The Revitalization of Centennial Park
Native Nashvillians likely have memories of both Centennial Park and the Parthenon that extend just about as far back as their minds can stretch, but it's less likely that most of them know exactly how far back this beloved fixture of Music City really goes — or have any idea about where it’s going.
Long before the Centennial Exposition in 1897 (during which the Parthenon was first erected as a representation of “Athens of the South”) the park’s origins were that of farmland. All 132 acres belonged to John Cockrill and his wife Anne Robertson Johnson Cockrill, who were a part of the initial wave of settlers in what was then called Fort Nashborough. Due to a natural spring on their land, the fertile soil that such a spring afforded, and the farm’s well-traveled location near the entrance of the Natchez Trace, the Cockrills’ farmland was prosperous and widely admired. As Nashville continued to develop throughout the 19th century, the land eventually changed hands, serving as a community gathering spot. First it became the State Fairgrounds, and later it was transformed into a racetrack called West Side Park. In 1897 however, the land fulfilled its pinnacle role as the site for the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition.
The Exposition was the catalyst for turning the space into much of the park we know today: the construction of The Parthenon, Lake Watauga, the sunken gardens, and many of the paths and overall layout of the park took place during that time and still remains today. Starting in the mid-1900’s however, the park began to lose its identity; it was slowly but surely being turned into a neglected dumping ground for Nashville instead of being utilized and loved as a vibrant outdoor space.
Fortunately, things have turned around for the better since then. Founded in 1982, The Conservancy for the Parthenon and Centennial Park has long been working to revitalize the park and turn it into a green space that Nashville can enjoy for years to come. “We want this to be Nashville’s family album; not Nashville’s family attic,” said Sylvia Rapoport, president of The Conservancy. The organization’s mission reads:
to preserve, enhance and share the Parthenon and Centennial Park so that all future generations may benefit from these enriching cultural and educational landmarks.
In 2009 the Conservancy began work on a massive, multi-phase project to catapult Centennial Park and the Parthenon to a whole new glory. They’ve already accomplished quite a bit in the past 9 years — and have even more in the works.
Currently The Conservancy is in Phase II of what could potentially be a six phase project to revitalize and renovate the the park, but with Phase I already complete and considered a success, the future of this 132-acre urban oasis appears to be incredibly promising, very exciting and exquisitely beautiful!
Phase I - Complete
Lake Watauga + Parthenon Environs
After spending more than a century hidden underground, historic Cockrill Spring (which was covered up due to the cholera epidemic that struck Nashville in the mid-1800’s) was located and tapped, greatly enriching the park. “When we initially looked at revitalizing the park about three years ago, we knew we wanted to activate the front corner,” said Sylvia. “One of the engineers was working in that area and he heard water gurgling. Believe it or not, that’s how we discovered the location of the spring!” Located just off West End Avenue in the southwest corner of the park, Cockrill Spring now functions as the centerpiece of the new pedestrian entrance. Possibly most exciting, this wealth of clear, pure water has also made Centennial Park water neutral. “We are actually SITES certified,” Sylvia explained. “We are completely off the grid for water. We don’t pay metro for water and we don’t use metro’s water; Centennial Park is self-sustaining.”
Lake Watauga + Parthenon Environs
Not only does the water from Cockrill Spring serve as a welcome for pedestrians, ushering them onto the grounds, but it is also used to irrigate the park and fill Lake Watauga. “We drained and aerated the whole lake during phase one. And we put in floating islands,” said Sylvia. The floating islands help reduce the growth of unsightly algae and also offer habitat for bugs, birds, aquatic species and plants. “In fact, they already have beehives — so there are 100,000 bees out there [on the floating islands] that are safe and thriving.”
