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Nashville's Best History Parks

Nashville's Best History Parks

Nashville’s Best Parks for Getting a Sense of Local History

In Orwell’s 1984, the memory hole was the past’s one way ticket to the incinerator. With only mild hyperbole, any memory hole in modern day Music City would be superfluous; we have development to obliterate the past for us. Can you close your eyes and picture the Nashville skyline with the Lifeway building still up? Didn’t think so. Did you enjoy the sweeping vista of downtown Nashville while traveling north on I-65 just before the I-24 split? Good. Sketch it out. You’ll never see it again.  

In 1950, Davidson County’s population was less than 250,000. As of November, 2021, some 1,272,000 now call Metro Nashville home, a figure growing at an annual rate of around 2%. The result, along with increasingly clogged streets and an authentically cosmopolitan vibe, is a city seemingly made of plastic -- hot, warm, gooey stuff constantly transforming. To paraphrase Heraclitus, everyone’s favorite pre-Socratic, you can’t stroll through the same city twice, at least not in this town.

But people, like plants, need roots, otherwise anomie wins and that would suck. And this brings us to Nashville’s outstanding parks, our parks, currently numbering almost 200 and encompassing an area just a few putting greens shy of 16,000 acres. Mind you, our parks are not desocialization’s solution. They are not some magical, cultural bug spray to ward off dystopia — that would be asking too much — but they are definitely dystopia-resistant, essential nutrients for any healthy diet of balanced being and fertile grounds for any republic worth keeping.  

So let’s start balancing our beings by finding the most fertile grounds for getting a sense of where and when we are, Nashville’s best parks for elegantly entering into the ‘memory whole’ if you will. Metro Davidson has 18 parks which are either themselves devoted to history or at least have structures that are designated as Historic Landmark Districts with the Department of the Interior, forming little eddies of consistency in an otherwise onrushing torrent of transformation. And to be clear, here we’re talking about the human past kept intact in our parks; the best natural habitats protected by parks are the source for another story.

The top five parks we recommend for getting a handle on history should have enough ‘there there’ to bridge the past to the present -- warts and all -- to afford an informed insight into our collective future. Public parks, people, it’s a trajectory thing.  

Best Nashville Parks for Getting a Sense of Local History

Honorable Mention #1: Public Square Park

Located in the heart of downtown next to the Metro Courthouse, the park’s large, flat lawn makes it an ideal spot to exercise some freedom of assembly. Consider visiting the observation deck and using your phone to pull up images of April 19th, 1960, the day the Looby bombing backfired on the KKK and a spontaneous march of more than 3,000 people on that lawn below ended Nashville’s segregated lunch counters.

Honorable Mention #2: Aaittafama Archaeological Park

Meaning “Place for Meeting” in the Chickasaw language, this park, on its surface, is no more than an ordinary meadow, a few small stands of trees amid a swathe of tall grasses. It’s what lies underneath that’s interesting: a large Mississippian village that came and went long before any Europeans came clomping through. Discovered by a TDOT archaeologist when some bulldozers for development turned up human bones, the park is currently raising funds through The Friends of Aaittafama to conduct proper archeological excavations. Can you dig it?

Honorable Mention #3: Hodge House / Percy Warner Park

Location. Location. Location -- the Hodge House, built circa 1811, has had it for over two centuries. On a street, Chickering Road, now lined with McMansions on one side and golfers in the ditch seeking their balls on the other, the Hodge House stands as a modest monument to clapboard consistency in particular and to the Western concept of property rights in general. Back when the United States was still struggling to be born, the 1770s, the First Nations in this neck of the woods — mostly the Chickasaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek — squabbled over the local land among themselves, struggling to control such reliable hunting grounds due to the area’s natural salt licks, those seemingly magical mineral magnets that concentrate game.

With controlled burns of understory and intentional planting of chestnut trees, the Native Americans impacted the land, but it was the game-changing projection of lines from a map onto the territory that truly punctuated the equilibrium. Anglo-Americans are a record-keeping culture, particularly when real estate is involved, and that’s how we know that in 1795 one Philip Kiser bought for $500 one square mile of land, 640 acres, from James Robertson — yes, that James Robertson —before flipping it two years later for $1,600 to James Hodge, thus kicking off a Nashville real estate tradition that continues to this day. It was Hodge's son George who later built the home, a residence that remained in private hands until 1928 when it became part of Percy Warner Park. These days, the Hodge House is newly renovated and available for special events of up to 30 people.

“You-Are-Here-in-History” Nashville Parks

5) ‘The Allée’ / Percy Warner

What is it about a double set of stairs composed of local rock, limestone in this case, that make them so irresistibly inviting, leading as they do to nowhere in particular other than to exactly where we generally wish to be: atop a wooded hill eye-level with a cloud of canopy, taking in an unobstructed view that stretches to the horizon? Almost uncanny such architecture. These are the famous Belle Meade Stairs, a.k.a. the Allée, the front door that’s always open to one of Nashville’s signature parks, Percy Warner. Designed during the Depression by landscape architect Bryant Fleming for the princely sum of $50, the stairs have been lifting multitudes of soles and spirits since 1936, an excellent ROI and a rock solid example that socialism doesn’t always have to suck. Thank you New Deal Works Progress Administration!  

These days, the stairs are a magnet for photographers and families, brides and grooms, runners and readers. Whether sitting on the stones, lying on the lawns, or just exercising along the Allée, the recently restored and repaired Belle Meade stairs are one of Nashville’s best places to park.      

