The Other Cossitt Library

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The first Memphis public library opened in 1893. The benefactor was none other than Frederick H. Cossitt, the former Granby resident and philanthropist. At the time of Cossitt’s death, Memphis was just a fledgling Tennessee city without any library. Even though Cossitt did not provide for the library in his will, he did leave a list of three Memphis businessmen who were to manage the endowment funds and see that a proper library was constructed. 

The city agreed to provide the building lot, the working expenses and awarded Atlanta architect L.B. Wheeler the contract for the building. Trying to work within a modest budget, Wheeler created a small but impressive Romanesque monument like nothing else the city of Memphis had ever seen. It was a masterpiece, with its red sandstone turret towering above the skyline—almost shouting, “Culture has arrived!”

But that didn’t quite happen. After its dedication, the new library actually stood empty for a year because there wasn’t enough money left to buy any books. The city newspapers began a campaign asking the public to help. And the shelves began to fill up. When the library finally did open, in addition to books, it also housed the city’s first museum collection. Culture had now indeed arrived!

The citizens of Memphis 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. But like all libraries, there was never enough space. Almost from the beginning, the library began the rather new concept of renting space around town and opening “branches.” By the turn of the century it became obvious that more space was going to be needed and a small addition was added, expanding the library’s infrastructure by adding shelf space and a reading room overlooking the Mississippi River in 1906.

A larger addition was designed with new space that doubled the size of the original and the library continued as a showplace of the city that the locals assumed would always be there.

But by the 1950s the space began to be a problem once more and the library began thinking in terms of “modernization.” That of course meant a new building and the library commission began a campaign of talking about the building as being unstable. They talked so much about it that of course it became a fact. Thus, it was decided that the beautiful old Romanesque building should be demolished after standing like a rock for 65 years. To convince the folks of Memphis this was a “renovation,” the rear 1920s section was kept and a poorly conceived mid-century modern was added to the front where the proud old structure once stood.

This so-called renovation was not well received; a critic wrote of the 1958 renovation, “To fully appreciate the absolute ugliness of this building, you have to remember what it replaced. The original Cossitt Library was a stunning red sandstone castle, with a sweeping flight of steps that led up to a triple-arched entrance, and a round tower that provided visitors with magnificent views of the Mississippi River… In a flash of insanity, the city of Memphis, arguing that the old building had somehow become unstable, tore down the castle and replaced it with this. Some people might try to call the new building ‘International Style.’ We call it a hideous blue box that doesn’t even attempt to match the rear sandstone addition. This whole project is a disgrace. The original Cossitt Library was one of the most beautiful public buildings in Memphis. This is one of the ugliest.”

1950s renovation of the Cossitt Library in Memphis. Submitted photo

All that remained of Old Cossitt Library was the cornerstone that is still displayed in the front lobby.

By the 2000s the Cossitt was still home to the city’s public library, though it was only considered a branch and no longer used very much in the digital age. The historic back half of the library is virtually abandoned, and closed off to the public. There are large empty rooms with incredible views of the Mississippi River. Some rooms are simply storage areas, and others are filled with myriad rows of metal bookshelves and used as stacks, a place where old books and publications go to wither and decay.

In 2011 a group of locals formed a concerned-citizens organization that lobbied for an exact replica of the original Cossitt Library. Their view was that a new Cossitt building would make a very appropriate and grand Library/Museum that could lead the way in library design across the country. This dream however was never to be.

Epilog: 2020

After years of decline and underutilization, the Cossitt Library was closed in January 2018. The dream of a replica of the historic structure was never considered. After receiving a Federal grant along with other cities like Detroit and Chicago, $3,000,000 was awarded to Memphis to re-invent the space and turn the building into more of a community center, a gathering place with a cafe, meeting rooms for locals, yoga on the exterior patio and rooms for teaching dance and the arts. In addition to the new programming, Library Director Shamichael Hallman assured that the library will still have “quite a few” books.

A Grand Re-opening was planned for the spring of 2019, but cost overruns pushed the renovations closer to $6,000,000 and the projected date of September 2020 has come and gone.

As the Town of Granby and The Friends of Cossitt continue our restoration project, it is with a sense of pride that our community, with generous gifts from our own residents have put our little library on the path to remaining an important part of the fabric and life of Granby.

Ladies on the steps of the Memphis Cossitt Library. Submitted photo