Just left of Cockrill Spring, the recently revamped Musician’s Corner is more popular than ever. With a grove of trees to offer relief from the summer sun, fixed bench seating with primo views of the stage, string lights to set the mood in the evening, and picnic tables to ensure parklovers have a spot to enjoy food from their favorite local food trucks, Musician’s Corner has become one of Nashville’s premier spots for listening to fantastic [and free!] music.
Phase I of the Centennial Park revitalization plan has already made a massive impact on the usability and love-ability of the park. Attendance for the summer concert series at Musician’s Corner has grown leaps and bounds, and the simple act of bringing picnic tables to the surrounding area of Lake Watauga has made a massive impact by getting people to come to — and more importantly stay and enjoy — Centennial Park.
But the reality is, Phase II is a far larger project. Whereas Phase I cost a mere $9.5 million to complete, Phase II is totaling a whopping $30 million. But believe it or not, the Conservancy has almost met their goal: they’ve already raised $24 million. So, what will this next big project be for Centennial Park? Take a look:
Phase II - Breaking Ground this October 2018
Revitalization + Renovation of the Front Lawn
New Event Pavilion + Reimagined Band Shell
8-Acre Play Area
Revitalization + Renovation of the Front Lawn
Centennial Park’s Front Lawn (that being the 28 acres that essentially lies between West End Ave and The Parthenon) is first on the agenda for Phase II. “Currently if you’re standing on West End and you look towards the Parthenon there is a road that kind of bisects the park and obstructs your vision of the actual Parthenon itself,” said Sylvia. “But what we’re going to do is essentially sink the road down — you know, depress it — so that the Parthenon can be seen clearly and really be the focus point of the park.” The great lawn will be flanked by wide walkways and allées of trees, all of which will help intentionally draw the eye and attention towards the park’s crowning jewel. The front lawn will become an ideal spot to throw a frisbee or have a picnic, and art shows and crafts festivals will then be set up along the walkways that run the perimeter. Plus, with the removal of so many spaghetti roads throughout the park and instead streamlining the driving paths to one main road, the park will become much more pedestrian-friendly instead of car-focused. What’s most exciting? Groundbreaking for this portion of phase two is set to happen this October, and *should* be complete within one year!
New Event Pavilion + Reimagined Bandshell
Just a hop, skip and a jump from where the current event pavilion sits, a new and improved events pavilion is in the works. “The current pavilion will be removed, and we are designing and building a new one that will go just across from HCA’s building two.” The bandshell, which currently hosts popular events like Shakespeare in the Park and was formerly home to Movies in the Park, will be reimagined into a larger gathering space with additional coverage and protection from the elements.
Eight Acre Play Area
“This might be my favorite part,” Sylvia said about the roughly eight acre play area that will eclipse the current playground. But it might not be the play area you think: instead of filling the space with jungle gyms, swing sets and seesaws, this play area will be made of naturally occurring play things. Grassy hills, shady trees and winding paths will elicit imaginative play from Nashville’s littlest park-lovers. “There are so many apartments going up nearby, we really wanted to focus on making this a green space. The density in this city has changed dramatically so our vision was to have an expansive green with the front lawn, and then continue it elsewhere,” said Sylvia. And as for the building that currently occupies this well-used portion of the park? “The ultimate goal is for another building to be designed and built to fill the spot that the Centennial Black Box Theater currently hold,” she explained. “But we don’t want to delay the building for the play area so we’re going to figure out how to incorporate [the pre existing building] into the current plans. We’ll paint it bright colors and make it fun. It’s a very utilitarian place that is used daily, so we don’t want to lose that.
And don’t forget: that’s just Phase II...and there is the potential to go so far as to a Phase VI. That’s SIX! Beyond the plans mentioned above, extensive ideas for the park include a nightly light show at the Parthenon, a wedding garden for intimate ceremonies, a reflecting pool, and so much more. “What we really want is for people to be using and enjoying the park!” Sylvia said. “We’re not trying to do just a horticulturally exquisite park; that’s not the goal. The real idea is to activate the park and to get people to use it.”