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Education: On the Bowery

3 minute read

One warm morning last week a procession of men and women in academic gowns, including many a U. S. college president, many a big name in Science and Art, solemnly circled a massive, dingy brownstone building in the shadow of the Third Avenue elevated on Manhattan’s Bowery. Then they marched into a basement auditorium to see big-eared Dr. Edwin Sharp Burdell, former dean of humanities at M. I. T., installed as director of Cooper Union. Among platform spectators was Dr. Burdell’s 14-pound striped cat, “Farmer.”

Of five trustees who run Cooper Union, Banker J. Pierpont Morgan was in England and American Telephone & Telegraph’s President Walter S. Gifford was recovering from an appendectomy. But beaming upon the beginning of a new chapter in the history of their somewhat eccentric institution were Trustees Gano Dunn, a prosperous engineer, Elihu Root Jr. and Barklie Henry, a son-in-law of the late Socialite Harry Payne Whitney.

Founded in 1859 by Inventor Peter Cooper, who built the first U. S. locomotive (“Tom Thumb”), Cooper Union still bears many marks of its picturesque founder. He created it as an institution to teach engineering and art free to the children of the poor. Almost forgotten are some of Peter Cooper’s pious stipulations: e.g. “I trust that the students of this institution will do something to bear back the mighty torrent of evils now pressing on the world.”

Today Cooper Union is less renowned than in Cooper’s day, when it produced such illustrious bearer-backers of the world’s evils as Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Inventor Michael Pupin, Unionist Samuel Gompers. But 1,800 students in its free art and engineering schools (with day and evening branches), picked from seven times as many applicants, still grub earnestly at their education.

Trustee Morgan and his colleagues have been more conspicuously successful in their financial management of Cooper Union than it has been as an educational institution. The institution’s main income comes from the site of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, donated to the school by the Coopers. Recently Cooper Union won a suit against New York City for tax exemption on the site and building, acquired $2,500,000 in cash (back taxes it had paid) and more than $400,000 a year in additional income.

Scarcely knowing how to spend this windfall, the trustees decided to appoint a director, which Cooper Union had not had for 15 years. Last week Director Burdell, a sociologist as well as an engineer, said that the school would begin to turn out not merely engineers or artists but “wellrounded” men and women, “scientific humanists.”

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