1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition

   ...and the Memphis Pyramid Exhibition



The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition was held in Nashville from 1 May to 31 October 1897.  It was staged to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tennessee's admission into the Union as the 16th state.  Nineteen states participated in the Expo as well as 16 foreign nations.  A very impressive array of buildings was constructed to house the exhibits.  Each building was constructed to serve only a temporary purpose and was built of wood and plaster so they could be town down at the close of the Exposition. 

With 1.7 million visitors, far fewer than Chicago's Fair and the St. Louis Exposition, the Fair was still considered successful.   And unlike most World Fairs, the Nashville Exposition didn't lose money, although the final accounting showed a profit of less than $50.  The lower attendance was likely due to a yellow fever epidemic in the Gulf Coastal States, which probably frightened many northerners away.

Normally the Historic-Memphis website wouldn't give full treatment to something occurring in another Tennessee city.  But the Memphis-Shelby County exhibit was a unique and  major part of the expo and will, naturally, be featured below.

Click on small photos to enlarge them. 



Memorabilia from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition

The U. S. Congress authorized $100,000 to participate in the Exposition.  That included the set-up of a US Mint Exhibit which struck Souvenir Medals at the Mint's exhibit booth.  These medals are now major collector's items.  Other popular items are calendars, posters featuring the major buildings at the Fair, tickets, and colorful "souvenir cards".  The most popular items include an image of Nashville's full scale replica of the Parthenon and the aerial view of the Centennial Park showing all the exhibition buildings.


Aerial View Centennial Park

Expo Calendars Expo Posters Expo Buttons Expo Coins

US Mint Medals

Tickets cost 50
cents for adults and 25 cents for children.  Season Tickets and Passes were also popular choices.

  Tickets Season Tickets Expo Passes

Drawings of the Park Expo Programs Sheet Music Souvenir Cards Souvenir Cards


Harper's Weekly

Harper's Weekly Posters Souvenir Plates Medallions Hand Painted Scarfs

Mug Mug Glass Tray Medals Medals






The Memphis-Shelby Country Exhibit at the Tennessee Centennial

Memphis and Shelby County came up with the novel ideal of looking to its namesake, the ancient city on the Nile, and constructed their building to represent the architecture of Egypt.  It was a wise choice, as folks immediately knew that  the building in the shape of a pyramid, represented Memphis.  Nothing like this had ever been done before and Shelby County was congratulated for their bold and clever idea.  Unfortunately, like all buildings at the Centennial , it was not built to last as it was built of plaster and wood.  At the close of the Centennial, the pyramid was demolished - something at which Memphis would  become very proficient.

      The Memphis-Shelby Co Pyramid
Vintage photos of the Memphis - Shelby County Pyramid at the Tennessee Centennial Expostion

Vintage photos of the Memphis - Shelby County Pyramid at the Tennessee Centennial Expostion


While many visitors to the Fair had electric lights in their homes, it's unlikely that they had ever seen so many lights at one time as those that illuminated the buildings each night  in Centennial Park.  It must have been a spectacular sight at the time.

Centennial Park and the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition

The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition was staged to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tennessee's admission into the Union as the 16th state.  Tennessee's actual centennial year was 1896, but funding issues and construction delays pushed the event into 1897. 

An impressive array of buildings was constructed to house the many exhibits.  Nearly 100 structures ran the spectrum from the eccentric to the splendidly ornate, with exaggerated elements of Classical design. 
The Expo was, above all, a celebration of technological progress, with major exhibits devoted to commerce, agriculture, machinery, and transportation.

Centennial Park under construction

Interior under construction

Special RR car

Special Street Cars

Entrance Gates


Lake Katherine Centennial Park Vine Arbor Administration Bldg

At noon May 1, 1897, President William McKinley officially opened the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville.  While he didn't actually  visit the Exposition until the next month, organizers of the event arranged for him to press an electric button in the White House that sparked an electrical relay than ran down through Virginia to North Carolina, across Tennessee to Nashville, which fired a cannon, setting the machinery into motion and opening the gates to the Exposition.   

President McKinley opens Expo

       Parthenon Parthenon Parthenon Athena

Parthenon - Athena

ABOVE:  Nashville's nickname was "Athens of the South" and they selected the Parthenon as their Expo pavilion because it "epitomized the city's classical ideals."  They built a full scale, exact replica of the Parthenon and it became the favorite building at the Fair, as well as the "theme building."  It was also the Fine Arts building and following Victorian custom of the day, it was crammed with sculpture and paintings, displayed from floor to ceiling..

Like all the buildings at the Fair, the Parthenon was not meant to be permanent.  And it wasn't.  It was made from plaster, wood, and brick.  By the time the Expo closed, the citizens of Nashville had fallen in love with their Greek replica and were determined to keep "the crown jewel of the Exposition."  But by the 1920s it had fallen into disrepair.   So the city reconstructed the Parthenon in permanent materials and it still stands as an art gallery on the original exposition grounds.


Auditorium Bldg Agricultural Bldg Illinois Bldg Giant Globe


Women's Bldg Negro Bldg Electric Fountain See Saw Ride

Flower Parade Flower Parade Flower Parade Statue of Virtue


Terminal Building Rialto Bridge Band Stand Spain

 Park - Night    


48 Page  Book:  Tennessee Centennial Program

Interior Negro Bldg Interior Interior NY Bldg Interior Woman's Bldg Interior Woman's Bldg

Interior Edison Exhibit Interior Treasury Exhibit Guard At Expo Parthenon Pythian Building

Interior U.S. Exhibit Interior U.S. Exhibit Interior U.S. Exhibit Interior U. S. Exhibit

Cuban Village

Auditorium Bldg Streets of Cairo Rialto at Night Old Water Wheel Water Slide

A View of the Park A View of the Park A View of the Park A View of the Park
"Special Days at Centennial Park"

The Expo organizers came up with a brilliant promotional idea:  "Special Days..."  These days were set to honor every State, ethnic group, city, and  organization, etc.  There were reduced train fares available these days, special admission prices, parades in the park, and souvenirs tailored to each group.  (Would you believe that included in these Special Days was a "Negro Day"? This was 1897).


       Vetertans Day


Artists-Authors Day Georgia Day GermanAmer. Day IrishAmerican Day Conf Vets Day Nashville Day


Today, it's hard to imagine Nashville without its Parthenon.  That, and the gondola rides on the lake are the only remaining traces of the city's 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.




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