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Monday, September 14, 2015

The Cooper Union

The new Cooper Union building housing the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture,
41 Cooper Square, New York, NY.
If you could imagine the perfect higher education art school, what would it be like? It would have a world-class staff of instructors. It would be big, but not too big, less than a thousand student. It would be in the heart of the art capital of the world. The facilities would be spacious and the most up-to-date in the world. The campus would be compact--maybe a block or two each way. And, best of all, tuition would be free (yeah, dream on). Could such a school exist? Actually, until the past year or so, such a school DID exist. Except for the free tuition part, it does exist--the famed Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in the heart of mid-town Manhattan, New York City. The only "fly in that ointment" is the fact that it's one of the most difficult art schools in the world in which to gain admission. Last year (2014), even as the college started charging tuition for the first time in its 184-year history, the school received over 2,500 applications. The acceptance rate rose from ten percent to fifteen percent.
The main staircase inside.
The Cooper Union was founded in 1830 by Peter Cooper, based upon the government-supported École Polytechnique in France. It's not just an art school, but also teaches future architects and engineers. In place of government support, the wealthy multi-millionaire inventor/entrepreneur businessman founded, then funded the entire enterprise himself. If he could see today the radical Postmodern edifice that bears his name (top) with it's strikingly daring main staircase (above) he might well have had second thoughts. My own first thoughts in seeing it were that they'd erected the standard glass-cube office building then taken a giant machete to it just to break up the monotony. If that was their goal, they certainly succeeded. Peter Cooper's original educational edifice, still standing a few hundred feet down the street (today known as the Foundation Building, below), looks nothing like the new addition to the campus. Whether that's good or bad, I guess, depends on your taste in architecture. Personally, I'm not particularly fond of either one of them.

The recently remodeled Cooper Union Foundation Building, E. 7th Street, New York.
The Cooper Union, mid-town Manhattan.
Peter Cooper was born in 1791, the son of a Methodist hat maker. In his early years, Cooper worked as a coach maker's apprentice, cabinet maker, hat maker, brewer, and grocer. He had barely one year of formal education during his entire lifetime. Thus, his devotion to facilitating academic opportunity for all, regardless of race, gender, ethnic background, financial or social standing, is not only remarkable for that era, but reflects his consciousness of his own shortcomings. Around 1830, Cooper designed and built the first steam powered railway engine in the U.S. He also dabbled in in the manufacture of glue and iron. Having made his fortune, Cooper invested it in real-estate, insurance, and railroads. Then, as president of the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company, he was the principal investor in the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. In 1876, at the age of eighty-five, Peter Cooper spent $25,000 of his own money, running for President of the United States under the Greenback Party banner, though he was somewhat less successful in that undertaking. He was no Donald Trump.

Peter Cooper: painted by a present-day Cooper Union art student, Dan Howard
(above, left), as seen by Virginia Tucker in a posthumous portrait (center), Cooper
as a young man in an 1850s photo (above, right), and in his latter years (lower right).
Cooper Union women students
painting, ca 1920.
Peter Cooper's school was built on a radical new model of American higher education based on his fundamental belief that an education equal to the best technology schools [then] established, should be accessible to those who qualify, independent of their race, religion, sex, wealth or social status, and should be open and free to all. The Cooper Union originally granted each admitted student a full-tuition scholarship. Even today, every incoming student receives at least a half-tuition merit scholarship. The Cooper Union began with adult education in night classes on the subjects of applied sciences and architectural drawing, as well as day classes primarily intended for women on the subjects of photography, telegraphy, typewriting and shorthand in what was called the college's Female School of Design. The early institution also consisted of a free reading room open day and night, and a new four-year nighttime engineering college for men and a few women. A daytime engineering college was added in 1902 thanks to funds contributed by Andrew Carnegie. Among those who availed themselves of the institute's courses in its early days include the sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, inventor, Thomas A. Edison and the military engineer, William Francis Deegan.

The Cooper Union's architectural design studio today.
The Cooper Union campus--
A. The Foundation Building, 7 East 7th Street
B. 41 Cooper Square (new building)
C. Administrative Offices, 30 Cooper Square
D. Residence Hall, 29 Third Avenue
E. Stuyvesant-Fish House, 21 Stuyvesant Street,
     (home of the college president).
For most of the 19th-century the Cooper Union operated from the Foundation Building, an Italianate brownstone building designed by architect Fred A. Petersen, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects. It was the first structure in New York City to feature rolled-iron I-beams for structural support. Peter Cooper them himself then produced them in one of his factories. Built in 1853, the building was the first in the world to feature an elevator shaft, even though Elisha Otis had not yet perfected them for commercial use. At the time, the building's basement also contained one of he largest auditoriums in New York City. It was there, in the "Great Hall," on February 27th 1860, that Abraham Lincoln launched his bid for the Republican nomination as President of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln's dramatic speech opposed Stephen A. Douglas on the spread of slavery to the federal territories and new States. The speech solidified support for Lincoln, helping him to gain his Party's nomination for the Presidency. It is now referred to as the Cooper Union Address.
For more than a hundred years or more, Peter Cooper has sat outside
his school, perched under a classical stone pavilion, still supervising
the goings on in the triangular "square" bearing his name.


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