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The Cooper Union’s “Voices from the Great Hall”: Digital Archives Of One Of New York’s Most Historic Spaces

Village Preservation is very excited to hold its first in-person Annual Meeting and Village Awards in three years on June 14. We’re especially excited that event will be co-hosted by The Cooper Union and held in The Great Hall.

Village Preservation’s 2022 Annual Meeting and Village Awards Announcement

The Great Hall is a wonderfully appropriate setting for this important annual event for Village Preservation. The venue’s historic signifiance is made even clearer with the launch of The Cooper Union’s digital archive “Voices from the Great Hall.”

Register today to attend our Annual Meeting and Village Awards, which are free and open to the public. To prep yourself for this amazing event, visit these new digital archives to learn more about this space and how The Great Hall has been a center of free speech, social activism, education, culture, and democracy for over 160 years.

Architectural Insights

The image of The Great Hall below from the 1920s and the contemporary image next to it show how little the space has changed visually over the years. Since its opening in 1859, the Great Hall has served as a place of public gathering to address, confront, or engage some of the most pressing social, political, and cultural issues of the day.

New York Edison Company‘s photograph of The Great Hall from the 1920’s
ContemporaryCooper Union’s Great Hall; photo by Ryan Brenzier/Cooper Union

In order to make the space ideal for these types of events, Frederick Petersen, the Foundation Building’s original architect, and Peter Cooper, who himself was an inventor, worked together to include unique elements within the built space to aid in attendee’s ability to gather comfortably. They also included sight lines that would allow large crowds to participate in the public programs envisioned by the founders and original architect. 

This photo illustrates the Great Hall Chairs with Holes for Ventilation. The image was produced as part of the Historic American Engineering Record’s Cooper Union Foundation Building Project, under the direction of the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.

From the Voices of the Great Hall Archive is this description of the architectural work on the venue from the mid to late nineteenth century:

“When the building was completed in 1859, the Great Hall’s main entrance was on 8th Street, and its floor was flat and sunk below the building’s basement level. Petersen designed shallow, multidirectional arches supported by a grid of 19 slender columns affording adequate sightlines to the stage, then facing south. This vast space was supported by a field of small structural piers along the west side of the room.”

The work to continually improve the space while preserving its history moved into its next phase in 1884 when architect Leopold Eidlitz was engaged to address faults in the building’s foundation and make additional improvements to the space. Also noted in the archive: 

“Eidlitz replaced the original field of columns in the Great Hall with a grid of 18 fortified columns that supported new arches spanning from east to west across the space. He moved the stage to the west side of the Hall and raked the floor to provide elevated seating. Eidlitz also added a retaining wall to support ventilation under the seats via a large fan installed on the southwest side of the room.”

1886 plans for the “Reconstruction of Cooper Union Basement” had a note from its creator Leopold Eidlitz “The dark shaded walls are new.”

Elements like inventive ventilation built into the seating of The Great Hall demonstrated the commitment to those attending these meetings, helping to create a space where the greater community could come for the long programs necessary to promote civic progress and tackle the greatest issues facing society.

The Great Hall and Its Ventilation System

The architecture of the building continued to evolve with John Hejduk’s interior renovation of the Foundation Building. This renovation saw the addition of half walls to separate seating from the entry doors along the east side of the room. 

Ventilation was again addressed with an update to the space’s ventilation and electrical systems. The historic details of the space were considered when adding a hand-troweled plaster finish to match the rest of the building’s interior, which Hejduk dramatically transformed into a work of modern architecture within a 19th-century façade.

Programs that Support the Community

Village Preservation produces numerous public events every year that that explore and celebrate the preservation, history, and culture of our neighborhoods. This work is very aligned with the storied history of public programs at The Great Hall. Public programs at The Great Hall were organized by two major sources: The Cooper Union itself, and orgnizations representing the surrounding community of the Village (East and West) and NoHo.

A season ticket (1879-1880) to The Cooper Union’s Free Course of Lectures for the People

These public gatherings brought speakers and programs to the neighborhood that challenged and continue to challenge the status quo, and work to ensure free speech and social progress had a place in the community. 

The archives celebrate this history giving both the casual history buff as well as the academic researcher the ability to delve into the photos, engravings, and recordings from these programs dating back as far as the mid-nineteenth century. Below one can see Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper engraving of The Great Saloon of the Cooper Institute, during the Oration of the Schiller Festival held on November 10, 1859.

The Great Saloon of the Cooper Institute, during the Oration of the Schiller Festival, November 10, 1859. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 26, 1859, p. 410.
The Great Saloon of the Cooper Institute, during the Oration of the Schiller Festival, November 10, 1859. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 26, 1859, p. 410.

As one begins to puruse the archive, you can travel through time and see and hear the impact of great thinkers and speakers on the progress America has and continues to make. For example, one could start with Thurgood Marshall’s speech on December 1, 1954 about the “great danger” of Segregation. 

Then one can move forward in time and listen to Marshall’s speech as he returned to The Great Hall in an effort to continue the discussion. Marshall’s speech on “The Segregation Issue in October of 1956 was originally was broadcast by WNYC. The audio from this speech brings us back into The Great Hall with the Supreme Court Justice as he delves into the history of racial justice and injustice in America, and his description resonates clearly with the political discussions of today.

“But even prior to the Civil War, there was the feeling that this racial problem, which then was a problem of slavery, could only be solved by taking the law and having the law to conform and catch up with the old Judeo-Christian ethic of the equality of man and the individual as paramount to group players or structure. And then, after the civil war, a lot of people in those days having figured that everything was settled, there were people that thought the Emancipation Proclamation solved it. There were people that found that after that didn’t solve it, well at least the Fourteenth Amendment solved it. Then there were people who put the Federal Civil Rights laws on the books, that solved it. And then the politicians and the economic royalists in the country got together and brought up the Hayes-Tilden compromise. Bear in mind in your studies you’ll remember the Hayes-Tilden agreement or compromise, or what have you, merely said that we will leave the problem of the Southern Negro to the tender mercies of the South. Now, anybody who has studied history at all will agree that that was a mistake. And that today, there are people in the North as well as the South who are saying the exact same thing about segregation. 

‘It’s a problem that can best be handled by the South.’ 

‘The time that it should be handled should be determined by the South’

‘The way it should be handled should be determined by the South.’ 

‘The Federal Government should have nothing to do with it.’ 

‘State’s rights’

“Prejudice, not prejudice as usual, but prejudice better than usual’…”

– quote from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s speech in The Great Hall at The Cooper on October 29 1956. Minute 10 to minute 12 and 35 seconds.

One can then travel to 2017 to hear and see the honorable U.S. Representative of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, John Lewis, who has since passed, speak of his early life leading to his joining the Civil Rights Movement and of the work yet to be done.

In celebration of this history, on Tuesday, May 17 at 7pm The Cooper Union and Sam Waterston Host “Voices From the Great Hall.” This event is sure to be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about and celebrate the role of The Great Hall in our communal history. Attendees will have an opportunity hear from some of the very voices that have filled this historic location. This free event is open to the public with pre-registration.

Whether you visit Cooper Union on May 17 to celebrate the launch of this historic archive or peruse the archive before attending our Annual Meeting and Village Awards, time spent with these archives will further one’s insight into the impact the architecture and history of The Great Hall at The Cooper Union has on our communities. 

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