PhD Harvard University
A Financial History of Cooper Union
Cascade of Gifts: 1895-1903
It wasn’t until a cascade of gifts in the period 1895-1903 that the “market sheds” on the ground floor were finally converted into space for instruction, and the polytechnic was launched. Major gifts from John Halstead and Andrew Carnegie were followed by gifts from Peter Cooper’s children and grandchildren.
Carnegie at first contributed $300,000, “to help start the day school of technology by freeing the space that had of necessity been rented.”[i] He was immediately invited to join the Board of Trustees, and subsequently donated another equivalent amount when it was made clear to him that his first gift “went only part way toward clearing out the renters and starting the day session.”
By 1901 the endowment required to launch the polytechnic was $1.2 million (roughly $38 million in today’s dollars). Carnegie had given half of that. The remainder was matched by the children and grandchildren of Peter Cooper, and the day school for science and engineering was launched. Carnegie’s participation in this endeavor was one of his inspirations to set up the Carnegie Institute of Technology [later to become Carnegie-Mellon University] in his hometown of Pittsburgh.[ii]
The gift from Peter Cooper’s children and grandchildren in 1902 consisted of assets from a trust set up by him in 1879. In 1880, the trust fund had invested $500,000 (roughly $27.9 million today) in a plot of land at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. When this property was gifted to Cooper Union in 1902, the rental income (from the Vanderbilt Flats apartment building and a hotel) became a new source of revenue.
In 1911, Cooper Union leased the property to William H. Reynolds, who built new buildings on it.
[i] Richard F. Humphreys, “To Correct a Prevailing Impression…”, At Cooper Union, 1964 (Fall).
[ii] David Nassaw, Andrew Carnegie. Penguin Books, 2006.