Early in the city's history, Nashville acquired the nickname "Athens of the West," because of the emphasis on education, especially a classical education, which included studies in Greek and Latin. As the United States spread ever westward, Nashville ceased to be on the frontier and the nickname changed to "Athens of the South." It was a firmly established sobriquet by 1895, when Tennessee began planning an exposition in celebration of its first 100 years of statehood. Following the lead of Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the planners of the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition chose a neo-classical style for the buildings. When Nashville offered to build the art pavilion for the fair, the natural choice for the Athens of the South was a replica of the Parthenon. Built as a full-scale replica only on the outside, the interior was a series of galleries for the display of paintings and sculptures gathered from around the world for the Exposition. This replica was intended to be a temporary structure, as were all the exposition buildings, but it so filled Nashville's collective imagination that the city decided to leave it standing as a civic monument and art center.
Although sturdily built with a stone foundation and brick walls, the structure had a temporary nature, apparent in the surface coatings and columns made of lath and plaster and the sculpture made entirely of plaster. The building began to deteriorate, and although it was repeatedly repaired, safety eventually required that it be demolished or completely rebuilt in a permanent material.
In 1920, the Park Board made the decision not to demolish the Parthenon. Nashville architect Russell E. Hart was engaged as the architect for the reconstruction and William B. Dinsmoor, eminent architectural historian and author of The Architecture of Ancient Greece, agreed to act as a consulting architect. The Centennial Parthenon had been an exterior copy only and not a completely accurate one at that. During the rebuilding, which took place from 1921 to 1931, great pains were taken to correct faulty measurements, to make use of all the latest scholarly judgments and archaeological evidence, and to reproduce all the optical refinements of the original. The replica was to be complete inside as well as out.
Expense, of course, was a consideration, and reinforced concrete was selected as the optimum building material to balance permanence and cost. But concrete looks nothing like Pentelic marble and has the added disadvantage of being a rather cold and uninviting material. To counteract this latter difficulty, the builders chose to sheath the structural concrete in a concrete aggregate veneer developed by John Early of Washington, D.C.
Casts of the original Parthenon's pedimental fragments, known as the Elgin Marbles, were purchased from the Victoria and Albert Museum so that sculptors Leopold and Belle Kinney Scholz could be as accurate as possible when recreating the pediments. After the molds were made and the final pedimental figures cast, the plaster casts remained as part of the Parthenon's permanent exhibits.
In order that the Parthenon might continue to serve the Nashville community as an art center, a lower level was added to house twentieth-century art galleries and to provide support facilities for the entire structure. The lower floor and contemporary building material are the most obvious points at which the Nashville replica deviates from the original. But there were two more major differences: the building lacked its centerpiece, the huge statue of the goddess Athena, and the Ionic Frieze that surround the cella walls. The Scholzes made a proposal to the Park Board in 1931 to create both, but the Great Depression caused the project to be postponed indefinitely. In 1963, when Nashville reorganized into a metropolitan form of government, the Parthenon came under the management of the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation.
In the 1980s the Athena Fund (the first incarnation of The Conservancy) was established to raise funds for the recreation of Athena. By 1990, Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire had completed the splendid recreation of the goddess of wisdom and war, and the Parthenon took a giant step toward being a truly complete replica of the building which symbolizes, for so many, the civilization to which we owe so much. In 2004, The Conservancy funded the gilding of Athena.