A Symbol in Brownstone page 1



A Symbol in Brownstone


by Dr. Edwin S. Burdell
President, The Cooper Union

Orginially published in the Cooper Union Alumni News,
February 1953, Vol. XVII, Number 2.

WHEN Peter Cooper spread the mortar for the cornerstone of the Foundation Building on September 17, 1853, he simultaneously established a great new American industry and protected the fortune that is still providing free education to "the youth of our City, our country, and the world."

The great brownstone block, with its contents of documents and coins, that was placed into position on a September Saturday a hundred years ago, was to be, more than ever before, a symbol. The huge weight of the building was to be borne, not by stones, but by wrought iron beams rolled in Trenton In a mill especially developed for the purpose. These beams are the true cornerstone of the material side of The Cooper Union.

The success of the beams was unparalleled, but curiously enough it was their popularity that held up completion of the building for six years. That same popularity carried the Trenton Iron Works and the Cooper fortune through the disastrous panic of 1857, and the idea of The Cooper Union was on a sounder financial footing than it would have been otherwise.
The plan for the Union had been in Mr. Cooper's mind since at least 1839 when he acquired a small lot, sixteen by twenty-two feet, on the site of the present Foundation Building. It took more definite form during the next thirteen years as he acquired other lots on this pie-shaped block. During the winter of 1852-53 he announced publicly his plans for the institution and published an architect's sketch of the proposed building.
Mr. Cooper wanted a spacious, handsome and enduring edifice of at least six stories to house his unique educational institute, but at the same time he wanted to avoid the preposterous expense of a stone structure like the New York Customs House of that day, with massive pillars, piers and arches. The government could afford such a building, he pointed out to friends, but he could not.

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  last updated May 17, 2005