Capitol Hill: Tennessee's Temple of DemocracyWhen Nashville's foundering Cumberland College persuaded a distinguished classical scholar to take the reins as chancellor in 1824, the city first came under the spell of Grecian influence. Abandoning the presidency of Princeton and dismissing offers from other preeminent American institutions, Reverend Phillip Lindsley determined to transform Nashville from a frontier backwater to a center of civilization and learning of a type that existed in ancient Greece. To this end, Lindsley coined the sobriquet "Athens of the Southwest" for his adopted city. (Later, when Tennessee was no longer at the nation's western border, the nickname became "Athens of the South.")
With the first public school system in a southern city (1855) and more than 20 institutions of higher learning today, Nashville has certainly fulfilled Lindsley's vision as a center of education. A beacon of his success in establishing a Grecophilic climate in Tennessee's capital city sits high atop a hill in the heart of downtown— the 1859 statehouse.
|Tennessee's Capitol Hill (photo from Franklin /Nashville Fun Times Guide)|
To gain admittance to this Greek Revival temple of democracy, visitors must first overcome the hurdle of locating a parking place. Though a few cars are permitted at the summit, that privilege is reserved for the elite of state government. Acres of lined pavement at the bottom of the hill are the realm of lower level public employees. For the general public, those of us whose importance is overshadowed by even the humblest of bureaucrats, tracking down a repository for your vehicle generates sincere sympathy for the lab rats forced to navigate a maze for sustenance.
|Don't even think about it!|
|One of the nation's most magnificent public buildings when it was completed in 1859|
Strickland's original design called for three floors, two above ground and a bottom floor 'crypt' (above grade) which housed furnaces and fuel as well as the state arsenal with more than 8,000 weapons. As part of a 1957 renovation, the crypt was excavated to augment inadequate office space. A tunnel was installed, providing access from the street level to the revised ground floor.
|Strickland based the cupola design on the Lantern of Demosthenes monument in Athens.|
Designed as a Greek Ionic temple, the capitol was built entirely of stone, much of it native Tennessee marble and limestone quarried less than a mile from the site. (Most of the limestone had to be replaced in subsequent renovations due to cracks caused by ice forming in its veins.) With their massive stone columns and vaulted ceilings, the cavernous halls of the building create echo chambers that grab every conversational word and toss it around in a discordant cacophony.
|3rd floor hallway near Senate Chamber|
|Rising almost 22 feet, columns in the House chamber were each formed from a single shaft of Nashville limestone.|
|The original state library|
|Original Tennessee Supreme Court Chambers|
|Identical copies of this statue are on display near the White House, at New Orleans' Jackson Square, and in Jacksonville, FL.|
|The Polk Tomb|
|Andrew Johnson statue|
Though free tours were available hourly, we opted for the self-guided version with an informative brochure. Parking was far more challenging than at any of the 14 other state capitol buildings we have visited, and the legislature wasn't even in session. Another striking departure from our experience in other states was Tennessee's security procedures.
Whereas we've become accustomed to walking through metal detectors and submitting our bags for x-ray screenings, Georgia had been the only state to ask us to produce a photo ID, which the security guard examined and returned. At the Tennessee capitol, we were asked specifically to present our driver's licenses. We were quite taken aback when the sentry submitted our licenses to an electronic scanner, creating not only a copy of our IDs but also stick-on name badges with our license photo to wear while we were in the building. When we asked why this privacy-invading measure was necessary, the guard creatively (and falsely) accused Homeland Security of establishing the requirement. Then he cheerfully added, "Now there's a record that you visited the Tennessee Capitol!" as though we should be thrilled to have our personal information recorded in their database for no legitimate reason so that any careless state employee can subject us and thousands of other innocent visitors to the thrill of identity theft.
Perched dramatically on its hill and meticulously maintained, the Tennessee State Capitol is a fitting tribute to its designers and builders and a source of pride to Tennesseeans. No doubt, Reverend Lindsley would be delighted with its elegant and classical appearance. We liked it, too. If parking were a little more accessible and security measures a lot less intrusive, we'd like it a great deal more.
Tennessee Capitol Stats:
- Elevation of Capitol Hill: 568 ft.
- Building height: 207 ft.
- Original cost estimate: $340,000
- Actual original cost: $879,981
- Original time estimate: 3 years
- Actual construction time: 15 years (1845-1859)
- Major renovations & restorations: 1957, late 1980s
- Thickness of exterior walls: 4.5 feet
- Thickness of average mortar joint: less than 0.2 inches
- Weight of each stone: 12,000 to 20,000 lbs.
More Tennessee Capitol Photos
|Union soldiers camped in tents on the capitol grounds during the occupation. (photo from Tennessee Archives)|
|The Senate Chamber|
|Ceiling of the Senate Chamber|
|Ionic column detail on capitol portico|
|Massive columns of the House Chamber|
|Plenty of casual seating for visitors and legislators|
|Replica of the Liberty Bell used as a monument to Tennessee music|
|Nashville's full-size replica of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, serves as an art museum.|