East Village Building Blocks

Cooper Union | Block : 544 | Lot #1

  • Building Date : 1859
  • Original Use : Institutional
  • Original Owner : The Cooper Union
  • Original Architect : Frederick A. Peterson

Description & Building Alterations

This entire lot is occupied by the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a center of higher education focusing on art, architecture, and engineering. Constructed in 1859 in the Anglo-Italianate style by the Prussian-born architect Frederick A. Petersen, this building was the first in New York to utilize rolled I-beams, an invention by the school’s founder, Peter Cooper. Cooper established the institution to give a quality education to all, regardless of race or sex, partly by offering night classes for working people.

Cooper Union was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1961 and became one of the first New York City landmarks in 1966.

This was previously Lot 76.

African American Civil Rights History: On February 27, 1860, a relatively unknown presidential hopeful named Abraham Lincoln gave his celebrated Cooper Union address at the Cooper Union Foundation Building, which still stands today. He knew the South was on the brink of secession and focused his speech on the importance of preserving the Union by outlawing slavery in free states, but not in the South (earlier in the day, Lincoln had his portrait taken at Mathew Brady’s temporary portrait studio at 643 Broadway; the photograph served a key role in Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency.) Lincoln would later abolish the institution of slavery in the rebel states in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. Many credit this speech with winning Lincoln the Republican nomination. The former slave, celebrated orator, and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass gave a historic speech at the Great Hall a month after the Emancipation Proclamation in which he recounted to his audience of black and white New Yorkers the reactions of the men and women around him upon first hearing of the Emancipation Proclamation. “I never saw enthusiasm before,” he recalled.” I never saw joy before. Men, women, young and old, were up; hats and bonnets were in the air, and we have three cheers for Abraham Lincoln and three cheers for about everybody else.” John Brown was also known to have gone to Cooper Union before his infamous anti-slavery raid on Harper’s Ferry, which pushed the nation towards the Civil War. Decades later, Cooper Union’s Great Hall was the site of the first public meeting of the NAACP, held in the summer of 1909.

Asian American Civil Rights History: On September 22, 1892, a group of 1,000 U.S. citizens and 200 Chinese merchants and laborers gathered at The Cooper Union’s Great Hall to protest the Greary Act, forming the Chinese Equal Rights League. The Greary Act, which had passed that year, required Chinese residents of the United States to carry a resident permit at all times. If a person did not carry a permit, he or she would risk deportation or a year’s worth of hard labor. Under the Greary Act, Chinese residents were also prohibited from bearing witness in court and from receiving bail in habeas corpus proceedings. At its first meeting, the Chinese Equal Rights League passed a resolution, published as a pamphlet, condemning both the Act’s immigration restrictions and its denial of citizenship to Chinese Americans. The resolution demanded that the act make a formal distinction between recent Chinese immigrants and resident Chinese Americans. The Philadelphia merchant Lee Sam Ping was elected president of the organization. Woo Chin Foo, a journalist and activist who is credited with founding the organization and with coining the term “Chinese American,” was elected as secretary. That year, the Chinese American community raised money to test the constitutionality of the Greary Act in Fong Yue-Ting v. United States. Over the next decade, the Chinese Equal Rights League’s activism extended beyond its resistance to the Greary Act, focusing on the larger fight for civil rights for Chinese Americans amidst increasingly strict immigration laws.

Labor Rights History: On November 22, 1909, Jewish dressmaker Clara Lemlich walked onto the stage of the Great Hall at Cooper Union, standing before an audience of thousands of garment factory workers. A series of male labor movement leaders had spoken at the gathering so far, and Lemlich was frustrated with their tedious deliberating. She called the group to join together in a strike to protest the city’s substandard garment factory working conditions. The group, in immediate agreement, took a traditional Jewish oath of solidarity, beginning the “Uprising of 20,000,” the massive shirtwaist workers strike that included between 20,000 and 30,000 workers and lasted until February of 1910. The strike brought attention to the thousands of young immigrant women who worked long, underpaid hours in overcrowded settings, propelling the worker movement in the garment industry in NoHo and the Lower East Side. Workers in other cities soon joined the striking effort, the Women’s Trade Union offered its support, and anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman provided her leadership, demanding that women’s working conditions be considered in the broader fight for labor rights. While most of the strikers’ demands were dismissed, the movement gathered enormous public attention and participation. By the end of the strike, 85 percent of shirtwaist makers in New York had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, formed in 1900, which continued the fight for improved labor conditions with the help of Lemlich. Sadly, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which had ignored the strikers’ proposed reforms, suffered a devastating, deadly industrial disaster on March 25, 1911, leading to legislation changes and growing attention to labor rights activism.

