The Boston Public Library’s influence on library design resonated for more than forty years, as seen here in the design of New York Architect Edward L. Tilton. That influence is limited in this building to the design of the facade, and the building’s interior is programmatically more akin to the triparite plan used for many smaller libraries in the early twentieth century and found in most of those funded by Andrew Carnegie. Wealth from textile production enabled the Knight siblings to donate this building as well as an endowment in memory of their parents, Robert and Josephine Knight, to the Elmwood Public Library, founded in 1915. The independant public library later became affiliated with and ultimately incorporated into the Providence Public Library, of which this was a branch.
— 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
Opened to the public in 1924, the Knight Memorial Library was built to house the Elmwood Public Library Association (est. 1915). The structure is dedicated to Robert Brayton Knight (1826–1912) and his wife, Josephine (1829–1911), by their children. Robert Knight was one of the founders, with his brother Benjamin Brayton (1813–1898), of the famed B. B. and R. Knight Co., the greatest cotton-manufacturing firm in the world at the beginning of the twentieth century and the producer of the Fruit of the Loom brand.
The building […] utilizes an “open” floor plan. Three levels of stacks constructed of cast iron support the main floor, allowing for greater circulation of library patrons in that space.
The Beaux Arts Neoclassical interior is conceived as the columned space of a Roman atrium, with a skylight above. The relief sculpture over the colonnade consists of plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze. The coffered ceiling reflects classical models, and the building is filled with beautiful wrought-iron work, stained glass, and rich wood paneling.
— 2017 Festival of Historic Houses Guidebook
Following a separation of the downtown library and the branch libraries into the Providence Public Library and the Providence Community Library System, respectively, Knight Memorial became a branch of the Providence Community Library (PCL). Throughout the years, lack of maintenance and upgrades at Knight meant that it often had to close in summertime due to lack of air conditioning. Plasterwork was failing due to roof leaks and the skylight was covered in one roof repair. In December 2017, Knight Memorial Library received a grant of more than half a million dollars from the Champlin Foundation for exterior maintenance and repairs including roof work, which commenced in Spring 2018. Jeffrey Cannell, Library Director at the time, said that this is the first major work to take place at the library since it opened nearly a century ago. Since then, funding has been raised to upgrade the electrical system. The need for interior renovations and funding persists and threatens the building’s ongoing use as a 21st century public library.
In 2018-2019, PPS commissioned Rhode Island-based artists to create original works of art for four sites included on the 2018 Most Endangered Properties list. Cartoonist Walker Mettling created a handmade hardcover artist book focusing on Knight Memorial Library.
Walker Mettling Presentation at the Knight Memorial Library (April 2019)
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