In honor of Tennessee’s bicentennial, Christian Activities Tennessee continues our series of articles about historic Tennessee churches in cooperation with Tennessee 200.
William Strickland designed two buildings in Nashville. Both still survive, the Capitol, and the Downtown Presbyterian Church. One is chaste Greek Revival architecture, and the other is flamboyant Egyptian Revival style. The exterior of the church has twin towers adapted from the ancient lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt. At the entrance are twin lotus bundled columns. Here, Theo Knoch and John Schleicher went all out with polychrome designs in an Egyptian style.
Entering the sanctuary in 1887, when the decor was finally applied, the visitor would be struck by the colored light coming through the new stained glass windows. These windows, not your typical church windows, are made up of geometrical patterns, and views of the Egyptian desert, with blue sky, and palm trees. Along the side walls, are pilasters, decorated in Egyptian manner, in between the windows. At the front of the sanctuary is a perspective painting in fresco of the great hall of columns at Karnak, the chief temple to Amun-Ra in ancient Egypt.
At the center of the front wall is a large walnut case containing the 2100 pipe organ, which also has a chime system and an echo organ. The case is Egyptian Revival style also. To the right of the front of the sanctuary, a history room outlines the history of the structure and its congregations. It shows and describes the historical changes to the sanctuary over the years. Currently a restoration of the exterior and interior are on-going. The present building dates from 1849-1851.
The first presbyterian congregation to form in Nashville worshiped at this site from 1816 to 1954. At that time they left Nashville, and relocated to an affluent, white suburb, Oak Hill, Tennessee. A substantial portion of the congregation elected to remain at the church, and reorganized themselves into the Downtown Presbyterian Church, and have continued to worship and work from this location.
Over the years at this historic site Andrew Jackson was presented with a ceremonial sword by the State of Tennessee on the church steps, James K. Polk was sworn in as governor of Tennessee, and Montgomery Bell freed some of his slaves on the church steps. Adelicia Acklen worshiped here, and donated what is still the largest church bell in the city. Two benches behind her sat Mrs. Sarah (James K.) Polk. Mayor Randall McGavock, city school founder Alfred Hume, historian A. W. Putnam, and many of the city’s leading ministers have been associated with the church.
The church continues an active ministry to the entire community from the corner of Fifth and Church, and welcome all who come to worship there.