Cossitt plans include lots of gathering spaces, arts and tech partnerships

By Published: April 02, 2019 6:27 PM CT
<strong>Shamichael Hallman, branch manager at Memphis Public Libraries and civic engagement coordinator for the Fourth Bluff, discusses upcoming renovations for the Cossitt Library in Downtown Memphis on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. The Cossitt is among the locations being transformed through the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative.</strong> (Houston Cofield/Daily Memphian)

Shamichael Hallman, branch manager at Memphis Public Libraries and civic engagement coordinator for the Fourth Bluff, discusses upcoming renovations for the Cossitt Library in Downtown Memphis on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. The Cossitt is among the locations being transformed through the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative. (Houston Cofield/Daily Memphian)

The renovated Cossitt Library – slated to begin construction possibly this spring and reopen around the end of the year or in early 2020 – will include a performance area, podcast studio, co-work spaces, an arts academy and a café with cooking classes.

Shamichael Hallman, branch manager for Memphis Public Libraries and civic engagement coordinator with the Fourth Bluff project, told a group of 22 visitors Wednesday that once the $5 million project is complete, the Cossitt will be a place “to learn, to share, to create.”

The visitors were from other cities that, like Memphis, received grants through the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative.

At the outset of the Memphis Civic Commons effort, Cossitt was talked about as Capitol of sorts for the riverfront area from Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park to the library.

“I think very much this will serve as a cornerstone. I think this will allow for a lot of interesting gatherings,” Hallman said later. “I think Cossitt is building in that tradition of a library of open and free access, but also this kind of new vision of being a gathering space for all Memphians.”

The library's 1959 midcentury modern addition is a shell as it awaits renovation. The structure, which is the only portion of the Cossitt open to the public for the past 60 years, is without electricity for now.

ELLE PERRYReimagining the Civic Commons representatives to gather in Memphis

“I hope you brought sweaters,” said Memphis Public Libraries director Keenon McCloy as she greeted the visitors in the foyer off the courtyard at Front Street and Monroe Avenue. “We are about to start construction.”

In the foyer were renderings of a planned installation commemorating the 1960 sit-in protests that were staged at various locations, including the Cossitt. The piece, which will be installed toward the river side of the ground floor, is a tribute to the African-American attorneys who represented the protesters and fought in both the courtroom and the community to end segregation.

The plans also include the Cossitt being home to the largest archive of the history of the Memphis LGBTQ community.

McCloy told the group Memphians are still divided about the 1959 creation of the midcentury modern front attached to what was left of the 19th-century, castle-like sandstone building.

“It’s always been somewhat of a rub,” she said.

“We embrace it, but we don’t forget the older structure,” Hallman said. “I think the hope is there’s enough excitement and if we are able to demonstrate some really solid values with this space then we could then go back and do something with that space.”

The red sandstone building currently is used as storage.

“That’s where it all started,” he said. “There is some beautiful architecture, and we don’t want to neglect that space. But we’ve got to prove that the investment is worth it here.”

Plans for the courtyard include better access from the street, with a seating area, tables and an UrbanArt Commission work that looks like a giant, open storybook.

The ground floor will be a gathering place, Hallman said, with areas on the second floor for meeting rooms with a river view and similar areas for smaller groups.

The second floor also will feature a listening area for vinyl records; in the renderings, the space looks similar to the music area once featured at the old Main Library at Peabody and McLean before compact discs, iPods and music downloads became mainstream.

“It’s full circle. … We’re just trying to create that space where people can just hang out and listen to music and enjoy each other,” Hallman said. “A lot of people don’t know that there is a pretty robust vinyl collection at Benjamin Hooks (Central Library) already. We’ll grab some of that and add some to it.”

On the second floor of the library, Hallman introduced leaders of the various organizations partnering with the city for space and programs at the Cossitt.

They include Indie Memphis, New Ballet Ensemble, and Memphis Jookin Arts Academy – an art academy led by dancer Charles Riley, aka LilBuck, who has pioneered the jookin form of dancing. The academy also will teach other performing arts as well as writing programs and other forms of expression.

“I want to bring it back to the youth,” Riley told the group. “They have somewhere in Memphis. They don’t have to go outside Memphis.”

The group of planners – who hailed from Chicago; Akron, Ohio; Detroit; and Philadelphia – took in Mississippi River Park and Memphis Park, got a briefing on Mud Island River Park from the back of the University of Memphis Law School and ended the 3 1/2 hour walking tour at the Cossitt.

All of the stops are part of the Fourth Bluff area – a set of public spaces that, after receiving three years of funding from four nonprofit foundations and local matching funds, are now making the plans of public space with access and programming for all a reality.

The planners watched as children played Wednesday afternoon at Mississippi River Park, a few of the adults breaking away to run up a rope net into the treehouses that are built for adults as well as kids.

BILL DRIESMississippi River Park nears November re-opening

Up the bluff in Memphis Park or Fourth Bluff Park, they were greeted by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner of Memphis Greenspace, the nonprofit that owns the park. Turner, along with Penelope Huston of the Downtown Memphis Commission and Victoria Young of Diner en Blanc, the social gathering and dinner held in the park this past August, spoke to the group on the concrete slab where the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis once stood.

Turner noted the only monument still in the park after the removal of the Confederate statues and a set of replica Civil War cannons is a stone tablet listing the Ten Commandments.

Turner said the tablet also had been slated for removal until a worker helping remove it fell and broke his leg.

“We took that as a sign,” he said.

BILL DRIESConfederate monument anniversary reveals a work in progress

Huston said the effect of wiping the park of the Confederate monuments in time for a banquet-type gathering of 1,200 people who hadn't been told where the event would be held until they were taken there was surprising.

“You don’t realize emotionally what it does,” she said. “People want to be in this park now.”

“It changes the narrative,” Young added.

The Civic Commons visitors wanted to know how deep the Gulf of Mexico replica on the Mud Island Riverwalk was and whether the monorail worked.

On Riverside Drive below the Law School, a line of five people on a Segway tour passed by. A bit later, two children on Lime electric scooters followed – all on their way to Mississippi River Park.


Cossitt Library Shamichael Hallman Keenon McCloy Charles Riley Civic Commons
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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