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Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 Auditorium Building

2011 October 12

Another glass negative identified!  This is the Auditorium Building at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897.  It must have been a long trip from Texas to Tennessee in the late 1890’s by this photographer. Still don’t know who took the photos but thanks to help from Mark D. Cowan at the Texas Historical Commission I now know where this big building is located and the photo was taken before the opening of the Exposition in 1897. Sadly this building was torn down. Within two years, all but three of the Exposition buildings were torn down.

Glass plate negative owned by wilkinsonranch.com


Photographer: Calvert Bros. & Taylor

#27166, THS 193, Box 13, Folder 6, http://tnsos.org/tsla/imagesearch/index.php?resultpage=4&find=exposition

Organizers of Nashville’s 1897 exposition envisioned the event as a way to lift the city and state out of the economic doldrums that remained from the 1893 depression. In addition, the event promoted the city’s potential as a leader for an educational and commercial revival in the New South, while paying homage to the memory of the Old South. The exposition buildings, monuments, sham battles, parades, and special days blended old and new to promote the city and state’s noble past and promising future.

The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition was an exposition staged between May 1 and October 31 of 1897 in Nashville. It celebrated the 100th anniversary of Tennessee‘s entry into the union in 1796, although it was a year late.

Many cities and organizations built buildings and exhibit halls on the Exposition grounds, conveniently located on the streetcar line on the western fringe of the city. Among the most prominent were those of Nashville itself, and its nearby rival, Memphis. Nashville designed its pavilion after the Parthenon in Greece due to the city’s nickname as The Athens of the South. Memphis’s exhibit, in honor of its Egyptian name, was a large pyramid. These structures no longer exist, but they have their echoes in both cities today. Nashville’s temporary Parthenon was reconstructed in permanent materials in a project lasting from 1920 to 1931 and still stands today as an art gallery on the original exposition grounds, which became Centennial Park. In the 1990s, Memphis built a new sports arena, the Pyramid Arena, in the shape of a large pyramid, by the Mississippi River.

Other attractions on the grounds were the Negro Pavilion, the gondolas on Lake Watauga (which is still a feature of the park today) and the Egyptian Pavilion with its belly dancers. The Centennial Exposition was a great success and is still considered one of the most notable events ever to be held in the state. Unlike most World’s Fairs, it did not lose money, although the final accounting showed a direct profit of less than $50.

The bird’s-eye view chromolithograph above by The Henderson Litho. Co., Cincinnati, 1896. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Tennessee_Centennial_Exposition_1897_%28LOC_ppmsca.03354%29.jpg

More photos: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95501846/

Within two years of the close of the Centennial Exposition, all of the buildings had been torn down with the exception of three, The Parthenon, The Alabama Building and the Knights of Pythias building, which was later removed and became a private residence in Franklin Tennessee. When it came time to remove the Parthenon, there was such a revolt in Nashville, that the demolition was halted.  The Parthenon replica built with its temporary materials lasted for 23 years. In 1920 because of the popularity of the structure, the city of Nashville, over the next 11 years replaced the plaster, wood and brick building using permanent materials, and that version still stands today.

Today, the Parthenon (rebuilt in 1931 as a permanent structure) and Lake Watauga are the only remaining evidence of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897. Over 100 years ago, visitors strolling the grounds of today’s Centennial Park marveled at grand structures, played in Vanity Fair, stood awe-struck by the sight of the Parthenon, and gasped in amazement at the nightly display of gleaming white buildings outlined against the sky by thousands of electric lights.

Trains and trolleys brought visitors to the park and deposited riders at terminals on the north and southeast entrances. Visitors entering the main gates on the south (near the present-day entrance to the park) passed Lake Katherine. Three additional lakes dotted the landscape: Lake Watauga offered gondola rides and could be crossed by a copy of the exotic Rialto Bridge; Lily Lake (now the site of the park’s sunken flower garden northwest of the Parthenon); and Lake Sevier (to the east, behind the present-day Centennial Sportsplex). In addition, shade arbors, statues (including a large statue of Athena outside the east entrance of the Parthenon), and fountains graced the park grounds.

More than a dozen major exhibit buildings comprised the core of what was nicknamed the “White City” (recollecting the famous White City of the Chicago World’s Fair a few years previous). The buildings located in the center of the park were devoted to civic pride. These buildings included the U.S. Government Building, the History Building, the Auditorium, and the two most impressive structures: the Nashville Parthenon which served as the Art Pavilion and the Shelby County Pyramid.

Buildings located along the eastern flank of the central grounds included Minerals and Forestry, the Negro Building, and the Machinery Building. The large Agriculture Building fronted by cotton and tobacco fields marked the northern boundary of the central park area. Continuing south along the western flank of the central grounds, visitors saw buildings devoted to Transportation, Education and Hygiene, and to Commerce, as well as the Children’s Building, the Woman’s Building and a club house for gentlemen.

Exhibition buildings were also provided by states (including New York, Texas, and Alabama), cities, such as Knoxville, and fraternal organizations such as Woodsmen of the World, Knights of Pythias, and the Red Men (housed in an elaborate wigwam). A number of popular restaurants also dotted the grounds. The tents of military personnel
and fields for athletic events and battle reenactments lined the eastern edge of the park, at the site of today’s Centennial Sportsplex.

A section of the park called Vanity Fair (west of Lily Lake) was the most popular area for children. Loaded with attractions and rides, this part of the exposition grounds included the mysteries of the Moorish Palace, a Cuban Village, and the Streets of Cairo. Visitors could view silent motion pictures at the Edison Mirage, visit a gold mine, see an animal show, or relive the Civil War at the Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg. Children of all ages enjoyed the carousel and other rides – from the camels in Cairo to water rides, and a giant see-saw that lifted riders high above the Exposition grounds.

Imagine the excitement of visitors – most from rural areas – who experienced for the first time the thrill of electric lights, the novelty of foreign lands, and the pride of state and national accomplishments.


The Nashville and Memphis pavilions at night, seen over Watauga Lake, with the Commerce Building at rear. A rare sight.

Sources:

1. The Official History of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville 1897, Herman Justi, editor (Nashville, TN: Centennial Committee on Publications, 1898).

2. John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992): 27-33.

3. Don Doyle, Nashville In the New South, 1880-1930 (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1985): 3, 143-149.

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).

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