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The Founding Sisters of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt Museum today – located within the Andrew Carnegie Mansion on the Upper East Side. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt.

The Smithsonian Institution is a treasured facet of American culture, founded by the U.S. government on August 10, 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The Smithsonian is the largest complex of museums, education centers, and research institutes in the world. While its main branch may be situated on the Mall in Washington D.C. (in a building designed by celebrated Greenwich Village architect James Renwick, Jr.), one of its major holdings is located right here in New York City: The Cooper Hewitt Museum. Though the design museum we know and love is now located on the Upper East Side in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, the museum was only relocated there in 1970, almost 80 years into its life. The museum was originally conceptualized, founded, and cultivated in NoHo.

The story of the creation of a museum for the decorative arts (in fact, the only such institution in the United States devoted to historical and contemporary design) originates with two sisters. The Hewitt Sisters – Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt – were the granddaughters of Peter Cooper (1791-1883), the industrialist, philanthropist, and inventor (and Villager!). They were two of the six children of Peter’s daughter Sarah Amelia (1830-1912) and her husband, Abram Stevens Hewitt (1822-1903), the American politician, lawyer, educator, and industrialist.

Abram S. Hewitt. Photo courtesy Bowery Boys.

Abram helped Peter create The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art at 7 East 7th Street, the “free institution of the working classes of New York and its vicinity, in science and art,” in the 1850s, and chaired its board of trustees until his death in 1903. He also served as New York City’s 87th mayor from 1887-1888, and is credited with the planning and financing of the first line of what would become the NYC subway system. His daughters embodied this entrepreneurial spirit.

Sarah Hewitt. Image courtesy Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

The elder sister (and Sarah and Abram’s second-oldest child), Sarah “Sally” Hewitt (1859-1930), was an impassioned, innovative, and unique individual. She was described as quick-witted, and was a talented art collector, specifically of 18th-century drawings. She was very well-educated, having access to private tutors throughout her childhood, and later attending Miss Torrey’s School in New York City followed by Miss Porter’s School, a conservative finishing school in Farmington, Connecticut. While traveling throughout Europe with her family, she became fluent in French.

Eleanor Hewitt. Image courtesy Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

Eleanor “Nellie” Hewitt (1864-1924), five years Sarah’s junior, was known as the quieter of the two. She was detail oriented and methodical in her work, but also had a creative side. Like her sister, she had a private tutor at home, and immersed herself in her studies, with a special affinity for history, art, and French. Particularly adept at embroidery, a skill commonly cultivated by women in the 19th century, she was frequently found sketching and pursuing her needlework. Eleanor was incredibly inventive, and came up with a system of stenography which then led her to become one of the earliest women typists in the United States.

Sarah Hewitt, ca. 1890–92, and Eleanor Hewitt, ca. 1888. Collection of Anna Engesser Parmee.

Though quite different from each other in personality and demeanor, Sarah and Eleanor were both collectors, and they complemented one another well. A 2022 exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt described the sisters as “smart, fun-loving, witty, and social,” and “competitive athletes, accomplished linguists, prolific writers, amateur actors, skilled musicians, and talented artists.” They were encouraged to explore independent thought throughout their upbringing, at a time when it was rare for women to be empowered to do so.

The initial notion for a museum was put forth by their grandfather, Peter Cooper, but the concept was revived and brought to fruition by the Hewitt sisters. In the early 1890s, they began to develop their vision for a decorative arts museum, to be situated within The Cooper Union. The museum was modeled on the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and Eleanor and Sarah sought guidance from that museum’s directors on how to organize and exhibit their collections and acquire additional objects to display.

Cooper Union, c. 1880. Photograph by Adolph Witteman, courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

In 1897, the Museum for the Arts of Decoration opened on the fourth floor of The Cooper Union. Like the institute within which the museum was situated, Sarah and Eleanor ensured that the Museum for the Arts of Decoration would be open free of charge to the public, at least three days a week, and with extended evening hours so that artisans could access and use the collections as a resource. The galleries also contained reference books with visual guides, which furthered this mission. Today, the museum’s permanent collection contains well over 200,000 objects, about 50,000 of which were sourced and donated by the sisters in their lifetime. Though the museum’s collection has since been relocated uptown, the Cooper and Hewitt families will always have strong ties to the Village.

Take a look at Village Preservation’s Beyond the Village and Back maps to explore other landmarks and cultural institutions throughout New York City and their connections to Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.

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