Last week, President Obama gave a speech in New York City calling out Wall Street leaders on what he called “reckless practices” and asking them to join together with the government in creating economic regulations that will guard against future financial crises. The setting of Obama’s speech was the Great Hall at Cooper Union, a privately funded college founded by the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859 as an institute for the study of science and art. In honor of Obama’s recent speech, here’s a little more information about that longstanding New York institution:
- In February 1860, less than a year after it was founded, Cooper Union made history as the site of one of the first nationally publicized speeches by a rising Republican politician named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s speech, in which he made clear his anti-slavery views and addressed the growing threat of the South’s secession (which would occur the following year, sparking the Civil War), electrified his audience of some 1,500 people, each of whom had paid 25 cents a ticket, and helped paved the way for his historic election as president later that year.
- Today, the Cooper Union Foundation Building, an Italianate brownstone beauty located where 4th Avenue swerves west towards Union Square near 8th Street, is a National Historic Landmark. Presidents from U.S. Grant to Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton spoke in the Great Hall at various stages of their careers, along with figures as diverse as Ralph Nader, Rudy Giuliani and Hugo Chávez. As an academic institution, Cooper Union offers degree programs and other courses in architecture, fine art and engineering as well as classes in humanities and the social sciences. The environmentally friendly New Academic Building was completed in 2009, and replaced the previous academic building at 41 Cooper Square.
If that worthy legacy doesn’t make Cooper Union worth a visit, consider this: In addition to building America’s first steam locomotive (nicknamed “Tom Thumb”) in 1830, Peter Cooper also obtained the first patent for gelatin dessert in 1845…the earliest incarnation of the product we know and love as JELL-O.