Apart from the otherwise traditional wooden pews, plush red carpeting, and a glorious pipe organ, one could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing this interior as that of a church. Ornamental painted columns line the perimeter of the sanctuary, reaching up to a ceiling that imitates a blue sky with clouds. The stained glass windows showcase ornate landscapes of desert and the Nile, complete with palm trees and lotus flowers.
There’s a reason the building is affectionately referred to by some as the “Karnak on the Cumberland.” The Downtown Presbyterian congregation was so taken by Egyptomania that its members insisted this infatuation be reflected in the architecture of their church. The result is a stunning, if somewhat unexpected, mixture of Ancient Egyptian and Protestant Christian imagery.
The sanctuary is meant to evoke an open-air Egyptian temple. A frequent motif that can be seen all around the sanctuary is a winged disk, the symbol of the Ancient Egyptian sun-god, Ra. The only overt Christian symbol present is a single wooden cross located in front of the pipe organ, although it’s easily overshadowed by the other Egyptian Revival motifs of the sanctuary. However, the frequent use of triangular shapes in such motifs is also said to represent the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity.
Aside from its remarkable architecture, the Downtown Presbyterian Church has also served as a backdrop for key moments in Tennessee history. The steps of the original church structure built in 1814 were the site of a ceremony where Andrew Jackson, a member of the congregation, was honored by the State of Tennessee for his involvement in the Battle of New Orleans. After being rebuilt following a fire, the steps of the second Downtown Presbyterian Church building also served as the locale for James K. Polk’s inauguration as governor in 1832.
Construction on the third and final church building began in 1848, and as a lingering remnant of Nashville’s pre-emancipatory past, the current structure still contains what was originally a gallery for slaves separated from the primary sanctuary seating. During the Civil War, the church was commandeered by the Union forces and functioned as a hospital for wounded soldiers. After the war, the building once again served as a Presbyterian church to the downtown Nashville area. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993 because of its Egyptian Revival features.
Know Before You Go
Tours of the church are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. by appointment only. Contact the church office when planing a visit. The alley near the church parking lot has a wheelchair-accessible entrance.