on the hop-on, hop-off tour bus starts at about $50. Centennial Park is Stop #8 out of 12 on the loop through Nashville.


Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Parthenon free in Nashville?

No, the Parthenon is not free. Admission is $8 for children and $10 for adults.

What is the difference between the Parthenon in Nashville and the Parthenon in Greece?

The Greek Parthenon was completed in 432 BC as a shrine to the mythical goddess Athena. The Parthenon was built from carved marble. It was partially destroyed in 1687 and remains in ruins today.
The Nashville Parthenon was initially built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. It was rebuilt in the 1920s for stability out of brick and concrete. The Nashville Parthenon is a full-scale replica of the Green Parthenon.

Why is Athena in the Parthenon in Nashville?

The Greek Parthenon was built as a shrine to the mythical goddess Athena. In 1982, the Centennial Park Board hired a sculptor to create a full-scale replica of the Statue of Athena as a tribute to the original Parthenon.

Where can you park at the Parthenon in Nashville?

There is a free parking lot adjacent to the Parthenon and dozens of additional parking spaces throughout Centennial Park.

What is the Nashville Parthenon made of?

The Nashville Parthenon was built from brick, reinforced concrete, and cast concrete.

When was the Nashville Parthenon built?

The initial Nashville Parthenon was built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. From 1921 until 1931, much of the Parthenon was rebuilt for long-term stability.

Why was the Parthenon built in Nashville?

The Parthenon was built in Nashville for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition as an homage to the city’s nickname, “Athens of the South.”

Is the Nashville Parthenon built to scale?

The Nashville Parthenon is a full-scale replica of the original Greek Parthenon.

Who built the Nashville Parthenon?

The Nashville Parthenon was built by contractors for Tennessee to celebrate the state’s centennial.

3 Responses

  1. Wow Jason! I cannot believe I’ve never heard of this place. Especially with so many American travel bloggers as buddies who journey through the Southeast. Amazing attention to detail; eye-popping, really. I cannot get over the fact that it was built to such amazing scale. All in Nashville. Pretty darn neat. Thanks for sharing 🙂


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