4) Fort Nashborough

It’s not the original structure, of course, that one barely survived into the 19th century. Hell, it’s not even the original replica. That one, built in the 1930s, bit the dust in 2015. But the fort we have now, the third one, (the meta replica if you will), is still worth the visit because its backstory is just so. damn. epic. Replete with the full cast of characters and the Hollywood script one would expect from a twisty-turny tale of late 18th century Anglo-American continental imperialism, the modern incarnation of Fort Nashborough in Riverfront Park evokes a time and a place when those who would impose their maps upon the territory — to name and claim and buy and sell — were themselves under attack, trapped with their backs to the bluff between the water and the woods, huddled inside a stockade encasing a mere two acres, a couple dozen cabins, scores of dogs and hogs, and a permanent pond of mud and blood and shit.    

The modern replica is several hundred yards to the south of the original site, but the bluffs over the Cumberland are still there and one, with just a whiff of imagination, can still get the general idea. These days, thank the arc-of-the-Universe-bending-toward-justice, the arrogance that originally animated the Anglo-Americans to migrate west has mitigated at least to the point that the fort’s new history center is more candid and balanced as to what really went down at the beginning of the town now called Nashville.      

3) Bells Bend / Buchanan House and Nature Center

This 808 acre park is an ideal spot to contemplate rocks and roads if, by rocks, you are referring to fluted Clovis points more than 10,000 years old and, by roads, you mean grassy farmers’ tracks the way they would have looked at the time of the Civil War. Bells has both. Situated at the tip of a peninsula formed by an oxbow in the Cumberland River, Bells Bend Park forms the southernmost section of the famed Bells Bend Conservation Corridor, an unbroken strip of fertile farms and natural habitats remarkably close to a major urban core; a crow could probably fly from the tip of the Batman building to the Bells Bend Park with one wing only.

Bells Bend features a nature center with a collection of locally-unearthed stone tools spanning thousands of years. Located largely on the Cumberland’s floodplain, the park is an archeologist’s wet dream. In addition to the Native American artifacts, the park is also home to the Buchanan House. Built in 1842, the house stands less than a mile from Kelley’s Point Battlefield on the southside of the Cumberland. During the battle of Nashville in 1864, Confederate Lt. Col. David Kelley led a command that blockaded the Cumberland against seven Union gunboats over the course of two weeks. Records show that the Buchanan House was occupied by the Anderson family during the battle. Records also show that, in 1860, the Anderson’s enslaved fellow Americans and that the “market value” of those enslaved folks comprised over 50% of the Anderson’s family wealth until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. Whewf. America.  

2) Fort Negley

As the first Confederate state capital to fall to Union forces, Nashville’s Fort Negley atop St. Cloud Hill was the Union’s plan to keep it that way. Given Nashville’s strategic location, what with the river and the railroads and the turnpikes and the easy access to Kentucky, that critical border state with a boot in both camps of the conflict, Nashville became a fortified city, second only in the number of 100-pound Parrott rifles to Washington, DC. (To this day, the exact number of 100-pound parrots felled by this fearsome weapon remains classified.)  

All joking aside, Fort Negley today is an ideal spot from which to contemplate a large swath of the American story, warts and all. Its very construction, from August through December of 1862, relied on the impressed labor of 2,700 plus “contrabands,” people who had voted with their feet that slavery sucks. Purchased by the City of Nashville in 1928, the site fell into such disrepair that it was closed to the public in the 1960s. Things only turned around in 2002 when Metro Nashville appropriated the largest expenditure of funds for a Civil War site in the nation, opening back to the public in December of 2004 on the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville.  

1) Centennial Park

Literally and figuratively, 132-acre Centennial is the belly button of Nashville’s parks. The land, becoming a farm in 1783 and a state fairgrounds in 1884, became the site of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition. (And, yes, Tennessee joined the Union in 1796, so apparently nobody did the math.) The Exposition hosted some 1.8 million visitors, the centerpiece of which was the replica of the Parthenon, riffing off of Nashville’s reputation as the “Athens of the South.”

These days, thanks to recent renovation, Centennial Park boasts not just the full-scale replica of the Parthenon -- rebuilt from 1921 to 1931 and just as iconic to Nashville as the Ryman Auditorium and the Batman building -- but also the amenities one would expect from an urban center’s premier park: band shell and sunken garden, sand volleyball courts and an arts activity center, a one-mile trail and even a little body of water, Lake Watauga. Since 1903, the year after Percy Warner, head honcho of the Nashville Railway and Light Company, purchased the first 72 acres of land and gave it to Nashville’s brand new Park Board on December 22nd, 1902, Centennial Park has been an oasis from the surrounding transformations of the cityscape, a kaleidoscopic tumult expressed in concrete and asphalt, poles and wires, steel and glass. Not that an oasis is always peaceful or just. That Centennial Art Center, for example, built in 1972 was only because the public pool that used to be there was closed down to prevent it from being integrated in the 1960s, a kind of public park scorched earth policy applied to public park water. Whewf. America.  

Still, upon the green lawn of Centennial beside the stately Parthenon and beneath the shade of a century-old tree on a sunny day remains the best parking spot in town to not just consider the arc of the Universe bending toward justice, but to figure out ways to help it get there. And maybe make a little history yourself.