Most visitors to Nashville’s Centennial Park can guess what the main attraction is: The Parthenon. Towering over the landscape, it catches the eye of the tourist and casts a shadow over the park’s less noticeable features.
But the veteran parkgoer knows that there are other, smaller treasures scattered across Centennial’s grassy lawns.
Two of them can be found nestled on the park’s lawn near West End Avenue: a giant, unmarked stone clamshell and a 10-foot concrete ship with an ornate bronze figurehead.
These sculptures inspired a question to Curious Nashville:
What is the history of the clamshell and pirate ship in Centennial Park?
This question comes from Nashville native Kate Hill.
“I always make a point to go by the clamshell and the ship,” she writes. “I think they are interesting to me because I know nothing about them.”
“To me, they are reminiscent of a past time. … I like to imagine what it would be like to be in Centennial Park around the time they were built.”
But finding information on the monuments can be difficult. There are no plaques, inscriptions or markers on either “Shell Spring” (the clamshell) or the “Gunboat Tennessee Monument” (the pirate ship).
“The Parks Department doesn’t have a lot of information on each of them,” says Tim Netsch, an assistant director at Metro Parks. “We know the basic story behind each of them, but they’re not currently [explained] in any way in the park.”
However, more information became public last year thanks to a Metro Arts report, which traces the origin of the sculptures to the early 1900s. “Shell Spring” was fabricated and installed sometime between 1906 and 1912, while the concrete base for the “Gunboat Tennessee Monument” was made in 1910.
Both landmarks were commissioned by Maj. Eugene C. Lewis, a civic leader and engineer.
“[He’s really one of the reasons] why we have a parks system today,” says Netsch. “He had a real fascination with cast-in-place concrete, and he built lots and lots of structures in Nashville parks out of concrete.”
The shell and the ship are two of Lewis’ few surviving works.
Though they were commissioned by the same person, the monuments are remarkably different in terms of history and purpose. The clamshell is an architectural “folly,” an ornamental sculpture meant to be viewed as part of the park’s landscape. Built over a natural spring where water flowed, the design was based off of a shell that Lewis found on a beach in Florida. Lewis hired a contractor to undertake the creation of “Shell Spring” and supervised the fabrication.
Netsch says it is probably the most ornamental Lewis piece remaining in the parks system.
The small ship has a more complicated history. In 1909, a bronze cast of the cruiser USS Tennessee’s figurehead was displayed at the Seattle World’s Fair. It caught the eye of Capt. Albert Gleaves, a prominent naval officer and good friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Gleaves, of Nashville, contacted Lewis and several officials about bringing it to Nashville.
Lewis began and supervised construction of a concrete prow to display the figurehead, which was shipped from Seattle to Nashville upon the prow’s completion. And the finished monument was installed in 1910.
The concrete boat, painted gold — a color that has since faded — was placed in the grass of Centennial Park’s lawn.
Repairs In Limbo
As for the future of these monuments, Netsch confirms that both “Shell Spring” and the “Gunboat Tennessee Monument” are planned for restoration.
However, there’s no way of saying how soon that will be. The clamshell remains fenced off for safety. The boat includes stairs, which are still accessible.
“Both were identified as two of the monuments that need to be protected and restored,” says Netsch. “There’s not currently any funding to do that, but they’re valuable resources in the park.”
Preservation will have to wait for funding. While Metro Parks doesn’t have a precise cost estimate, the Metro Arts report suggested that each could need more than $100,000.
Whatever their condition, Netsch says the monuments are meaningful to visitors who have seen them for many years, and that they will remain “part of the Centennial Park experience.”
Isabella Presler is a junior at St. Cecilia Academy.