A hundred and fifty years ago, newly rich men were not in the habit of giving away their money. Peter Cooper felt otherwise, and by 1859 he was very rich indeed, mostly from iron and telegraphs. His pet project was a “Union for the Advancement of Science and Art,” endowed with an idea that’s still radical: Higher education should be free. That’s why, today, admission to Cooper Union is as competitive as anywhere—3,000 applications for about 275 spots.
A century and a half in, it’s still a place for wild ideas. Across from the old Foundation Building, the architect Thom Mayne has put up the most tumultuous new structure in New York. Its elevators skip floors, forcing people to cross paths on the stairs—one of those baffling architectural gestures that slowly force you to admit that the guy’s onto something. (The old building was similarly design-forward. Expecting some future device to carry people up from the ground level, Cooper specified a shaftway connecting the floors. An elevator was installed years later, once Elisha Otis had invented it.)
Cooper Union has now admitted 150 years’ worth of students, every one with the miracle of a full scholarship. (A judiciously tended endowment of $600 million does the heavy lifting.) The young, broke Thomas Edison, taking night chemistry classes, was one of those kids. So was the graphic-design maven Milton Glaser, who co-founded this magazine. And so was my father, class of ’63. A few weeks after Cooper admitted him, he tells me, he received a $12 check from the school, reimbursing him for his SAT fees.