By Polly Guérin
The Cooper-Hewitt Dynasty is the quintessential story of wealth and philanthropy, family and community, politics and integrity, which could have only unfolded in New York.
It is a compact introduction to the patriarch, Peter Cooper, a masterful inventor, industrialist and philanthropist affectionately referred to as “The First Citizen of Old New York,” with biographical sketches of his son-in-law Abram Stevens Hewitt, who served as Mayor of the City of New York. Cooper’s greatest achievement, as the founder of his free college, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art, allowed students from all walks of life to study science and art, where he had always planned to have a museum for the benefit of the students and inquiring public. Peter Cooper was the grandfather of the Hewitt sisters, Amy, Eleanor and Sarah, truly remarkable women, ahead of their time, who were instrumental in creating what became the Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
Cooper had a natural talent for invention and worked in various trades. After a period of modest prosperity he met a young commonsense woman, Sarah Bedell, of Huguenot ancestry and they were married in 1813. The couple had six children but infant mortality being what it was in those days, only two survived. Edward and Sarah Amelia, who would become the wife of the future mayor of New York, Abram Stevens Hewitt, the second patriarch in this saga.
Peter gained financial success by the manufacturing of glue and his ironworks. His friend John Vreeland said to him one day, “Why don’t you buy that glue factory? It has been mismanaged but you are the man to make it a success.” So he bought the property in the village of Kips Bay in Manhattan. He improved methods of production and bettered foreign imports, and this is how he made his first million. Later he engaged in numerous iron ventures including the purchase of Ringwood, New Jersey, one of the most celebrated iron ore properties in the East, which was sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1854 for $100,000.
Peter Cooper became one of New York’s prominent millionaires, yet he still saw himself as a master craftsman, “A Mechanic of New York.” However, education was paramount on Cooper’s agenda. With the fortune Cooper had amassed from his glue business, ironworks, his patent inventions and his real estate holdings Cooper invested his money in The Cooper Union, commonly called at that time, Cooper Institute. It would be the crowning glory of his life. The cornerstone was laid in 1854.He erected an imposing six-story Italianate building between Third and Fourth Avenue at Astor Place. To support the floors and make the building fireproof the rolled structural iron beams were produced at the Cooper Hewitt & Company ironworks. These iron beams would make possible the building of future skyscrapers.
Cooper Union was the first free institute to provide adult education in the fields of engineering, architecture and science for young men and women who qualified regardless of race, religion, sex or social status. It is acknowledged that although Cooper Union was Peter Cooper’s vision, it was Abram Hewitt’s brain that made it possible because he oversaw the construction of the building and served as Cooper Union’s president for over forty years.
Cooper was the first rich man to preach year after year that wealth is a trust, carrying paramount duties and obligations. In his lifetime his philosophy influenced other wealthy men to take up the gauntlet of philanthropy to establish libraries, schools and hospitals.
Abram Stevens Hewitt, the second patriarch in this saga, married Peter Cooper’s daughter Amelia and entered the Cooper family circle as his son-in-law. Like Peter Cooper, Hewitt was an astute businessman, politician, ironmaster and philanthropist. In addition, during his career he served as a one- time Mayor of the City of New York from 1887-1888. Abram Stevens Hewitt was born in 1822 in Haverstraw, New York spending summers working on the farm and his winters attending school in New York. The hardships endured in his early life did not deter his determination to succeed and gifted with high intelligence later in life Abram won two scholarships for four year’s tuition to Kings College, now Columbia University.
With their combined intelligence and business savvy Edward and Abram formed Cooper Hewitt & Company, which forged a strong alliance in the iron business. It would become the fifth largest corporation in the United States.
As for Hewitt’s political career he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and served in Congress for five years and was elected mayor of New York. As mayor he sought to end the corruption brought about by the Tammany administration. He called in the heads of the police department and demanded, “Gentlemen, we need to clean up New York and I am ordering you to close the houses and places of ill fame.” The Chief of Police assured that this would be done and remarked to the other officers when they left, “Don’t mind him; those orders are just window dressing for the public.”
When nothing had been done, Hewitt ordered the Chief of Police and officers to his home at 9 Lexington Ave. and waved a packet of incriminating documents before the assembled men and demanded, “Why has my order not been followed? I have enough evidence here to send you all to Sing Sing.”
Realizing the gravity of the situation, the Chief of Police said, “We’ll do it Mayor Hewitt, but if we put your orders into effect, your political career would be at an end.” So that is how a great sweep across New York City cleaned up its act but Hewitt only served one term as Mayor.
