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As of November 13, 2022, the Tennessee State Museum is temporarily closing the Military Branch Museum in preparation for the upcoming renovation of the Tennessee War Memorial Building.
by Ashley Howell
After nearly a century, the Tennessee War Memorial is scheduled for a renovation, beginning in 2023, to preserve the historic building for future generations. Through the decades, the building has housed state offices of all branches of state government. Its auditorium has hosted gubernatorial inaugurations, presidents, and presidential candidates. Community members engaged with one another through conventions, festivals, concerts and performances. The facility also served as the original location of the Tennessee State Museum.
In preparation for the upcoming renovation, the State Museum looks back at the history of the War Memorial Building, as a memorial for Tennesseans who lost their lives during World War I and as a center for government and civic engagement.
Ticket to the Inauguration of Governor Prentice Cooper, held at the War Memorial Auditorium, 1941 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2012.32.1)
Ticket to the Nashville Symphony held at the War Memorial Auditorium, 1976 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2011.103.18). The Nashville Symphony performed in the WMA from 1946 until 1981.
The Memorial began with a call to action from Tennesseans to honor those who died during the Great War. Civic organizations like the Centennial Club, the Tennessee Historical Society, the Nashville Engineering Association, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs in Nashville, and Knoxville’s Ossoli Circle joined the movement for a memorial building. A debate ensued regarding the location of a memorial between utilizing Centennial Park’s Parthenon or building a new memorial near the State Capitol. There were also deliberations regarding its purpose as a utilitarian, living memorial building.
After many proposals and discussions, the Tennessee General Assembly called for a “lasting monument to honor heroes of the world war” with the passing of the Tennessee Memorial Act, known as Chapter 122 of the Public Acts of 1919. This act authorized the construction of the building and provided for the acquisition of land between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. It also specified that the Memorial Building house various branches of state government, a memorial hall for public assembly, and a memorial park. A Tennessee Memorial Commission oversaw the actions of the Tennessee Memorial Act.
The Memorial Commission called for a competition for the building design. Professor Warren P. Laird, Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, directed the competition. The three final contestants of the architectural design competition were announced; and all three were Tennessee architects: Edward E. Dougherty of Nashville; R.H. Hunt of Chattanooga; and Charles O. Pfell of Memphis. The contract was awarded to local architect Edward E. Dougherty who designed the project with McKim, Mead & White of New York. McKim, Mead & White was well-known nationally for completing notable civic projects including the Boston Public Library, Pennsylvania Station and the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park in New York City, and renovations to the White House.
Architectural rendering of Tennessee War Memorial Building done in 1922, watercolor (Tennessee State Museum collection, 79.120)
According to the Chairman of the Tennessee Memorial Commission, State Treasurer and future Governor Hill McAlister, the direction given to the architects was to construct a building that “the beholder would recognize as a monument long after the generations that built it has passed … with the classic beauty of the Grecian lines … the heroic figure of youth … [and] the strength located within the Court of Honor” designed to list the names of the Tennessee war dead on bronze tablets. More than 3,400 Tennesseans died during the Great War and are remembered on bronze memorial plaques. The quote engraved within the building pediment further focuses on this sacrifice by Tennesseans. Under the Seal of the State of Tennessee, the words of President Woodrow Wilson read, “America is Privileged to Spend her Blood and Her Might for the Principles that Gave her Birth and Happiness and the Peace which She has Treasured.”
The structure is two Classical Revival buildings that are connected by the memorial “Court of Honor” focused on a central statue in the court. The commissioned statue of Victory by Belle Kinney Scholz and Leopold Scholz was later added in 1931. The building was designed to house different offices of state departments, with rooms for the archives and history of the state, including a museum for historic relics. The architects were instructed to design an auditorium, “to accommodate as large an audience as possible.” The War Memorial Auditorium was designed with a capacity of 2,500 with removable seats for dances and gatherings.
