Memphis Cossitt Library

 ...The City's First Library and Museum      


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 it's red sandstone turret towering  above Memphis's skyline - almost shouting "Culture has arrived!!!"


But that didn't quite happen.   After it's 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 did open it was known as the Cossitt-Goodwyn Institute - and in addition to books, it also housed the city's first museum collection.  Culture had now indeed arrived.


Thanks  to the Memphis Public Library and the University of Memphis Library for many of the  photos on this page





Architect's Rendering



Click on small photos to enlarge them. 


Cossitt in the Snow

The back of Cossitt - 1910

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.  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".   >


Whitehaven Branch

Vance Branch

Lemoyne Branch


Architectural Details of Cossitt Library



Cossitt Library Interiors


Reading Room

Reading Room

Cossitt Museum

Cossitt Interior


Memphis Room

Memphis Room

Memphis Room

Memphis Room



For many years the lot next to the library was literally used as a city dump.  This didn't seem to bother anyone until Memphis received some unfavorable attention in McCalls magazine about this.  That dump was cleaned up and became Chickasaw Park.  Eventually Chickasaw Park  was demolished to build a parking garage. 




A 1906 Addition to Cossitt Library ?


In preparation for this page we collected numerous  photos and postcards of the library.  In the 1906-1912 photos, we noticed what appeared to be another building or wing at the back of the library.  Although we were aware of the 1924-25  and 1958 renovations, we'd never seen this rear building before and suspected that it might be an early addition to the library.  Closer inspection of the photos confirmed that it was indeed part of the library building and it must have been added around 1907-08.  The official Cossitt history discusses the 1925 and 1958 renovations but doesn't include  information about other additions.  Soon after this page was finished we finally found our proof - a one sentence mention  in a paragraph about the first Library Director Charles Dutton Johnston.  "Johnston also expanded the library's infrastructure by adding shelf space and a reading room overlooking the Mississippi River in 1906". 


Charles Dutton Johnston



No addition - 1905-06

Rear addition -1910

Detail-addition 1910

Rear addition - 1906

Rear addition - 1912


The First Renovation


The need for more space was solved in 1924-25 when the library underwent its first renovation - a rear addition designed in the original style by E. L. Harrison.  It wasn't a great addition, but it was "acceptable" and more than doubled the size of the library.  All was well with Cossitt now and the library continued as a showplace of the city.  Memphians just thought the castle would always be there.



Aerial View





The Final "Renovation"

But space began to be a problem once more and the library began thinking in terms of "modernization".  That meant a new building.  So, out of the blue, the library commission began talking about the building  being "unstable".    And because they talked about it so much it became a fact.  Thus it was "decided" that the old "unstable" Cossitt Library should be demolished after standing like a rock for 65 years.   But it will be called a "renovation" because the rear wing will still be used, so only "part" of old Cossitt will actually be demolished. 


1958 Demolition


That 1925 rear addition had been there so long that most folks thought it actually was  part of the original Cossitt.   Now the demolition that was a "renovation" would incorporate that old wing into the new design.   In the photo on the right, you can judge just how successful this was and how well the new and old buildings are  integrated.  >


         Old and New integrated???


The last "renovation" in 1958 was an unfortunate attempt at modernization.  Eugene Johnson wrote in 'Memphis: An Architectural Guide', "The loss of no old building in Memphis is more regrettable than that of the Cossitt Library, an imposing Romanesque structure of great power and dignity.  The only vestiges of the old structure are the sandstone wall surrounding the building and the rear addition ... added in 1924-25.  The 1958 structure is thoughtlessly tacked onto the front - a sterile, minimalist box designed by the office of Walk C. Jones replacing the former classical arches, galleries, and towers of the old Cossitt".


          "...sterile, Minimalist Box..."


Another 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 corner is a disgrace.  The original Cossitt Library was one of the most beautiful public buildings in Memphis.  This is one of the ugliest. 

          "This is one of the ugliest"

But the cornerstone of Old Cossitt Library is still here >

Today that ugly 1958 Building is 53 years old.  And in this digital age, Cossit Library  is not being used as much.  It is no longer the Central Library.  It is a branch.  The property is prime river-view real estate and very valuable.  It's ripe for "developers".  No doubt this building will be demolished,  and for once, no one would miss this eyesore when that happens.  And talks have begun about this prominent corner on Front Street. 


                Original Cornerstone



Solutions?  A Recommendation for the old Cossitt Library...


This website recommends something the City of Memphis seems to be passionate about - that is, DEMOLISH the entire building currently on this lot and build a new, exact replica of the original Cossitt Library, just like the architect's rendering to the right. > 


This " new Cossitt" building would make a very appropriate, grand Library Museum.   With more and more research being conducted on the internet, folks don't have as much need for actual libraries.  But in the very near future, they will begin to wonder about the old-fashioned way of doing research.  Memphis could lead the way by establishing  the first Library Museum.




<> Cossitt Library in Vintage Postcards over the years <>




















       1908 - with Trolley


















<>  Cossitt Library Memorabilia  <>

City Principals 1930

F. H. Cossitt

Cossitt's Obit Elizabeth Cottitt



Cossitt Family 1884

Cossitt Miniature Model

2 Ladies


Retaining Wall


Chas. D.Johnston - auto at Young Av  

Johnston - Cossitt Office

First Bookmobile...

Miniature Pitcher

Book Label 1898


Souvenir 1890s

Souvenir Vase Shoe

Souvenir Plate


Souvenir 1900s





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The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commission, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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