Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in downtown Nashville is unique in the Tennessee State Park system. This urban park was designed and built from scratch. Recently, I’ve been learning about the creation of this park and the significance of its various design elements. (To see what the park looks like at night from above, see my post from February 2021.)
On May 18, I watched a Tennessee State Museum presentation by Kem Hinton, the lead architect who designed the park. Hinton has published a book entitled, “Tennessee’s Bicentennial Mall.” During his presentation, he explained the history of this area and how he wanted the park to be an outdoor museum for Tennesseans. His theme for the project was “The Land. The People. The Music.”
On June 1, I attended a tour of the park led by Ranger Jackson Gibson. The tour was part of this year's Statehood Day celebration; Tennessee became a state on June 1, 1796. Bicentennial opened in 1996 to commemorate Tennessee’s 200th birthday.
We began our tour on the side of the park in front of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Ranger Gibson described how this half of the park focuses on nature, and the other focuses on history. This side has different trees and plants to reflect the three divisions of the state: East, Middle, and West. Even the state’s topography is reflected here. In the section dedicated to East Tennessee, the berms are high (photo on the right) to reflect the mountainous territory, and they get lower through the Middle Tennessee section until becoming completely flat in the West Tennessee section (photo on the left).
The sidewalk here has circular plaques set into the concrete, one for each county. These are actually time capsules set to be opened in 2096. I found this April 28, 1996 article from The Tennessean describing these time capsules; it mentions that moonshine and whiskey are some of the buried items.
Pieces of the original State Capitol columns are here. Because they were made of limestone, they had to be replaced with sturdier material.
The park has an amphitheater which can seat 2,000 people, and at the end of the park closest to the Capitol, there are 31 fountains for each of Tennessee’s 31 major rivers. A trough representing the Mississippi River runs in front of the wall near these fountains to represent how all of the rivers empty into the Mississippi. The fountains need some maintenance and aren’t currently running.
We also saw a recent addition to the wall in this section of the park: a mark indicating the height of the water in the park from the 2010 flood.
Trains still run over a white train trestle in front of the Capitol, and the park’s visitors’ center is underneath it. A granite map of the state stretches over 200 feet on the concrete in front of the trestle.
On the other side of the park, the side next to the Farmer’s Market and the Tennessee State Museum, a long stone wall extends its whole length. You can read about the history of the state on the wall beginning from one billion years ago to 1996. Tall obelisks mark each decade. Hinton explained that his inspiration for these came from the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie.
If you walk along the wall, you’ll see a fountain commemorating McNairy Spring that once was here. Further along, the wall breaks apart on text about secession during the Civil War. The wall is in chunks in the section dedicated to the Civil War years to reflect the turmoil of the period.
The state’s Centennial celebration is remembered with a monument featuring a large tree and stone panels describing the festivities including the construction of the Parthenon.
A World War II Memorial features large stone columns describing notable events of the war. There are seven benches here, one for each Tennessean who received a Medal of Honor in WWII. Gold stars are set in the floor of the monument and recognize those who died, and a globe turns in the middle of a fountain representing the distances Tennesseans traveled to fight for their country. This monument also has a time capsule set to be opened in 2045.
In 2020, a chair was installed across from the section of the wall discussing the Korean War; it is a memorial to prisoners of war and those missing in action.
At the end of the park farthest from the Capitol, a carillon of bells play the Tennessee Waltz and other Tennessee songs. There are 95 bells for each of the state’s 95 counties, and at the base of the bell towers are the names of those who have contributed to Tennessee’s musical history.
The towers encircle three stars, representing East, Middle, and West Tennessee, and if you stand on a pin in the middle of the stars and clap, you can hear the echo behind you.
While MoonPies are mentioned on the wall, Ranger Gibson confirmed that Little Debbie snack cakes and Goo Goo Clusters are not. These equally famous and delicious Tennessee treats have been left off! Perhaps one day, someone will fix this oversight, and perhaps you’ll be able to take your own tour of Bicentennial. Maybe I’ll see you out there!
*As the information for this post came from either my tour or Hinton’s presentation, I have not cited to my sources for each sentence as I usually do.
June 12, 2023