Historic Cossitt Library, Memphis Tennessee

July 12, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Historic Cossitt Library, Memphis Tennessee.

    "Archived "

  In April of this year I was fortunate to be able to visit a historic, yet abandoned, library in downtown Memphis Tennessee. The photos I have from this remarkable building are quite remarkable. I saw photos of the interior of this old library and read about it online and I just had to get access to the interior. So I set about doing some research and tracking down someone to talk to about this great building. But first some history…..

  Memphis's first public library opened at the corner of Front and Monroe in 1893.  It all began with a wealthy businessman named Frederick H. Cossitt, who wanted to thank the city for its hospitality, by building a library.  Unfortunately he died in 1887 before this happened.  However his daughters decided to honor their father's pledge and donated $75,000 to be placed in trust until plans for the library could be completed.  Memphis agreed to provide the lot and the working expenses and awarded Atlanta architect L. B. Wheeler the contract for the building.  Working with this small budget, Wheeler created a small but impressive Romanesque monument like nothing else ever seen in Memphis.  It was a masterpiece, with its red sandstone turret towering above Memphis's skyline - almost shouting "Culture has arrived” !!!  Memphians fell in love with the grand building.  During the next 25 years it became a major landmark and the most photographed building in the city, appearing on more postcards than any other landmark

Here are some great old photos of this

For a year after its dedication it actually stood empty because there was no more money left to buy books.  The city newspapers began a campaign asking the public to help.  And the shelves began to fill up.   When the library did open it was known as the Cossitt-Goodwyn Institute - and in addition to books, it also housed the city's first museum collection. 

Over the decades the Cossitt underwent a couple of major renovations, the last of which was in 1958 and was not so much a renovation as an ‘abomination’. The last "renovation” was an unfortunate attempt at modernization.  The 1958 structure is thoughtlessly tacked onto the front - a sterile, minimalist box replacing the former classical arches, galleries, and towers of the old Cossitt .I think it is a hideous blue box that doesn't even attempt to match the rear sandstone addition.  This whole corner is a disgrace.  The original Cossitt Library was one of the most beautiful public buildings in Memphis. This is one of the ugliest.

 Front of the 'Renovated' Cossitt Library     

    Rear portion retained the impressive Romanesque architecture

The area that I spent the most time photographing was “The Stacks”, shelves of books that have been abandoned and left to decay. The branch director told me that the remainder of the books have been packed up and safely placed in storage for later use; however this section does not belong to the library. The owner of these books, magazines, and newspapers has been contacted but has yet to come pick up these old relics.

Entrance to 'The Stacks'

'The Stacks', from above

The lighting in this section was exquisite, two walls of large windows giving a glow to these books from 2 angles. I could not have dreamed of better lighting.

A Magic PlaceA Magic Place

" A Magic Place "
The StacksThe Stacks '' The Stacks

There were a lot of old magazines and even a newspaper from 1893 !! 

( Entire album > Historic Cossitt Library )

 In October 2016, a group of Memphians applied and received a $5 million grant to participate in "Reimagining the Civic Commons," a three-year demonstration project to help the city and greater community reconnect to the thing Memphis was built on: the Mississippi River. The new Cossitt will get $3M of that grant.
Shamichael Hallman, Cossitt branch manager, is excited about the renovations planned at the Cossitt, he explained: building on the library’s existing initiatives— such as computer classes, science programs, and job assistance workshops— while also creating a framework for exciting new programs to bring this library into the 21st Century.

 It will be a space not only for traditional learning, but also a space where the community can grow together and explore different types of learning, be it through reading, the arts, music, discussion, or personal connection. Flexible furnishings and design will create a scalable space that can be transformed easily to suit many different events and programs, from large open spaces for dance classes, theater, and more, to smaller studio spaces and breakaway rooms for more intimate events.

Renovations have been under way since the Fall of 2017. 

The re-imagined Cossitt Library 

( source of these two photos > Renovations )


 The Cossitt will expand the reach of the arts, grow local talent, and provide ready access to public services. This stalwart will be a genuine draw for Memphians from all walks of life. 

A huge bushel-full of thanks to
Shamichael Hallman for his guided tour and passion for this library. I also would like to thank 
June West, Keenon McCloy, Margot Payne, and the Memphis Heritage
Sources in addition to those listed above:



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