Peter Cooper, a New York City-born boy from humble roots, grew up to become an influential businessman and education advocate whose legacy helped define New York City. He founded Cooper Union, a tuition-free school built in the 1850s, to help see his vision of a time when “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”
Cooper himself had only two years of formal education before starting work. He was a tinkerer and inventor, and in 1921 he opened a glue factory near Kips Bay. His company grew to become the largest supplier of glues and cement in the tri-state area, and they also invented a new form of gelatin that was instant. He sold the patents to another company who made it into the product we know today as Jell-O, a name conceived by Cooper’s wife, Sarah.
Cooper’s next venture was in the railroads. The railway was expanding to Maryland, so he bought land there hoping to capitalize on the new destination. We can imagine how pleasantly surprised he must have been to find iron ore on his land, making his investment especially profitable! When the steam train came across issues that were going to prevent it from reaching Maryland, Cooper realized he would need to become involved if he wanted to realize the full fruits of his Maryland land. He helped hack a steam train together from scrap parts, which became known as “Tom Thumb.” The launch of the steam train wasn’t all that smooth, but Cooper was able to prove its value and gain the people’s support. The project continued, built in part with the iron ore from Cooper’s land, and he became one of the richest men in New York.
In addition to being a savvy businessman, Cooper was also a philanthropist who knew the value of education. Together with his close friend and son-in-law, Abram Hewitt, he started Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art as a co-ed school that treated women equally to men. The credo behind the school has always been that education should be “as free as air and water,” and it remained tuition-free until 2013. Today the future of the school is unclear as the endowment has been drawn down and the school recently started charging tuition.
The architecture of the building has some notable history. Built in 1859, it used steel railroad tracks for support, making it the first steel reinforced skyscraper and the tallest building in New York at seven stories. Cooper knew that elevators would eventually be invented, so he prepared by including an elevator shaft that would be ready to install the new technology as soon as it was available. However, he thought elevators would be round rather than square, which has caused perpetual mechanical issues. The building was gutted in the 1970s, and everything except for the problematic round elevator shaft was removed, which you can see on the roof.
At the time, the building housed the largest underground hall in the eastern US, and Lincoln gave a speech here while campaigning in 1860. He spoke for five hours, but the content can be summarized into the three words “right makes might.” The two things he attributed to winning the election were the new medium of the photograph, and his speech at Cooper Union. Other presidents have continued the tradition of speaking here, most recently Barack Obama in 150 years after Lincoln.
The campus today fits snugly into the neighborhood with both the original building and the more modern one across the street. The statue of Peter Cooper in the park used to be cleaned by Jackson Pollock when he worked as a stone cutter at the Emergency Relief Bureau, who later lived nearby at 76 Houston St. And the school has produced many graduates that have helped shaped the city and the world, including Robert Maynicke, who designed the Germania Bank Building at 190 Bowery, and photographer Jay Maisel, who lives there today.
|1859||Cooper Union founded by Peter Cooper|
|1860||Abraham Lincoln delivers groundbreaking speech at Cooper Union's Great Hall|
|1961||Foundation Building declared a National Historic Landmark|
|1965||Foundation Building declared a New York City landmark|
|1974||Foundation Building's interior undergoes dramatic modernist renovation|
|2002||Foundation Building rededicated after renovation of brownstone exterior|
|2013||Cooper Union starts charging tuition|
|link||Cooper Union Official Website|
|internal||Cooper Union - Wiki|
|link||NY Curbed: Cooper Union|
|internal||Peter Cooper - Wiki|
|link||The Cooper Archives: Foundation Building|