Cooper Square, Bowery and 7th Street, Manhattan
This statue of the philanthropist Peter Cooper lords over a small, dingy triangle of public space known as Cooper Square that sits astride the Bowery at 7th Street, right behind the Cooper Union building. Cooper is supposedly depicted as his friends remembered him: sporting a lush beard and sitting in a high-backed chair with a cane in his left hand.
Cooper Square is on a narrow traffic island that cleaves the Bowery into Third and Fourth Avenues. It was a gift of the Stuyvesant family to the city of New York in 1828, which makes it one of the city’s oldest parks. The statue of Cooper faces to the south and the only way inside the park is from the north end, so the first thing you are confronted with is the flat, inscribed wall on the monument’s back side. Then you walk around to the front and Cooper sort of comes out of nowhere, seated beneath a marble cupola and sternly looking over your head, as though you were shuffling your feet too much or something.
The monument was paid for by a public subscription. Cooper was, at the time of his death in 1883, a popular figure. (A monument committee was formed almost immediately, though it would take 14 years before a statue would be built.) An editorial in The Times at the time of the statue’s dedication in 1897 put Cooper in the vanguard of great American philanthropists:
No one in the history of New York has left a memory quite like that of Peter Cooper, one blended of such deep respect and such general and genuine affection. For many years after the main work of his life was done, he was a familiar figure in the city, and, quite apart from his wise and generous benefactions, he was always welcomed with a kindly, even a tender, interest.
The dedication ceremony began at 3 p.m. on May 29, 1897, in the great hall at Cooper Union. It took the form, The Times reported, of a memorial service at first. Among the numerous stuffed shirts present were Mayor William L. Strong; the ex-mayors Franklin Edson, and Daniel F. Tiemann, Central Park’s first engineer, Egbert Viele; and the newspaper editor Carl Schurz.
The commemorative address was given by John E. Parsons, one of Cooper’s friends. “If eulogy of Mr. Cooper were required,” he said, “it would be unnecessary here. The very stones of which this building is constructed, and which, as they were put into place, were watched by Mr. Cooper, speak his praise.”
After a short speech by Henry J. Kaltenbach, on behalf of Cooper Union’s alumni association, the assembly moved to the square, where a grandstand had been constructed on the southern end, facing the statue. The Cooper Post of the Grand Army of the Republic was arrayed as a guard of honor, the Seventh Regiment paraded past in salute, and spectators pressed in from all directions, including along the elevated tracks of the Lexington Avenue line.
The statue was unveiled when 4-year-old Candace Hewitt, Cooper’s great-granddaughter, pulled a white cord. There followed speeches by the mayor and parks commissioner.
The monument was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a 1864 graduate of Cooper Union. The architect was Standford White, one of our favorites. The figure of Cooper is in bronze and was cast by the Lorne and Aubry foundry; the monumental pedestal and canopy are in marble and granite.
Supposedly, Saint-Gaudens went through close to 30 ideas before settling on his design of a seated Cooper and cupola. The monument committee raised $39,000 for construction; the monument only cost $25,000. The excess money was used for the park’s fixtures.
On the front of the pedestal are the words:
ERECTED BY THE CITIZENS OF NEW YORK IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF PETER COOPER FOUNDER OF THE COOPER UNION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE AND ART ANNO DOMINI M-D-C-C-C-XCVII
Around the back is inscribed:
PETER COOPER BORN FEBRUARY XII AD M-D-C-C-XCI DIED APRIL III AD M-D-C-C-CLXXXIII
Peter Cooper was born Feb. 12, 1791, in New York and died April 4, 1883, and was a successful inventor and businessman. Cooper designed and built the first steam-powered locomotive, and also invented Jell-O. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1876. And, of course, he founded Cooper Union in 1859. Read more about him here.
The monument was refurbished in 1935 and again in 1987.
A renovation of Cooper Square was completed in 1938, and an elaborate rededication ceremony (photo at left) was held on June 9 in conjunction with Cooper Union’s commencement. It was presided over by Robert Moses, then the parks commissioner, who apparently referred to the tiny park in all seriousness as “a sort of campus for Cooper Union.” The work included landscaping and fencing, the planting of 17 oak trees and (sensibly) the removal of an underground bathroom, which a Times reporter described as “shabby and insanitary.”
There were speeches by Gano Dunn, Cooper Union’s president; J. Charles Riedel, a Cooper Union alumnus; and Stanley H. Howe, the executive secretary to Mayor LaGuardia. The parks department’s band “played lively airs above the roar of the Third Avenue elevated trains,” The Times reported, “and a color guard of five khaki-clad members of the department stood in front of the monument throughout the program.”