In 1901 Nashville's first Board of Park Commissioners convened. An independent body, many of the members had been on committees for the Centennial Exposition and were embracing the concept that cities should provide parks as a respite for urban dwellers. To overcome financial hurdles, Percy Warner, the owner of Nashville Railway and Light Company, purchased the first 72 acres of the exposition grounds and donated it to the Park Board in 1902. Percy Warner would become one of the greatest supporters of Nashville parks. In 1903, Centennial Park opened as Nashville's first large public park.
Development of Centennial Park parallels national trends in urban park development. In the first two decades as a park, a significant number of monuments and structures were added to the landscape: the Robertson Monument, the Smith Memorial, the Women's Monument, the Confederate Private Monument, the John W. Thomas Monument, and the concrete bridge over Lake Watauga. The park followed the prominent idea from the turn-of-the-century that parks should be a place of leisure and relaxation. The commemorative nature of many of the objects in the park brought a sense of reflection into a natural environment.
However the Commissioners also embraced the Parks and Playground Movements of the early twentieth century. Believing Nashville parks could not only serve as places for quiet communion with nature, but also the site for active recreation, a playground was added in 1909. By 1916, a community center was constructed and organized athletics were promoted. Nashville seamlessly moved into the Recreation Movement era. A swimming pool and bathhouse (now used as an Art Center) were added to Centennial Park in 1932. Following World War II, there was a transition from classical architecture to a decidedly more modern feel. The Croquet/Event Pavilion was added in 1958 and the Croquet Clubhouse in 1963. Representative of advances in technology, Locomotive 576 and the F-86 Aircraft Monument were added.
Ultimately, the Board of Parks Commissioners was disbanded when Nashville went to a metropolitan form of government in 1963. The Board of Parks and Recreation was created in the new government and the park shifted into a fully modern park. The department continues to maintain Centennial Park as a vibrant and dynamic area that attempts to represent both the past and the present of Nashville, while at the same time creating an inviting environment for its citizens to enjoy.
The Parthenon, Lake Watauga, and the Rose Arbor are all current park features that date back to the beginning - the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Conceived to celebrate Tennessee's 100th anniversary of statehood, the Exposition incorporated 20 temporary buildings on a 200-acre site. Previously a racetrack, the property began to take the form of the park we are familiar with today. The Exposition ran from May 1, 1897 to October 31, 1897, and in those six months 1.8 million people visited.