“Great wealth is a public trust.” —Peter Cooper
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, better known simply as Cooper Union, has been in the news quite often recently, and mostly in a negative light. First, there was the St. Marks Bookstore controversy where Cooper Union turned down the bookstore’s request for a rent reduction due to hardships caused by these tough economic times, citing their own economic troubles due to a shrinking endowment. After the community, including many high-profile names such as Salman Rushdie and Michael Moore, came out to support the store, an agreement was reached and the bookstore will remain open, at least for the time being. Then in October, Jamshed Bharucha, the president of Cooper Union, raised the possibility of charging tuition for the first time in the school’s history, and was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We have to find new, robust revenue streams, and we have to do that quickly.”
So who was the man behind this revered New York institution that is presently at a crossroads?
Now mostly known to New Yorkers for the micro-neighborhood that bears his name, Peter Cooper is in fact closely associated with some of the city’s most storied institutions. Born in New York City in 1791, Cooper was a Renaissance man for the Industrial Age. A life-long “tinkerer,” he began his working life as a coach maker’s apprentice and shortly thereafter invented and patented a wool-shearing machine. Throughout his life, he continued to invent, securing numerous patents. Cooper’s success in the wool business led to other ventures: a grocery, furniture company, and later a glue factory in Kips Bay on the Sunfish Pond, a tiny body of water between 31st and 32nd Street on what is now Park Avenue.
The overwhelming success of Cooper’s glue business allowed him to move on to even greater enterprises. In 1828, during the expansion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Cooper purchased three thousand acres of land in Maryland and proceeded to invent the first steam-powered locomotive and also started an iron works company.
Having become one of the wealthiest men in America, he turned his attention to politics. Cooper became an alderman in New York City in 1840 and established the underpinnings for the city’s police and fire departments. In 1876, at the age of 85, he ran, unsuccessfully, for President as a Greenback Party candidate.
Of all his many achievements, Cooper’s greatest legacy to New York is the school that bears his name—The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Along with his interest in politics, industry, and invention, Cooper was passionate about education. Beginning in 1830, he worked with the Public School Society, a progenitor of the Board of Education, and he fought to prohibit the teaching of religion in public schools. He championed a new system for adult education, based on models he had seen in other parts of the United States and abroad to create Cooper Union.
After assembling the land around Astor Place, Cooper offered to donate it to the City of New York, provided that a school was built there to his specifications. After receiving no response, in 1854, Cooper began construction independently, using his engineering and mechanical skills to design architectural innovations—railroad tracks in the place of I-beams (the first use of iron to reinforce stone and brick in America) and circular elevators, although these plans were never executed.
One of Cooper’s most notable design concepts was the creation of a “Great Hall,” which would serve civic and cultural, as well as academic functions. With a capacity for 900 people, it was the largest secular meeting room in New York. The seating plan allowed the audience to surround the speakers, who include notables such as Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama. The first public meeting of the NAACP was held there in 1902, as were early meetings of the labor movement and other liberal causes.
Cooper Union was, and still remains, a beacon of public higher education in New York City. Tuition-free for all of its students and open to all, it was class-blind, gender-blind, color-blind, and faith-blind from its inception. For working-class students unable to attend full time, there were part-time and nighttime classes, another of Cooper’s innovative ideas.
Although Peter Cooper himself had only one year of schooling, he recognized its value to the public. Through the creation of Cooper Union, he bequeathed to future generations the educational opportunities he himself never had. Whether or not this tradition of tuition-free education will continue into the future, remains to be seen.