Parthenon, Nashville, via Wikimedia Commons.
Living in a relatively youthful country that’s a mere 241 years old, it’s understandable that some Americans might decide to import a little extra history from abroad. There is a faux-Venice in Las Vegas, and a Stonehenge II in Texas which, like all sequels, is not as good as the first one.
But Nashville, Tennessee’s full-scale replica of the Parthenon, while seemingly random, isn’t gimmicky. Instead, the structure, created in 1897, provides an awe-inspiring look at the iconic Athens structure badly damaged hundreds of years ago. Created with an incredible attention to historical accuracy—and boasting a 42-foot-tall gold-coated sculpture of Athena—Nashville’s Parthenon is simply awesome.
This American Parthenon was originally intended to be temporary. Built at the tail-end of the 19th century for the Centennial Exposition in Tennessee, the recreated Parthenon served as the festival’s art gallery and spoke to the city’s self-declared reputation as the “Athens of the South.” (Not to be outdone, Memphis built a Pyramid as a reminder that the city was named after Memphis, Egypt.)
The building restored the aspects of the original Parthenon that were lost or damaged: metopes running along the outside of the building and the sculptures on the pediment, which depict various scenes from Greek mythology.
Over the course of six months, the Exposition drew almost 2 million people—20 times the population of Nashville at the time. By the time the fair ended, the unique building had grown on the local population. “Who will be the man that will strike the first blow at the Parthenon?” asked Nashville orator Tully Brown at the time. The answer, it turns out, was no one—and the building has stood ever since.
Photo by Geoff Stearns, via Flickr.
Since it was never meant for the long haul, the Nashville Parthenon started rapidly deteriorating. It eventually became a safety hazard. Massive renovations were undertaken in 1920, overseen by an architect named Russell Hart, who committed to making the building both enduring and as historically true to the original Parthenon as possible. The entire exterior was essentially rebuilt using concrete and covered in an aggregate. Casts of the so-called Elgin marbles and other artifacts from the Parthenon were used to ensure accuracy of the frieze and pediment, with sculptors making educated guesses to fill in the missing fragments. As was the case with the original Parthenon, Nashville’s version has nary a straight line to it, with columns and walls bulging out in what the Greeks called entasis.
The renovation efforts hit financial trouble during the Great Depression. Plans to build a version of the statue of Athena that formerly stood inside the original Parthenon, and to recreate the Ionic frieze that ran along the interior of the damaged structure, were shelved. Instead of a full-scale sculpture of Athena, the builders in Nashville deposited a miniature maquette version in the Parthenon’s east room.
After a donation box was placed next to it in the 1960s, “people just nickled and dimed it over roughly 15 to 20 years,” eventually raising almost $30,000, said Wesley Paine, director of the Parthenon. Those funds became the seed money used to create a statue.
Still, it took eight more years and a total of $250,000 to build the Athena, which was unveiled in May of 1990. Tourists and Tennesseans today get a much better look at the statue in Nashville than the plebs of ancient Greece, who are believed to have glimpsed the inside of the Greek Parthenon only on special occasions.
In recreating the design attributed to the original sculptor Phidias, Nashville native Alan LeQuire created a 42-foot-tall Athena, with a 6-foot-4-inch statue of the goddess Nike in her hand. Stories of war and conflict are illustrated across Athena’s shield and pedestal, and a golden snake—perhaps symbolizing the Athenian people—stands protected between the goddess and her shield. While the replica appears opulent, concessions were made: The original was coated in over 2,400 pounds of gold leaf, whereas Nashville’s version boasts just eight pounds.
LeQuire echoed Phidias in some subtle, humorous ways as well. Phidias’s enemies in ancient Greece accused him of embezzling gold from the Parthenon project, accusations the sculptor successfully disavowed. His enemies then charged that Phidias was arrogant and impious for putting images of his face and that of Pericles, who ruled Athens at the time, on Athena’s shield.
“Either that was true, or he didn’t feel like he had a good defense, because he left town,” said Paine. Echoing this history, the figures along the pedestal of the Nashville Athena all relate to Phidias’s fate—but instead of the ancient artist they depict LeQuire, his family, the project’s donors, and the assistant sculptors.
Parthenon, Nashville. Photo by Dani Chalkr.
Despite this intricate attention to detail, there are some significant differences between the Parthenon in Nashville and the one atop the Acropolis in Athens. For one thing, guests walk through a park to approach the Tennessee version—perhaps after grabbing a quick lunch at a Wendy’s nearby—and they encounter it from the building’s side or front. The original Parthenon was intentionally situated so that visitors could only approach it from behind. There’s also a fine art museum housed in lower level of Nashville Parthenon.
Each structure’s basic materials also differ significantly. The original was constructed from gleaming marble. Nashville’s Parthenon is concrete, with massive bronze doors (as opposed to the original’s wooden ones).
But compared to the contemporary ruins in Greece, the Nashville Parthenon boasts a major historical detail: polychromy. Along with parts of the exterior and interior of the building proper, the massive gold Athena statue is painted in bright colors. It’s jarring, and even a bit goofy-looking by today’s standards, given that we’re used to the erroneous idea that ancient times were dominated by a simple, unadorned white marble aesthetic. In actuality, the ancient Greeks painted all of their statues: Seeing them emblazoned in green, red, blue, and other colors is more historically accurate. It also rights the long-held and historically incorrect view of the ancient past as one dominated by whiteness.
And like the original, the Nashville Parthenon has become something of a tourist trap, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. So while it feels odd to write this, it’s true: You haven’t really seen the Parthenon until you’ve been to Nashville, Tennessee.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory