Capitol Hill: Tennessee's Temple of Democracy

Thursday, July 18, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

When 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!
Street after street offered up an endless assortment of 'No Parking' injunctions.  After 20 minutes of zigzagging in ever wider circles around the capitol, we began weighing whether we should abandon the car or the visit.  Just before we made a choice, we scored a streetside metered space a mere 76 blocks from the statehouse (or maybe it was only 67).  Fortunately, the sun was beating down relentlessly, so there was no danger of getting caught in rain during our hike.

One of the nation's most magnificent public buildings when it was completed in 1859
Awaiting us at the end of our sweaty journey was the graceful Greek Revival creation of acclaimed Philadelphia architect William Strickland, who considered the Tennessee Capitol building his crowning achievement.  After he was awarded the contract to design the statehouse in 1845, Strickland relocated to Nashville to supervise the construction but died five years before its completion.  The state granted his wish to remain with his masterpiece and entombed him above the cornerstone at the north end of the foundation.  Legend has it that late at night a phantom Strickland can still occasionally be heard bickering with the spirit of Samuel Morgan, the state's uncompromising building commission chairman, whose tomb is located in the capitol's south end.

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. 
Just three years after its completion, the capitol's strategic hilltop location made it a tantalizing target for Union troops.  Happily for Strickland, Nashville surrendered without a shot being fired, so his masterpiece remained unscathed.  The Union Army seized the new building, fortified it, and designated it Fortress Andrew Johnson from 1862 to 1865, the first of several state capitols to fall to opposing forces.  Only after Federal occupation ended was implementation of long-neglected landscaping plans finally begun.

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
Wisely, the acoustics of the legislative chambers are tempered by the addition of sound-absorbing materials such as carpeting and draperies, limiting the disharmony of debates to their mere content.  The House chamber accommodates 99 members, the Senate 33.  Both chambers were originally furnished with gasoliers, which were converted to electricity in 1895.

Rising almost 22 feet, columns in the House chamber were each formed from a single shaft of Nashville limestone.
Near the Senate chamber, the state library has been restored to its mid-nineteenth century appearance.  Though only used for ceremonial purposes, the room is still graced with cast iron stacks and galleries and crowned by a stunning spiral staircase connecting the various stack levels.

The original state library
After the Supreme Court moved into its own building in 1938, its original chamber at the capitol, like the library, was partitioned into office spaces.  In the 1988 preservation project, dividing walls were removed and the Supreme Court was also returned to its former 1850s era grandeur, creating an elegant space for formal state events.    

Original Tennessee Supreme Court Chambers
Like North Carolina, Tennessee lays claim to three U.S. Presidents—Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson.  All three were born in North Carolina and moved to Tennessee before their election to the Presidency.  And each is honored with both a portrait and a bust within the capitol building as well as a monument on capitol grounds. In 1880, on the occasion of the city's centennial celebration, a crowd of thousands flocked to the capitol to witness the unveiling of Clark Mills' bronze equestrian statue of favorite son Andrew Jackson on the east lawn.

Identical copies of this statue are on display near the White House, at New Orleans' Jackson Square, and in Jacksonville, FL.
Some ten years later, the Polk Tomb, final resting place of President Polk and his wife Sarah, was moved from his former home in Nashville to a spot near the Jackson statue on the grounds of the capitol.  The tomb was designed by capitol architect William Strickland.

The Polk Tomb
As the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the Union at the onset of the Civil War, Andrew Johnson, Tennessee's third President, was not greeted with popular acclaim at home.  After he was appointed military governor of Tennessee during the Federal occupation, Johnson's heavy-handed efforts to return the local populace to Union allegiance further eroded his esteem.  It was not until 1995 that a statue of Johnson was finally erected at the capitol.

Andrew Johnson statue
Other notable Tennesseans honored with likenesses in the building and on the grounds include first governor John Sevier, pioneer oceanographer Matthew F. Maury, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, statesman Cordell Hull, young Confederate hero Sam Davis, newspaperman Edward Carmack, and World War I medalist Sgt. Alvin C. York.  Significantly, all of these were dedicated before the monument to the reprobate Andrew Johnson.

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
Ground floor
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.