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Cooper Union Redone - 2002-04-13

An historic landmark building in New York City was re-dedicated Friday, after extensive renovation of its Italianate brownstone structure. It is the largest of its kind in the city. However, the Cooper Union's Foundation Building, as it is called, is steeped in more than architectural history.

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science is a rather small but distinguished college on the lower East Side of Manhattan that offers three areas of study architecture, art and engineering.

It occupies a unique place in architectural history, a fact its president, George Campbell, is quick to point out. "When it was constructed it was the tallest building in New York City," he says. "It was, by some accounts, the first real skyscraper because its infrastructure is made of rolled iron I-beams, which is what makes skyscrapers possible."

The Foundation Building has been outdone, of course, its height dwarfed by the much taller buildings that have built in New York since then. But it boasts of a reputation that is not so easily overshadowed.

Famous people have passed through the institution. Cooper Union president Campbell says some even made history there, notably an obscure lawyer from the Midwest, Abraham Lincoln, later a president of the United States, who delivered a startling speech there in 1858. "Abraham Lincoln was, in fact, catapulted to the national stage," he says. "He was a little-known Illinois lawyer when he came to New York. He spoke at the Cooper Union and gave one of his most important speeches, it was a very dynamic anti-slavery speech. It gave him a national presence."

Later, the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was founded at Cooper Union. The NAACP, at one time, was the most prominent civil rights organization in the United States.

And, Cooper Union was the birthplace of the women's suffrage movement, which worked tirelessly to gain the right to vote for American women.

The college counts many illustrious people past and present as alumnae. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison studied there.

But president George Campbell holds out just as proudly the fact that Cooper Union is tuition-free, surviving on private grants throughout its existence for nearly a century and a half. "It's an important institution also because it offers a free education to all the students who are admitted," he says. "It's one of the few institutions in the United States, anyway, that offers that still."

Cooper Union is also proud of its location, just north of the legendary Bowery, where vagrants and other "misbegottens" of society used to slump in doorways to sleep off their daily consumption of alcohol. The back door of the college is just south of Fifth Avenue, a symbol of the rich and famous. Cooper Union devotees say the trail from one to the other passes through Cooper Union.

The re-dedication of this landmark historic building took place amid great fanfare and spirit, despite the threatening sky that eventually did give way to a gentle rain. The ribbon was cut by a rust-resistant robot, compliments of Cooper Union's science department.