For more than a century, this statue of Peter Cooper (1791–1883), a 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 who, with less than a year of formal schooling, 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 Jell-o, with help from his wife, Sarah, who added fruit to his clarified gelatin.
Despite his many successful ventures, Cooper failed in an 1876 presidential bid on the Greenback ticket; he secured just 81,737 popular votes. The real contest was between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Jones Tilden. Although Tilden won a majority of the popular vote, he was denied the presidency by a partisan Electoral Commission.
Cooper dedicated his life and wealth to philanthropy. He wanted to ensure that immigrants and children of the working class would have access to the education which he never received. He believed that education should be “as free as water or air,” and in 1859 he established the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a coeducational college that 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 providing 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. Saint-Gaudens collaborated with the renowned architect Stanford White (1853–1906) who created the piece’s marble and granite canopy.
Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin and came with his family to the United States that same year. Besides studying drawing at the Cooper Union, he also trained at the National Academy of Design in New York and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He returned to New York City in 1873, and in addition to the Cooper Monument he created such notable public works as Admiral Farragut in Madison Square Park (1881), the Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common (1897), and General Sherman in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza (1903). A founding member of the National Sculpture Society in 1893, he also maintained a home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire that is a National Historic Site.
Saint-Gaudens labored for the Cooper Monument, completing 27 sketches of different versions before settling on the final impressive design. The monument committee raised $39,000 in popular subscriptions, exceeding the construction cost of $25,000, and expended the remainder on park beautification. The official dedication took place on May 29, 1897 at the northern end of Cooper Park. Though the New York Times erroneously reported that Cooper was depicted with feet crossed, Saint-Gaudens’s massive figure is resolute, with both feet firmly planted on the ground. The dignitaries at the unveiling included Mayor William L. Strong, ex-mayors Franklin Edson, and Daniel F. Tiemann, Central Park’s first engineer Egbert Viele, statesman and newspaper editor Carl Schurz, and a cadre of friends, family and colleagues of Peter Cooper.
In 1935, coinciding with reconstruction of the park, the newly created Parks Monuments Crew, with funding from the federal Works Progress Administration, performed extensive repairs and cleaned the monument. The monument was again restored in 1987 under the Adopt-a-Monument Program, a joint project of the Municipal Art Society, the Art Commission, and Parks.
On May 29, 1997, Commissioner Stern and Cooper Union President John Jay Iselin presided over a ceremony commemorating the monument, at which the United States Merchant Marine Academy Band performed. Speakers included Edward R. Hewitt, the great-great grandson of Peter Cooper, as well as the noted preservationist and author, Brendan Gill. Today, the legacy of Peter Cooper is embodied in this noble monument, which remains a focal point for the community and official gatherings of the college in Cooper’s name.
Peter Cooper Details
- Sculptor: Augustus Saint-Gaudens
- Architect: Stanford White
- Description: Seated figure (over life-size), on pedestal, under a canopy
- Materials: Figure--bronze; Pedestal and canopy--marble and granite
- Cast: 1894
- Dedicated: May 29, 1897
- Foundry: Lorne and Aubry
- Donor: Public subscription
- Inscription: 1) "PETER COOPER / BORN / FEBRUARY XII AD / M-D-C-C-XCI / DIED / APRIL III AD / M-D-C-C-CLXXXIII / ERECTED BY THE / CITIZENS OF NEW YORK IN / GREATFUL REMEMBRANCE / OF / PETER COOPER / FOUNDER OF THE / COOPER UNION / FOR THE ADVANCEMENT / OF SCIENCE AND ART / ANNO DOMINI M-D-C-C-C-XCVII"
2) [on sculpture base] "AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS / FECIT MD CCC XCIV [---] CAST BY LORNE & AUBRY"