Thursday, March 14, 2002

Library Ready to Let Cossitt Go; Redevelopers Value Land Over Building

Commercial Appeal
by Deborah M. Clubb

The fixtures in the deepest part of downtown's old Cossitt Library are nicer than those found in most modern homes. And the Mississippi River view, from its tall arched windows and rooftop, is one of the best in the city.

But Cossitt, once the mother ship of the Memphis library system, has shrunk to one ground-floor reading room and storage for city archives as it awaits news of its fate.

Black enameled iron shelves are stacked three levels high, on iron posts topped with 2-inch iron crown molding and brass filigree label holders.

The floors are inch-thick glass so that light can glow between the three levels, connected by narrow stairs with delicate iron and brass railings.

And that's the closed stacks, the part that the public was never intended to enter when the 1924 addition doubled the size of Memphis's original 1893 sandstone library.

Today, shelves in the "glass stacks" are mostly empty, the colonnaded windows dark.
Under the 50-year master plan for redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront, Cossitt's blufftop perch would be "reused."

The corner occupied by Cossitt, at Front and Monroe, is prime real estate that the city's founders preserved for public use. But the so-called promenade blocks along Front from Union to Auction are key targets of the Riverfront Development Corp., the nonprofit board that will manage waterfront redevelopment under contract with the city.

"We have to turn the `public use' parcels back into private development," said Kristi Jernigan, RDC vice chairman. "That's key to the whole effort for the riverfront."

The RDC expects to be in court this year to begin the process of taking control of the promenade property, said RDC chairman John Stokes.
That's fine with the library system.

Cossitt would cost too much to renovate as a library, said Judith Drescher, director of libraries.

And no funds for a downtown branch are in the Memphis or Shelby County capital improvement budgets.

"It's cost-prohibitive to get in there and start all over," Drescher said of Cossitt. "It meets no code. The public shouldn't be using it now."

A library should be part of the downtown scene, Drescher said, but it does not need to be a free-standing building.

The first floor or two of a new, multi-use project would be fine, Drescher said, in the center of downtown near the highest concentration of population.

The original Cossitt Library, with its round tower, triple-arched entry and terrace, stood like a red sandstone castle, financed by the heirs of dry goods magnate Frederick H. Cossitt in 1893.

Today, Cossitt contains 50,000 square feet in two awkwardly connected sections - the 1924 three-story sandstone addition and a boxy, aluminum-clad two-story section built in 1958 after the original 1893 structure was demolished.

The 1950s "facelift" ruined the Cossitt, historically speaking, said Judith Johnson, executive director of Memphis Heritage Inc., the city's foremost private, nonprofit historic preservation group. Cossitt is not on the National Register of Historic Places and would require "extensive rehabilitation" to be used as apartments, for example, Johnson said.

"Since it is so abusively altered, if you took down all or part of it, I'm not sure it would be anything other than a social loss," Johnson said.

From the east along Front Street, Cossitt looks like a giant vertical window blind hanging incongruously off a historic stone building.

A reflecting pool and fountain, funded with $13,000 from Memphis City Beautiful when the new section was built, quickly became a trash pit. It eventually was drained and deemed unusable, leaving a muddy pit with a repeatedly vandalized, headless statue to greet library patrons.

Beneath the giant window blind, the entire ground floor of the 1958 building is open weekdays as a reading room with seating, 10 computers, a few shelves of popular literature, a security guard and two or three friendly librarians.

A low-ceilinged meeting room, rarely used, doubles as a staff break room. Restrooms can be unlocked upon request. Local artists display in a small corner gallery space.

A rope blocks access to the front staircase, which leads to a vast second floor.

There rest thousands of books and other materials, all discards sent in from throughout the system to be part of regular book sales to raise money for the library.

Space in the older, rear section toward the river is taken by the "glass stacks" on the north side and by tall rooms full of shelves and archive material. Here gloved staff and volunteers organize and process historic documents in acid-free paper and storage boxes.

Records of the Memphis Street Railway, 4-inch thick yearbooks of Memphis City Beautiful and minutes of the 1896 City Council meetings line dusty shelves. Arcane reference books from the old Goodwyn Institute's business and technical reference collection, which merged with the Cossitt in 1961, fill other shelves and spill onto the floor.

The archive material now at Cossitt will be moved either to the new main library at 3030 Poplar or to the new Shelby County archive, where county documents have already gone, said Jim Johnson, senior manager of the library's history department.
The last engineering study, done in 1989 for the library system, said, "The Cossitt . . . no longer has a viable future as a public library for Memphis and Shelby County."

The consultants estimated repairs required to meet various building codes at $2.36 million.

The Dallas-based library planners who studied Cossitt in 1989, HBW Associates Inc., and local architects Jones Mah Gaskill Rhodes concluded that the library system should have nothing to do with renovating, demolishing or reusing the Cossitt location.

The elevator shaft can't hold an up-to-date elevator. The plumbing system can't accommodate new restrooms as required. Stacks can be reached only by stairs; aisle space is too narrow for crutches and wheelchairs.

Door frames and walls at Cossitt's back door are crumbling from age, insects and water damage. Paint hangs in long flaps off some ceilings.

Part of Cossitt could be preserved, Drescher said, "but it would take an enormous commitment . . . that all the money required to do that would be put into it."

By Alan Spearman
The older portion of the Cossitt library downtown, built in 1924, affords a great view of the Mississippi River through arched windows. The floors are inch-thick glass. But the public never had access; it has been used only for storage.
Part of the 1953 "facelift" to the Cossitt library downtown, a headless statue stands by an unusable reflecting pool. This addition, says Judith Johnson of Memphis Heritage Inc., ruined the Cossitt, historically speaking.

CAPTION: The city's original Cossitt library was financed by the heirs of dry goods magnate Frederick H. Cossitt in 1893. With its round tower and triple-arched entry, it looked like a sandstone castle.

Copyright 2002 The Commercial Appeal

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