The following was published in the May 2012 print issue of West View News, first in a series about Cooper Union:
A More Cooper Union
By Sangamithra Iyer
When I was 18 years old, I moved to the East Village for college. From my dorm room, I had view of the Empire State Building, but it was the other shiny pencil shaped tower in the skyline for which I was grateful. The Chrysler building funded my education.
I was a civil engineering student at The Cooper Union. The school owned the lands under the Chrysler Building and received rent and the equivalent of property taxes from this piece of real estate, which in turn helped fund full tuition scholarships to Cooper students. From the steps of 51 Astor Place, then the home of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering, I would look across the street to the other building I adored. Engraved on the outer ledges of Cooper Union’s Foundation building, a beautiful dedication: “To Science and Art.”
Who was this person who made such a gift?
In the opening pages of Edward Mack’s biography Peter Cooper: Citizen of New York, he describes the public’s response to Cooper’s death in 1883. During the six hours Cooper’s casket was available for viewing at the All Soul’s Church on 20th Street and Fourth Avenue, twelve thousand New Yorkers came and paid their respects. “The sentiment from every editorial pen and from every pulpit the following Sunday was that New York had lost its most beloved and possibly its greatest citizen,” Mack wrote.
With no formal education of his own, Cooper acquired wealth through innovation; his list of inventions includes Jell-O, a steam locomotive, and the Iron I-beam. Cooper played a key role in laying the transatlantic cable, was active in the abolitionist movement and an advocate for the rights of Native Americans. He was the Greenback Party’s presidential candidate in 1876. However, perhaps his greatest legacy was the founding of an educational institution, free of charge, for the working classes, one that since opening its doors in 1859 has not discriminated by race, gender, class or creed: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
Since its beginnings, Cooper Union provided the city of New York with a center for innovation and forum for political discourse. In 1949, Mack wrote, “there was nothing like Cooper Union in New York in 1859, nor is there really anything like it today.”
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