Nashville's Parthenon is such a precise copy that even ancient Greeks might be momentarily confused.
Nashville's Parthenon is such a precise copy that even ancient Greeks might be momentarily confused.

Parthenon and Statue of Athena

Field review by the editors.

Nashville, Tennessee

The least likely place to find the most perfect replica of the Greek Parthenon would seem to be in in the Country Music Capital of the World. But before Nashville was Country Strong it was "The Athens of the South," a city that prided itself as a center of learning and enlightenment. When Nashville hosted Tennessee's Centennial Exposition in 1897, the city wanted to remind everyone of its "Athens" claim, so it built a temporary full-size replica Parthenon (The original is in Athens). The site later became Centennial Park, and the temporary temple was so popular that the city replaced it with a permanent one in 1931.

The tallest indoor statue in the U.S. is a pagan goddess. Covered in real gold, too.
The tallest indoor statue in the U.S. is a pagan goddess. Covered in real gold, too.

Soon after that, the singing hillbillies and honky-tonkers came to town, and the Parthenon has been weirdly out-of-place ever since.

"People ask all the time, 'Why is this here?'" said Wesley Paine, the Parthenon's director. "I've had visitors say they only found out about it at the real Parthenon in Greece. The tour guides told them about it."

Inside the Parthenon, a small museum showcases souvenir spoons from 1897.
Inside the Parthenon, a small museum showcases souvenir spoons from 1897.

To make Nashville's Parthenon complete, a colossal statue of the goddess Athena had to be built inside it. But the Great Depression dried up funds. Visitors to the Parthenon were instead greeted by a small model of the statue and a donation box. The nickels and dimes slowly added up, and in 1982 construction at last began on Athena. It took sculptor Alan LeQuire eight years to complete, and a lot more time and donated money before he could paint and gild the goddess in real gold in 2002. After more than a hundred years, work finally ended at the Parthenon.

"At the time," said Wesley, "some people said it was just a horrible thing for this pagan statue to be in a city park. They implied that it was created with government money, and it was not." But, she added, "we could not have bought such great publicity. Our critics spread the word far and wide."

Athena stands 42 feet tall -- the tallest indoor statue in the U.S. -- and with her giant companion snake and crazy eyes she's an eerie sight in the temple gloom. Visitors lower their voices in her presence, then try to imitate her pose in their photos. A tiny (human size) Nike stands in her upturned palm, crowning her with a wreath of victory. If you look closely you can spot other gods and creatures: Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Pegasus, fighting Amazons, a Sphinx, and the severed head of serpent-haired Medusa. "Great attention was paid to accuracy and detail," said Wesley. "This really is the only place in the world you can go and see what the ancient Greeks intended."

A parade of pagan gods fill the pediments on both ends of the Parthenon.
A parade of pagan gods fill the pediments on both ends of the Parthenon.

Tosh Williams, a docent who was overseeing Athena's hall when we visited, told us that pagan visitors sometimes lay flowers at the statue's feet. A woman, who Tosh guessed was not pagan, once backed away in horror when she saw Athena. Another woman, whose husband held a Bible, wanted to sing hymns to counteract the statue's pagan juju. "She was polite," said Tosh, "but I told her, 'No thank you. You might disturb our other guests.'"

We asked Wesley what she found to be the most unexpected thing in this unexpected attraction. Wesley replied that she was surprised by how often visitors mispronounce its name. "I've heard it called the Para-thon, the Pan-theon, the Paree-theon," she said. "My personal favorite is the Park-anon -- because it's in a park."

Parthenon and Statue of Athena

Centennial Park

Address:
2600 W. End Ave., Nashville, TN
Directions:
I-440 exit 1. Drive east on West End Ave., then turn left at 26th Ave. into Centennial Park.
Hours:
Tu-Sa 9-4:30, Su 12:30-4:30 (Call to verify)
Phone:
615-862-8431
Admission:
Adults $6, kids $4
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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Suffragists StatueSuffragists Statue, Nashville, TN - < 1 mi.
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In the region:
NashTrash Tour, Nashville, TN - 2 mi.

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July 22, 2018

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