Parthenon Parallels

Parthenon Centennial Park

Nashville may be a long way from Greece, but the city’s Centennial Park may be as close as you can come without leaving the United States. Also, until the Greek ministry completes its restoration and reconstruction of the original Parthenon, the Nashville replica may be the closest you can come to the building as it was built by the Greeks in 400 B.C. anywhere.

The Parthenon, from the Greek word parthenos, meaning maiden or virgin, was built as a home for Athena, the protectoress of Athens. While the original Parthenon was used initially as a treasury, it was later used for a variety of religious purposes. It was once a Christian Church, and later a Mosque. In 1687, an ammunition dump inside the building was ignited. The resulting explosion severely damaged the Parthenon and its sculptures.

The structure in Nashville has had a little better luck, but its survival into the present time was not assured. Nashville’s Parthenon was originally built as a temporary structure for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition. Like the World’s Columbia Exhibition in Chicago five years before (to celebrate the anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the New World), the celebration was late: Tennessee became a state in 1796. Originally built of plaster, wood, and brick, Nashville’s Parthenon was rebuilt in the 1920s on the same foundations, but with concrete.

Nashville’s Parthenon replica was built at a time of a rebirth of interest in Greek and classical architecture in the United States. The 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago gave birth to the City Beautiful Movement which saw the construction of classical buildings and grand boulevards from Cleveland to San Francisco. Nashville’s replica is a fine surviving remnant of the movement. The bronze entrance doors on the east and west sides are the largest of their kind in the world. The pediment reliefs were created from direct casts of the originals in Athens.

While visitors to the Parthenon in Greece are treated to a construction site, visitors to Nashville’s replica can enjoy an art museum containing American landscape paintings and an expanse of green known as Centennial Park.

Once known as the “Athens of the South,” Nashville is not the only place where one can get a taste of the Parthenon in the United States. When Steel Magnate Andrew Carnegie stood on a Pittsburgh hilltop pondering an “Athens of the North” which would become Pittsburgh’s cultural center, what he had in mind was a cultural facility that would collect the old masters of tomorrow.

To house them, and perhaps to lend them some continuity from the ages, a neo-classical building in the spirit of the City Beautiful movement was erected to house an art gallery, natural science museum, library, and music hall. Later the building would be adapted to include a room based on the Partenon’s original interior space. While the original building designed by Longfellow, Alden, and Harlow was begun during the World’s Columbia Exhibition in Chicago, the Hall of Architecture, modeled on the Parthenon’s cella, or inner sanctuary, was designed and added by Alden and Harlow in 1907, twelve years before Mr. Carnegie’s death.

The expansion further embraced the Greek tradition and provided halls for exhibiting casts of sculpture and architectural elements from Greece and Rome, as well as an opulent music hall foyer that rises 45 feet to an elaborate carved and gilded baroque ceiling atop colossal columns of green Tinos marble from Greece. Moreover, the Hall of Sculpture is crafted of Pentelic marble from the same Greek quarries that supplied the stone for the Parthenon. The Hall of Architecture, which includes casts of the original Parthenon pediment friezes, was created when collections of architectural plaster casts were numerous. Today the collection is unique in America and remains one of the three largest collections still on exhibit in the world. The collection also includes the largest cast in the world, the facade of the French 12th-century Abbey Church of St.-Gilles-du-Gard.

While to the unknowing viewer the casts may seem like mere copies of the originals, some of the original sculptures cast have deteriorated to the point where the casting actually more closely resembles the original form.

In the Hall of Architecture sits a smaller replica of the Parthenon created by students at Carnegie Mellon University, a school as dear to Andrew Carnegie as the Museum.

Athens, of course, is named for the Goddess Athena. While a statue of Athena once stood in the Parthenon, today the only place to get a full sense of the building and the sculpture is in Nashville. Other replicas and recreations of Athena exist, but Nashville is the only place where Athena and her house are seen together.

The statue of Athena wasn’t in place for Tennessee’s late birthday in 1897; rather, she was unveiled in 1990. Nashville’s Athena was created by artist Alan LeQuire and was modeled on descriptions given of the original. The modern version took eight years to complete.

The original Athena was created by Pheidias, known as the greatest sculptor of classical antiquity. The statue was unveiled and dedicated in 438 or 437 B.C. While it no longer exists, Athena appears on Athenian coins of the second and first centuries B.C. Later, Romans copied the statue in small-scale. Even today on the Acropolis you can see the outline of Athena’s base in the Parthenon.

The honor that Nashville holds may be short-lived, however. On a recent guided tour through the Hall of Architecture in the Carnegie Museum of Art, I thought I heard that a statue of Athena would soon adorn that space.

In any case, Centennial Park in Nashville and the Carnegie Museum of Art are great places to go to learn about Athena and the Parthenon, not to mention the British Museum in London (where the original ‘Elgin Marbles’ the Nashville reliefs were cast from are housed), the Louvre (where a Roman replica of Athena is on display), and the Greek and Roman Galleries in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Oh, and if that’s all old hat, you might even consider a journey to see the Parthenon itself .

 

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me