Photograph of the study for Victory (also called Spirit of Youth) statue by Belle Kinney Scholz for the Court of Honor within the War Memorial Building. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2013.93.2)
The building also had modern amenities. It was advertised that restrooms were conveniently located all over the entire building, with both hot and cold water. The contract also called for the installation of “telephones, electric light and telegraph conduits.”
On September 21 and 22, 1925, the Tennessee War Memorial Building was dedicated and opened to the public to great fanfare. At the ceremony, Mayor Hillary Howse of Nashville accepted the building on behalf of the city; Judge Litton Blackmon on behalf of Davidson County; Governor Austin Peay on behalf of the State of Tennessee; and Col. Luke Lea on behalf of the military. War hero Sgt. Alvin York was also in attendance. The Tennessee American Legion used the building for the first time to host the state convention.
Dedication of the War Memorial Building Invitation (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2019.123) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE.
In 1929, the American Legion was called upon to continue the work of the late State Librarian John Trotwood Moore and Captain G. E. Beerworth to collect souvenirs from the state’s war veterans for display within the War Memorial. In a Knoxville Journal article dated June 6, 1929, P.E. Cox, keeper of the State Museum and Archive, calls for assistance in obtaining mementos for display within the museum at the Tennessee War Memorial building. These mementos would accompany a large-scale diorama of the Hindenburg Line, created by Captain Beerworth, demonstrating the battle terrain where Tennesseans participated. This exhibit traveled to 38 states before returning to be displayed at the State Museum at the Tennessee War Memorial. In all, Beerworth dedicated twelve years to collecting donations for the State Museum military collection from the Great War.
2019.118.40 Military exhibits within the Tennessee State Museum, War Memorial Building. Beerworth diorama is located on the right of the photo.
The State Museum was administratively established by the legislature in 1937 to bring together the various collections of artifacts under one state umbrella. These included artifacts from World War Veterans, the Tennessee Historical Society, Game and Fish Commission, Spanish-American War Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The State Museum welcomed visitors within this space until the Museum moved to the James K. Polk building in 1981. At that time, the War Memorial museum space was converted to sharing the story of Tennessee veterans and their service within foreign wars. As 2022 comes to a close, the Military Branch Museum will close temporarily as the building readies for renovation. Visitors may still learn more about the story of our Tennessee veterans at the Tennessee State Museum at 1000 Rosa L. Parks Boulevard.
Postcard of the War Memorial Building. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2004.137.958)
The Tennessee War Memorial Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 16, 2017.
Architects: Edward E. Dougherty of Nashville; McKim, Mead & White of New York
General Contractor: A.J. Krebs Company of Atlanta
Contractors: Nashville Bridge Company; H.E. Parmer; Cunningham Electric Company; Gowans-Hailey Company; Hopton Brothers; George L. Phillips & Company; D.Y. Johnson Stone Company; John B. Ransom & Company; Warren Brothers Company
The Military Branch Museum of Tennessee State Museum hosted, “Remembering the World War I Doughboy: The History of Tennessee’s War Memorial” from November 7, 2015 through November 12, 2019.
Ashley Howell is the Tennessee State Museum Executive Director
 J. Davis Winkie, “Commemoration Co-Opted: The Battle over Tennessee’s War Memorial Building, “a partial offering,” 1918-1921.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 78, no.1 (2019): 48-79.
 Public Acts of the State of Tennessee Passed by the General Assembly (Jackson, Tenn: McCowat-Mercer, 1919) 829-30.
 Hill McAlister, “Idea Born in those Stirring Times When Soldiers Returned from Overseas, “The Tennessee Legionnaire, September 18, 1925.
 Tennessean, September 28, 1924.
 “Tennessee Legion’s Seventh Convention,” The Tennessee Legionnaire, September 18, 1925.
 “Legion Posts Are Asked to Complete State’s Collection of War Trophies,” Knoxville Journal, June 26, 1929.
 Lisa Budreau, Ph.D, “This is War: World War I Battlefield Replica Keeps Tennessee Military Memory Alive,” Tennessee State Museum Newsletter, Winter 2022.