by Kathy Lauder.
In early January 2004 Herbert Harper of the Tennessee Historical Commission announced that the Tennessee State Library and Archives building at 403 7th Avenue North “has, upon the nomination of this office, been placed in the National and Tennessee Registers of Historic Places by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior on November 17, 2003.”
The 7th Avenue building was declared eligible for the National Register on two counts. The first was architecture. Designed by H. Clinton Parrent, Jr., and completed in 1953, the structure is an outstanding example of late neoclassical architecture. Introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the neoclassical style is marked by “a symmetrical façade featuring a central entrance shielded by a full-height porch with a roof supported by classical columns.” The Nashville building features the slender columns and side-gabled roofs of the later phase, along with some Art Deco touches. It was designed to complement, although not to duplicate, the neighboring Capitol and Supreme Court buildings.
The September 1953 edition of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, reporting on the grand opening of the building, included this enthusiastic description: “With its exterior walls of white Tennessee marble, its Roman Ionic columns suggestive of the Greek Ionic columns of the Capitol and the inscriptions along the upper walls which serve as reminders of the cultural traditions out of which the building grew, it adds immeasurably to the beauty of Capitol Hill. The building is as functional as it is beautiful, with eight stack levels to accommodate [over two million volumes of] books and records . . ., a restoration laboratory for the repair and preservation of old books and records, a photographic laboratory . . ., and an auditorium.”
One of the most surprising features of the 7th Avenue facility is that it consists of two very different buildings under one roof. The handsome front section, which contained the public reading rooms and staff offices, consists of three stories and an attic storage area. A highlight is the elegant marble vestibule, featuring a terrazzo floor embellished with a geographical map of Tennessee, and military symbols reminding visitors that the building was dedicated to the Tennessee veterans of World War II. The rear of the building, functional and much less ornate, consists of eight stories of stacks and work areas.
The original Tennessee State Library was housed in the Capitol itself. Architect William Strickland personally designed the lofty and elegant room across from the Supreme Court chambers. In 1854 the legislature appropriated funds to purchase books, appointing Return Jonathan Meigs III to build the collection. Meigs, a respected scholar, was named Tennessee’s first State Librarian in 1856. By the middle of the 20th century, his successors had overseen many changes in the library collection, including the acquisition of the Tennessee Historical Society papers in 1927. As the number of resources grew, particularly under the leadership of John Trotwood Moore, who developed the collection of military and other historical records, the allotted space became cramped. It became clear that the Capitol-based Library was no longer an effective facility for research and study.
For that reason, the educational value of the 7th Avenue facility – its second criterion of eligibility for the National Register – may be even more significant. The building was constructed not only to store the State Library’s growing collection, but also to preserve the state’s archival records after many decades during which they were stuffed into attics, cellars, and odd corners of the Capitol and other buildings. In the early 1890s a janitor had actually burned several cartloads of documents, saying they were “wet and nasty and smelled bad.” An 1893 request to ship 85 trunks of Civil War vouchers to Washington, D.C., led Governor Peter Turney to assign Capitol superintendent Robert Thomas Quarles to find them. Quarles became the hero of Tennessee historians forever when he focused attention on the appalling condition of stored records and began a ten-year effort to sort and preserve them. After Quarles’ death in 1914, the state legislature passed a resolution authorizing the governor to appoint a state official to continue the work of sorting and preserving. John Trotwood Moore was named the first State Librarian and Archivist in 1919, and the Library and Archives officially merged in 1921.
Construction of the 7th Avenue building was proposed at the first meeting of the Tennessee Historical Commission on December 3, 1941, by Moore’s widow and successor, Mary Daniel Moore. Unfortunately, the entry of the United States into World War II four days later forced the plans to be delayed for several years. Finally, in 1947 and 1949, under the administrations of Governors Jim Nance McCord and Gordon W. Browning, the state legislature appropriated the necessary funds to begin construction. Ground was broken in 1951; the formal opening took place on June 17, 1953.
Update: Early in the 21st century, having outgrown available storage space in the 7th Avenue building, the State of Tennessee approved the development of a new facility. Construction began on December 11, 2017. Designed by Tuck-Hinton Architects, the new TSLA building stands adjacent to the Bicentennial Mall at Rep. John Lewis Way and Jefferson Street. The 165,000-square-foot facility, built at a cost of more than $120,000, includes a climate-controlled chamber for storing historic books and manuscripts within a space-saving robotic retrieval system, a blast freezer to help save water- and insect-damaged materials, and improved work spaces and meeting rooms. The ribbon-cutting and grand opening ceremony took place on April 12, 2021.
The author is grateful to Dr. Edwin Gleaves, Jeanne Sugg, Fran Schell, Greg Poole, and Ralph Sowell, who graciously shared the documents and information used in the preparation of this essay. Originally written in 2004, it was updated in 2021 to include more recent events.