LGBTQ Civil Rights History: On December 2, 1964, gay rights activist Randy Wicker and four others – including Kay Tobin and probably Craig Rodwell – staged a picket at the front entrance of the Great Hall, protesting a talk conducted by Dr. Paul R. Dince titled “Homosexuality, A Disease.” The previous September, Wicker had organized another action at the U.S. Army Building at Whitehall Street, drawing attention to the military’s discriminatory treatment of the LGBTQ community. Together, these rallies have come to be known as the first public demonstrations for gay rights in the United States. The Great Hall protest was also the first public protest of the profession of Psychiatry, which formulated and perpetuated prejudiced “science” targeting the LGBTQ community. With his protest, Wicker followed several other efforts to fight psychiatry’s pathologization of homosexuality, including Thomas S. Szasz’s 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness, and Frank Kameny’s 1963 attempt to convince the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., a leading gay rights organization, to publicly deny that homosexuality was a disease (Kameny succeeded in 1965). Before the Great Hall, the protestors passed out flyers and demanded 10 minutes of rebuttal time after the talk. The forum chairman, eager to facilitate a dialogue, accepted the request. Wicker took the microphone immediately after the lecture, receiving enormous applause from the audience. Decades later, in the 1990s, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) held its Monday night general meetings at the Great Hall, once its meeting attendees could no longer fit inside the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center on West 13th Street. ACT UP worked to galvanize political action to protest policies that inhibited the fight against AIDS, and has grown to be a national and international organization.

Women’s Civil Rights History: Cooper Union was at the center of the New York women’s suffrage movement over the course of six decades. Just after the state’s landmark decision to allow women to maintain sole ownership over property and wages and to share joint custody of their children after a divorce, the National Rights Convention was held in this historic building on May 10th and 11th, 1860. Criminal justice reformer and suffragist Abby Hopper Gibbons served as vice president of the Convention, which brought together suffragist icons including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Thirteen years later, in 1873, the American Woman Suffrage Association met here, followed by another mass suffrage meeting attended by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1894. In 1907, the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women, which included founder Harriot Stanton Blatch and union leader Rose Schneiderman, gathered here as well.

Many leading suffragists gave landmark speeches at Cooper Union, including British women’s rights advocate Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909 and Equal Right Amendment co-author Alice Paul in 1910. When Cooper Union hosted a 1912 suffrage debate, union leader Rose Schneiderman delivered one of her most memorable declarations: women she knew, Schneiderman stated, wouldn’t “lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round.” Britain’s Anne Cobden Sanderson gave a Cooper Union address as well.

Over the course of the next few years, Cooper Union continued to serve as a place of political dissent and celebration. Suffragists rejoiced the suffrage success of Washington State in 1910 and gathered again when California gave women the right to vote in 1911. On April 22, 1912, when the New York State Legislature denied woman’s suffrage, the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League organized a rally at Cooper Union. Two years later, in 1914, what has become known as “the first feminist mass meeting” took place here, featuring the radical Village siblings Max and Crystal Eastman as speakers.

When a 1915 New York Women’s Suffrage referendum was defeated, Cooper Union hosted a meeting in which movement leaders raised 100,000 dollars to launch their next campaign. Finally, when on November 6th, 1917 New York State finally gave women the right to vote, activists celebrated their long-awaited victory at Cooper Union, the place they had met so many times along the way.

The Peter Cooper Monument – Cooper Square: By the mid 19th century, Peter Cooper was one of the country’s most important men. He suffered self-consciousness over his lack of education, however. To provide other lower-class children education, he created a free institution based on a notable school in Paris. The school was planned for the “boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I. Education should be, he said, “as free as water and air.”

The cornerstone of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was laid in 1854. Cooper included a free library in the building so that the public could access information and learning. In a letter to his Trustees, he wrote, “I desire to make this institution contribute in every way to aid the efforts of youth to acquire useful knowledge and to find and fill that place in the community, where their capacity and talents can be usefully employed, with the greatest possible advantage to themselves and the community in which they live.”

Following his death in April 1883, there were plans to erect a memorial. In 1887, The New York Times reported that neither the area directly in the front nor the back of Cooper Union would work for this structure. “The triangle south of Cooper Institute was objectionable because pedestrians seldom passed on that side of either street, and the elevated roads obscured the view; the area to the north of the Institute was objectionable for the latter reason.”

Thirteen years after Cooper’s death, construction of the monument began. The sculpture would sit within a canopy designed by Stanford White. The Sun said, “It will be made of Italian marble and will be in the form of steps rising to a heavy base, upon which the statue will stand.” In 1935, Cooper Square was reconstructed, and the monument was cleaned and restored. It was conserved again in 1987 under the Adopt-a-Monument Program. A ceremony was held on May 29, 1997, by Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and Cooper Union President John Jay Iselin. Similar to the 1897 unveiling, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Band played. Among the speakers was Peter Cooper’s great-great-grandson, Edward R. Hewitt.

Block : 444 / Lot : 1 / Building Date : 1859 / Original Owner : The Cooper Union / Original Use : Institutional / Original Architect : Frederick A. Peterson

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