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
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
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.