This park comprises parcels of land originally belonging to the Cockrill Farm (ca.1783) and Joseph Elliston's Burlington Plantation. From 1884 to 1895 the site served as the state fairgrounds, designed by John Bogart, and, later, as a racetrack. Major Eugene Lewis developed a master plan for the park as the site of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, which featured neoclassical buildings (including a full-scale plaster replica of the Parthenon, rebuilt in concrete ca.1920), an artificial lake, and a landscape bisected by curvilinear pathways. After most of the buildings were razed, the 72-acre site was purchased by the Nashville Railway and Light Company and donated to the city in 1902.
The park has grown to 132 acres. The original tract is the rectangular, central swathe, which features drives, picnic areas, and meandering pathways, with Lake Watauga to the north. Later additions include a reinforced concrete bridge (1910), the Centennial Park swimming pool (1932; converted to the Centennial Art Center in 1972), a bandshell (1963), and the Croquet Club Amenities (1963). The northwestern section of the park comprises a naturalistic wooded area and a dog park enclosed by fencing. A new master plan was developed in 2011 by the landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the first phase of which was implemented by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects in collaboration with Hodgson Douglas and Tara Armistead. In 2015 the historic Cockrill Spring, long underground, was uncovered in the southern section of the park; the adjacent Musicians Corner includes seating areas built into the site’s natural contours. The second phase of the master plan involves the addition of an entry plaza with a multispecies allée, a formal events lawn, and new gardens near the Parthenon. The Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument, by local sculptor Alan LeQuire, was unveiled in 2016.