Peter Cooper Park
For more than a century, Peter Cooper (1791-1883)—philanthropist, industrialist and inventor—has watched over the park and school that bear his name. Cooper was a native New Yorker and workingman’s son with less than a year of formal schooling, who became one of the most successful American businessmen of his day. He made his fortune in iron, glue, railroads, real estate and communications. His inventions include the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable and Tom Thumb, America’s first functioning steam engine. Cooper also invented Jello—with help from his wife, Sarah, who added fruit to his clarified gelatin.
Despite his many successful ventures, Cooper failed in his bid for the presidency in 1876. Representing the Greenback party, he captured 81,737 popular votes. The real contest, however, was between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Jones Tilden. Although Tilden won a majority of the popular vote, he lost the electoral college vote, 185 to 184, to Hayes in a election that was widely regarded as being stolen by the Republicans.
Cooper dedicated his life and wealth to philanthropy, to ensure that immigrants and children of the working class would have access to the education which he never had. Believing that education should be As free as water or air, in 1859 he established the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a coeducational college which continues to provide students with full-tuition scholarships in architecture, art, and engineering. Celebrated features of the institution included a free reading room and the Great Hall. The latter provided the setting for one of Abraham Lincoln’s most important speeches in which he established his anti-slavery platform. He delivered it on February 27, 1860 during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Following Cooper’s death in 1883, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), the preeminent 19th century sculptor and one of the earliest alumni of Cooper Union (class of 1864), was commissioned to design a monument in honor of the great visionary. St. Gaudens collaborated with the renowned architect Stanford White (1853-1906) who created the marble and granite canopy. The official dedication took place on May 29, 1897 at the northern end of Cooper Park.
The park was deeded to the City in 1828 for use as a public space by Charles H. Hall, a descendant of Governor Peter Stuyvesant. Named Stuyvesant Square at the time it was acquired by Parks in 1850, it was referred to as Fourth Avenue Park when it was first planted in the late 1870s, and renamed Cooper Park in 1883. In the early 1900s, the park was redesigned, reconstructing the original walks, enclosing the park with an iron fence, and redesigning the stone periphery to form a continuous seat (this has since been eliminated). The reconstruction of the park in 1938 included destroying the underground comfort station and laying new walks.
More recent improvements have focused on making the park more beautiful and more accessible. The monument was restored in 1987 under the Adopt-a-Monument Program, a joint project of the Municipal Art Society, the Art Commission, and Parks & Recreation. In February 1999, Commissioner Stern and Cooper Union President John Jay Iselin celebrated the 140th anniversary of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, commemorating the legacy of Peter Cooper. As of the summer of 1999, new benches and daytime access have reopened Cooper Square to all of its neighbors.