Some credit Nashville’s Ben West library, built in 1966, for changing the experience of going to a library for an entire generation. And the man who designed it, local architect Bruce Crabtree, considered it his favorite work.
Yet the three-story building sat abandoned for roughly 15 years, accumulating water damage on its marble exterior and once escaping the wrecking ball — which could have relegated it to a parking lot.
So the news Thursday brought immediate cheers from preservationists: The long-vacant, Mid-Century Modern building will be bought and renovated by the state teachers’ union, marking a turning point for the downtown landmark on Union Street.
“You know, the first time we walked in there, it was clear it was abandoned for a long time. … But once you look beyond that, you see the bones of the building — it’s going to be great,” said Jim Wrye, with the education association. “It was clear to us — especially on that first floor, where there were such great book stacks — that it would be a fantastic place for students, for teachers, for community groups — as an auditorium, and as a learning space.”
Wrye sounds as though he looked into the past: The architect’s son and partner described the building's purpose — to make the city library an active and “homey” place.
“He was always proud of that building for what it did for the library system in Nashville, making it very visible, being very full of light and windows,” architect David Johnson told The Tennessean in 2014. “Libraries of prior periods had kind of been vaults for books. Bruce always wanted to know how the people were going to use the space.”
Mayor Megan Barry and the nonprofit Historic Nashville Inc. were quick to celebrate the sale to the TEA, which has promised to invest $8.5 million in renovations (on top of the $4 million purchase price), and to “keep exactly its beautiful lines and architectural grace,” Wrye said.
Wrye said the library deserves landmark status, a point that Historic Nashville Inc. argued when placing the building on its 2013 list of “endangered” historic properties.
At one point, Metro considered giving up the building to the state government, which had plans for demolition to create a parking lot. There was also a stretch when officials could generate little interest in a sale.
There’s no timeline for the sale to close, the Metro Council to weigh in, or for the rehabilitation to begin. But Wrye describes its future as a hub for the organization’s 45,000 members and staff of 78.
It will host TEA training sessions — including in a “state of the art” interactive classroom — and its auditorium will be made available for large Metro Schools events.