This is a remarkable story of rags to riches. Peter Cooper, born in 1791 in his father, John Cooper’s combination house and hatter’s shop on Little Dock Street in lower Manhattan, wrote in his memoire, “My father followed the trade of a hatter and I remember being utilized in this business when my head was barely above the table.” Peter Cooper’s childhood was one of toil and disadvantages came early in life. He once remarked, “I have never had any time to get an education and all that I know I had to pick up as I went along.”
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.
To earn his keep and garner spending money Abram began teaching math and a tutoring service and he was hired to tutor Peter Cooper’s son Edward, who had fallen behind in his studies, due to illness. A friendship developed between Edward and Abram and upon graduation the two students decided to travel to Europe. However, upon their return to New York severe gales broke on every side of the ship and it was abandoned leaving the two young men in a broken down boat lingering in the icy waters. However, they were miraculously rescued, and afterwards Abram was warmly welcomed into the Cooper circle and Peter Cooer began to recognize Hewitt as a second son.
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.”
Unlike other young girls, who might spend their pocket money on trinkets and amusements, Sarah and Eleanor, when teenagers, made their first purchase of a rare textile collection. The precocious young girls’ collecting ambition attracted the attention of Cooper and Hewitt’s influential friends and the greatest inspiration for their museum was the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The directors, perhaps secretly amused at the youth and inexperience of the sisters, were nonetheless generous with their advice and time.
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.
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