Cooper Union

Art & Culture | History

Established in 1859 this distinguished institute played a pivotal role in the career of one of the United States' most important Presidents.

Cooper Union new building exterior east village

About Cooper Union

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • Established in 1859, Cooper Union is an historic college that offers degrees exclusively in architecture, fine arts, and engineering.
  • The founder, Peter Cooper (we’ll get to him in a second), was a visionary proponent of education and a progressive thinker. He created Cooper Union to be a tuition-free school and, even more revolutionary at the time, opened it up to women and people of all races.
  • As a highly-regarded, tuition-free school, admission to Cooper Union was extremely difficult, with an acceptance rate under 10%.
  • This stat changed a bit in 2014 when, due to a financial crisis, Cooper Union began charging tuition.
  • This change was a big deal as the school had been tuition-free since 1859. An uproar ensued, with protests and melodrama, including a brief student-led occupation of the president’s office, which might have had some effect. In 2018, a plan was put in place to offer free tuition again by 2028.

Carpe City Trivia

So why is this Peter Cooper guy so fascinating?

Peter Cooper courtesy of NYPL

Besides being so handsome, Cooper was an inventor and entrepreneurial bad ass.
Two of his “minor” inventions are the first American steam railroad engine, nicknamed “Tom Thumb,” and the first transatlantic telegraph cable enabling communication from America to Europe. But most importantly, he created a portable, dried form of gelatin that today we now know and love as a dessert, or a vodka shot delivery mechanism, or perhaps even a baby pool base layer for a wrestling match… Yes. You guessed it. Jell-O.

What makes these Cooper Union buildings so interesting?

The Italianate brownstone Foundation Building, built in 1859, was the first building in New York to feature rolled iron I-beams for support. No surprise, Peter Cooper invented the beams.
Cooper did not invent the elevator, but he foresaw its invention and Cooper Union became the first building in the world built with an elevator shaft in anticipation of the invention to come.
At the time, the Foundation Building’s Great Hall was the largest non-religious meeting room in New York and became historically significant as a place for political speakers and social reform.
Abraham Lincoln delivered his famed Cooper Union address in the Great Hall, which is credited by many for propelling him to his Presidential nomination and ultimate victory.

Abraham Lincoln – Feb 1860 – The Day of his Cooper Union Speech

“Let’s have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” – Abraham Lincoln

Other notable people who spoke within these walls include American Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Clinton and Obama, as well as Fredrick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Mark Twain.

Take a gander across the street and check out the unique 41 Cooper Square building, the university’s new “green” building. Completed in 2009 by Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, it was the first institutional building in New York City to receive a LEED Platinum rating, which means it is pretty awesome at energy efficiency. In a city that tends to run dark, 41 Cooper Square was created in a way that allows for up to 75% natural lighting.

By: Kim Bielak & Christi Scofield

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