However, Hewitt concentrated on major Municipal improvements in the city and is recognized as the father of the New York subway system as he is best known for planning and investing his own money to finance its construction.
Hewitt was a frequent visitor at the Cooper household and by this time Cooper’s daughter Amelia had blossomed into a handsome young woman and Abram became the prime suitor. They were married in 1855 in a modest ceremony at the Cooper home at 9 Lexington Ave. Amelia and Abram had six children, three boys Edward Ringwood, Peter Cooper Jr., and Erskine Hewitt who would all be involved in invention and philanthropy. Daughters Amy, Sarah and Eleanor centered their interest in the decorative arts.
In retirement years Hewitt never left public office and was a member of the executive committee of the Carnegie Institution. Carnegie himself claimed that the former mayor was “America’s foremost private citizen,” and remembered his integrity as Hewitt had declined to be a director of the U.S. Steel Corporation unless it made full disclosure of its losses to the public. A year later, at a gathering of distinguished men, Mr. Morgan came over to Abram Hewitt, put his arm around Hewitt’s shoulder and said. “I want all these gentlemen to know that without your advice and insistence on making complete accounts of the Steel Company public, I do not believe that the firm of J.P. Morgan and Company would exist today.”
Long before he died, Hewitt wrote, “I hope to be judged, and that it might be said, that as a statesman I labored. You will find that when you reach my age that if you have lived up to your best judgment that is about all that a man can hope to do.”
The Cooper-Hewitt Dynasty brings us full circle to three Hewitt Sisters: Sarah Cooper Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt and Amy Hewitt, founders of the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration which was founded in 1897 on the 4th floor of the Cooper Union, Peter Cooper’s free college.
The trustees of the Cooper Union had at first denied the sisters’ request for museum space, but acquiesced when they remembered that Peter Cooper had intended a museum in Cooper Union, but had died in 1883 before he could realize his museum plan.
The sisters’ interest in the decorative arts began at an early age. They were brought up in the Victorian era in a world of privilege and opportunity with the influence of two important men in their lives, Peter Cooper and their father Abram Stevens Hewitt. Both men planted visions of a museum in their fertile imaginations and they understood the growing importance of materials and technology in an increasingly industrial era.
The sisters also stirred up interest in their museum and supporters emerged to endorse the museum’s purpose. Eleanor Garnier Hewitt recalled, “The museum was open at night to accommodate workers who were employed by day and there were to be no tedious restrictions and formalities. Anyone who stopped at the general Office of Cooper Union and asked for a card of admission was welcome.”
The Hewitt family was not exempt from making contributions. Mrs. Hewitt suffered the most, and as she looked around her devastated house, would often say, ‘I wonder where that is?” pointing to an empty space or exclaim when visiting the museum, “Didn’t I once have something like that?
One day at a men’s dinner, J.Pierpont Morgan, aware of the Hewitt sisters’ museum, in his usual abrupt and impulsive way said to their father, “What are your daughters interested in?” Mr. Hewitt spontaneously replied, “They are negotiating for the unique Badia textile collection in Barcelona.”
Morgan, a man of large gestures, was on his way to Europe and later telegraphed the following message, “Have purchased the Badia collection and do this to give your daughters pleasure.” With this purchase the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration jumped to the rank of London’s South Kensington Museum in the quality of its textiles.
The sisters’ life work represents the best in philanthropy and a profound devotion to their museum. When Sarah died, a New York Times editorial reported, “A Lady of the Old School, she belonged to ‘the 400,’ but she was not under the restraint of its social precedents. She and her sister made their own; they had also made a modern museum.”
The legacy of the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration is forever written in the fabric of the history of the Cooper-Hewitt Dynasty. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution is still imbued with the spirit of the Cooper and Hewitt families, and is the repository of one of the great design collections in the western world.
Polly Guérin is a former adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the author of four college textbooks and two video productions. Her features on the decorative arts, antiques, collectibles and design have appeared in Art & Antiques and five blogs including, pollytalkfromnewyork.
Guerin, Polly. The Cooper-Hewitt Dynasty of New York. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012.
Hewitt, Edward Ringwood. Ringwood Manor: The Home of the Hewitts. Trenton, NJ: Trenton Printing Company, 1946.
—–. Those Were the Days: Tales of a Long Life. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943.
Lewis, Alfred Allan. Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000.
Nevins, Allan. Abram S. Hewitt with Some Account of Peter Cooper. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1967.