Cooper Union

The EAST VILLAGE, like many Manhattan neighborhoods, has attracted a diverse group of people over the years.  In addition to an immigrant population, the wealthy (including the Astors and the Vanderbilts) have lived here as well as New York University students.  During the early days of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, named Director General of the West Indies Company in 1647, built an estate in the East Village in the area at Fourth and Fifth Streets that extended all the way to the East River and up to 20th Street.  In the hip 1960's, the East Village -- partially because of the available low rents -- was a mecca for hippies and the beat generation and during that period drug use and crime were prevalent.  

During the sixties, the concept of Off-Off Broadway theater was born here in Village and off-off Broadway theatres thrived in the East Village partially due to the low rents there.  Joseph Papp's Public Theater is at Astor Place.  Papp was one of New York City's most active and successful producers and his numerous productions include the original musicals HAIR and A CHORUS LINE and an annual season of New York Shakespeare Festival at Central Park's Delacorte Theater.  There are (and were) many small theater groups that had theaters and companies in this neighborhood.  

The Cooper Union building, viewed here from the “Alamo” sculpture– also known as the “Astor Place Cube” -- a 15-feet steel cube by Tony Rosenthal installed in 1967, is one of the most prominent buildings in the East Village.  PETER COOPER established the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859 as the nation’s first free educational institution with full-tuition scholarships and the first that provided adult education to the working class.  Mr. Cooper was a manufacturer (of iron works), businessman (President of the North American Telegraph Company), an inventor (of the first operating steam locomotive. "Tom Thumb," as well as gelatin/Jell-O) and a philanthropist.  Cooper was once described as the most beloved man in New York.  In 1876 he would run for President.  Designed by Frederick A. Peterson, the Cooper Union building was originally five stories and one of the first buildings in the City with an elevator.  Rolled iron beams, manufactured at Cooper’s own iron foundry in New Jersey, were incorporated into the design.   

Cooper was an early advocate of emancipation and the enlistment in the Union army of Southern negroes and a supporter of Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln gained national recognition following his passionate speech on the right of the federal government to control the spread of slavery at the Great Hall at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860.  Tickets to the event were 25 cents each and almost 1500 people came to hear Lincoln speak.  A photograph of Lincoln (before he had a beard) was taken by photographer, Mathew B. Brady (1822-1896), at his Daguerria Miniature Gallery (on Broadway near Cooper Union) that same afternoon.   Lincoln was 51 years old when the photograph was taken and it would be the first photograph of Lincoln that many Americans ever saw.  Both the photograph and Lincoln's speech would greatly increase Lincoln's popularity and were instrumental in leading to his nomination for President.  Brady, whose vivid photos and portraits are such an important part of American Civil War’s history, died in-debt, penniless and unappreciated.  During his visit Lincoln stayed at the Astor House hotel and visited McSorley's Ale House.  

In May 1867 Mark Twain made his New York City debut with a humorous speech at Cooper Union which made Twain as nationally famous as Abe Lincoln's speech there had done seven years before.

Groups meeting at Cooper Union would form the NAACP, the International Ladies' Garment Worker Union, and the National Women's Suffrage Association.