Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Free School Open both Day and Night

Peter Cooper, a native New Yorker, resided in Gramercy Park during the later part of his life. He was of Dutch descent, and was very frugal with his money: except when it came to giving it away! He had earned wealth from a glue factory (!) and was a prominent citizen of New York City. He was also an inventor, having patented the first powdered gelatin dessert in 1845, later known as Jell-O. Wanting to better the life of his fellow citizens, Cooper set up a free school for both men and women.

In 1858, Peter Cooper opened the school he had founded, located on Seventh Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues, and facing Astor Place. Known as "The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science," the school was open to men and women on the basis of merit only, and was free of charge. Classes in both art and science were held in the many classrooms during the evening. The top floor of the school was an astronomical observatory, and below it were lecture halls, laboratories, a museum, an art gallery, and a reading room. A large underground hall, situated as to be free of street noises, was located in the basement of the building. Cooper wanted all points of view represented there, and both Democrats and Republicans spoke from its podium. The inaugural speaker was none other than Mark Twain. In February of 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that launched his national career in this "Great Underground Hall." His very persuasive anti-slavery speech later became known as his "Cooper Union Address."

Source: Klein, Carol. Gramercy Park. An American Bloomsbury. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Photo: From Harper's Weekly, week of March 30, 1861.

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