--from the book, The Parks of Nashville: A History of the Board of Parks and Recreation by Leland R. Johnson
This park was the site of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition. It previously had been a farm purchased in 1783 by John Cockrill, the brother-in-law to James Robertson, then became the state fairgrounds after the Civil War and from 1884 to 1895 became a racetrack known as West Side Park. Construction of the buildings for the 1897 Centennial began in 1895 with the laying of the cornerstone for the Parthenon replica on October 8, and a large number of elaborate structures were built to serve the 1.8 million visitors to the Exposition from the President down. When the Exposition closed on October 30, 1897, its leadership called for preservation of the Parthenon replica and the Centennial grounds as a public park, initiating the city park movement in Nashville.
As the result of a litigation settlement with city government, Percy Warner and the Nashville Railway and Light Company purchased the first 72 acres of Centennial Park for $125,00 and gave it to the Park Board on December 22, 1902. The Park Board built a swimming pool, stocked Lake Watauga with fish, planted flower gardens and shrubs, built drives and walkways, and opened the park to the public in 1903, scheduling Gilbert and Sullivan operettas for cultural recreation purposes and also providing art exhibits in the Parthenon.
During 1903, the monuments paying tribute to James Robertson and to the leaders of the 1897 Centennial Exposition were erected in the park, becoming the first of many monuments and memorials placed throughout the park. In 1903 the Park Board leased the Elliston Tract across 25th Avenue from the park as the site of ball diamonds, tennis courts, and a football field; it purchased the tract in 1911 and named it the Centennial Athletic Field. Land exchanges with the railroad north of the park and purchases of residential properties around the periphery of the park gradually expanded the park area to its present size.
The first community center in the park was constructed in 1916, with a trolley car located in the playground at its side. The steam locomotive was placed in the park in 1953 and the fighter plane in 1961. The Sunken Gardens in 1897 was a pond called Lily Lake and from 1922 to 1949 was a Japanese Water Garden displaying aquatic plants. The bridge between the Sunken Gardens and Lake Watauga was constructed in 1906 and is the first reinforced concrete bridge built in Tennessee. The Centennial Park swimming pool, built in 1932, was reconstructed as the Centennial Art Center in 1972, with the site of the pool becoming a sculpture garden. Ice Centennial was built in 1978. The Parthenon replica of 1897 was reconstructed of concrete from 1921 to 1931 and received a minor renovation in 1962. The Centennial Croquet Club was constructed in 1963, although croquet courts had occupied the site many years before. The Confederate powder wheels were moved into the park from Sycamore Mills during the 1897 Centennial and are probably the most prominent artifact of the Exposition in the park, though many others are scattered functionally and unobtrusively throughout the park.