Friday, July 29, 2022

The Peter Cooper Monument - Cooper Square


By the middle of the 19th century, Peter Cooper was one of the most successful and wealthiest men in the country.  Yet he suffered a nagging self-consciousness over his lack of education.  To provide the means by which other lower-class children could receive an education, he conceived of a free teaching institution based on the concept of a polytechnic school in Paris.  Education should be, he said "as free as water and air." He set about planning a school for the "boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I."

The cornerstone for Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was laid in 1854.  The total cost of purchasing the site and erecting the structure would cost Cooper, according to The New York Times, “$700,000 in gold.”  Cooper included a free library in his building so that the general public, not only the students, could have access to 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.”

Almost immediately following Cooper's death in April 1883, talk circulated about a fitting memorial.  But achieving it would be a long and sometimes rocky road.  In 1887 $30,000 had been donated by the public for the work--just under $850,000 in today's money.  The Sun explained, "Little tin boxes were distributed all over the city," for the purpose.  A committee of 12 artists and art critics, headed by millionaire Orlando B. Potter, approved the designs of sculptor Wilson Macdonald and awarded him the contract.

Deciding on an appropriate site was proving difficult.  On May 29, 1887 The New York Times reported that neither the area directly in front or in back of Cooper Union was deemed right.  "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."

But a larger problem soon loomed.  The New York Times reported, "dissensions occurred in the committee, and Mr. Macdonald abandoned the project." Cooper's son, Edward, and his widow Sarah, negotiated a price of $10,000 with Macdonald "for the surrender of his contract."  They personally paid him in order to keep the monument fund intact.

Edward Cooper told reporters on May 28, 1887, "One of the sculptors of whom the committee is thinking was a pupil of Cooper Institute and a devoted friend of its founder.  If he shall prove to be the man for the work there seem[s] to be an especial fitness in his selection."  That artist was Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  But he would not receive the commission until 1892.

Two years later, on January 29, 1894, The New York Times commented, "the subject of a statue to the philanthropist has been almost completely forgotten by the public" adding, "Mr. St. Gaudens has spent much study and care upon the statue, however."  In the meantime, discussions continued regarding the site, and by February 1895 "the little green triangle" behind Cooper Union, once deemed "objectionable," was approved.

Finally, 13 years after Cooper's death, the foundry was at work on the statue, and construction of the stone monument had begun.  On November 21, 1896 The Sun reported that the statue "is of heroic size, representing Mr. Cooper seated in an armchair.  Mr. St. Gaudens is of the opinion that it is one of the best things he has done.  The face particularly is very true to life, and members of the family say that it is very good."

The statue would sit in 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."

On May 29, 1897 the monument was unveiled "with simple but impressive ceremonies," according to The New York Times.  They began in the great hall of Cooper Union with memorial addresses by several prominent citizens.  Grandstands had been erected on the triangular plot now deemed Cooper Square.  "The balconies of the great building were filled with ladies, along the elevated railroad tracks was a line of employe[e]s, while on all sides, kept back by a strong police force, was a jammed-up mass of curious humanity," said The New York Times.  The Seventh Regiment marching band paraded from its Armory down Third Avenue to the site.

New-York Tribune, May 30, 1897 (copyright expired)

Four-year-old Candace Hewitt, the great-granddaughter of Peter Cooper, "gave a tug at the rope which was to pull away the covering flags from the monument.  Her little hands were not strong enough to make much of an impression, but there were stronger hands ready to aid her, and the flags were drawn away quickly," wrote the New-York Tribune.  "When the bronze statue of Peter Cooper was revealed to gaze, the spectators cheered loudly and long."

Among those in the crowd that day was playwright and journalist Joseph I. C. Clarke.  In his 1925 autobiography My Life and Memories, he recalled that after the crowd left, "I stood admiring the truth to life of the seated figure under its stone canopy, stalwart democracy in the grasp of the staff, and benevolence, clear-sighted, luminous on face and brow."

Clarke suddenly realized that standing next to him was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, "gazing as wistfully at his statue as I had been."  The sculptor had been essentially ignored throughout the ceremonies, according to Clarke.  Saint-Gaudens commented, "The canopy, you know, is by Stanford White.  You can always rely on him to do something good."

After a pause he continued, "It's a trying moment, that first instant when you feel that now every man who passes is your critic, and you wonder if you have really done your best."

Clarke replied, "Rest, perturbed spirit.  You have docketed Peter Cooper for immortality."

Clarke remembered Saint-Gaudens's reaction. "'Flatterer!' he said, and swung down the street still smiling.  But it was not flattery."

from the collection of the Library of Congress

It was not long before vandals struck the monument of the revered philanthropist.  On June 16, 1899 The Sun reported that the statue "had been defaced, presumably by relic hunters."  The bronze letters that formed the inscription on the face of the monument were tempting and valuable targets.  "Sixteen of the letters have been pried off and parts of other decorations on the statue have also disappeared," said the article.  "It is said that a letter disappears from the statue every few weeks."

On June 24, 1901 a letter to the editor of The New York Times said sarcastically:

It would be a delight to some student of hieroglyphics to take a trip down to the Cooper Institute some day and try to decipher the inscription on the front of the Peter Cooper Statue.  Supposed to represent a dedication of the monument, it looks like anything but that with half of the letters missing.  A stranger coming to New York might wonder why the city spends its money on powder and shell for departing live 'greatnesses' instead of to repair at a slight cost a monument to one of its foremost sons.  But that is another story.

A letter to the editor of The Evening World a month later said in part, "Yet half of the letters of the grimy tablet are broken off or defaced, and to out-of-town visitors it looks as if Cooper were a forgotten has-been, instead of one of America's greatest benefactors.  For sheer shame let us brace up and do his memory the honor of at least cleaning and re-lettering his tablet."

photograph by Jim Henderson

It would not be until 1935, when Cooper Square was reconstructed, that the monument was cleaned and restored.  It was conserved again in 1987 under the Adopt-a-Monument Program.

A commemoration ceremony was held on May 29, 1997 presided over by Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and Cooper Union President John Jay Iselin.  Reminiscent of the 1897 unveiling, the United States Merchant Marine Academy Band played.  Among the speakers was Peter Cooper's great-great-grandson, Edward R. Hewitt.

 photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Great job, Tom.
    Do you know where to find pictures of the tablet lettering especially when some of the letters were missing, vs. Now?
    versus how it looks now.

    1. I haven't been able to find a depiction of the plaque in its vandalized condition. (Possibly photographers were not eager to document the defaced condition.)

  2. Thanx Tom, my alma mater. I went from 1974-78 when it was free and i needed free to be able to attend college. My dream was to go to Cooper and i was lucky enough to get in. Amazing man!

    1. Hi. Yes, he was a truly great man, with wonderful intentions, and made good on them. He provided a college education to so many people. To those who couldn't afford it, like me, it was an unbelievable opportunity to attend a top notch college. I graduated in 1977.

  3. MItch Waxman's Newtown Pentacle has an entry on this same statue that focuses on Cooper's roots and the Greenpoint-based glue making business that was the basis of his fortune. An interesting (to me, at least) fact mentioned there is that Cooper was the "inventor" of Jell-O, made from the gelatin that is a byproduct of the tallow rendering process involved in making glue. Kevin Walsh's Forgotten New York also delves into the Cooper roots in Greenpoint.

    Very interesting intersection of viewpoints in these and your blog posts.

    1. I have also written about Cooper's original house, and his mansion near Gramercy Park in separate articles.

  4. Another excellent article. Very well done, Tom.