Great Hall History Comes Alive in New Digital Archive
POSTED ON: August 29, 2022
Between Third and Fourth Avenues in the East Village, bordered by Astor Place and Cooper Square, Cooper Union’s Foundation Building stands as a destination for academic exploration, inquiry, and creative expression. Through the front doors, a flight below street level, another destination is within—The Cooper Union’s Great Hall. A place of meet-ups, milestones, and ceremony for generations of Cooper students, the Great Hall was envisioned first as a gathering place for the people of a burgeoning city and a country on the brink of civil war, and a gathering place it has been ever since.
Peter Cooper opened the doors of the Great Hall in 1858, a year before the college was ready for students. It has played host to American presidents, New York City mayors, artists, scientists, early labor organizers, civil rights leaders, city planners, performers, advocates, designers, writers, historians, and everyday people who sought a say in shaping their civic lives. Now, an extraordinary new resource is making available all known sound and video recordings made in the Great Hall from 1941 to present day as well as more than 8,900 objects, such as photographs, tickets, and flyers, related to more than 3,000 Great Hall programs dating to 1859. Called Voices from the Great Hall (greathallvoices.cooper.edu), the growing collection is a digital archive, free and accessible to anyone, and generously supported by The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, that tells the history of New York and the nation.
The new archive is home to recordings of some of the most renowned thinkers and leaders from across disciplines, including Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and nine others either before or during their administrations; Frederick Douglass and Chief Red Cloud; Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Stephen Breyer; feminists and activists such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug; Congressional leaders like John Lewis and Adam Schiff; cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead; architect Louis I. Kahn; psychologist and writer Timothy Leary; and authors like Arundhati Roy and Orson Welles. The Great Hall was also host to early mass meetings of the NAACP, a cradle of the women’s suffrage and American labor movements, the early meeting place of the precursor to the American Red Cross, and the site of critically formative ACT UP meetings. In recent years, guests have addressed everything from art and advocacy, to immigration, the Electoral College, the death penalty in America, monuments, the climate crisis, the world’s pandemic response, and New York City politics. The digital archive is searchable by date, speaker, and 20 different themes such as Anthropology and Sociology; Architecture and City Planning; Art and Design; Environment; Labor and Economics; New York; Politics and Activism; Racial Justice and Human Rights; and Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation is pleased to have helped support such a vibrant educational resource that reflects the American experience. The Cooper Union has been the site of so many important conversations, and we know that the Voices from the Great Hall archive will become an instrumental tool for so many undertaking historical research and those interested in how that history informs our present.” — Kathryn M. Curran, Executive Director of the Gardiner Foundation
An Evening of Voices
To celebrate the archive’s debut, a special public program was hosted at The Cooper Union on May 17. Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award- winning actor Sam Waterston returned to the Great Hall stage where in 2004 he reprised Abraham Lincoln’s “Right Makes Might” address (also known as Lincoln’s Cooper Union address). Waterston once again brought the Great Hall’s important history to life, introducing original recordings with large-scale, immersive projection imagery. Also returning for live encores that evening were Lincoln expert and author Harold Holzer, a frequent guest and lecturer in the Great Hall, and performers from the NY Phil Teaching Artist Ensemble and Resistance Revival Chorus. The relationship between The Cooper Union and the venerable NY Phil dates back to 1914 when the ensemble first performed in the Great Hall; and the Resistance Revival Chorus had previously performed in the Great Hall in 2018. WNYC host Kai Wright was also part of the program, commemorating a 54-year tradition (1949–2003) of Great Hall programs being broadcast on the station.
“Cooper’s Great Hall was once the largest gathering place in New York City—a place where people from all walks of life have organized and presented their views on the pressing matters of their time, a legacy that continues today,” says President Sparks. “We are so grateful for the Gardiner Foundation’s leadership and commitment to preserving essential New York history. Their support has made this digital Great Hall archive possible, making available again the very speeches and arguments as they were originally presented here and providing the framework for preserving the programs that are still to come. There is so much that we, as an engaged citizenry, can draw on and learn from these historical perspectives, and that is precisely our hope for the Voices from the Great Hall archive—that it helps us imagine how we might shape the future of our shared civic and cultural life.”
Building the Archive
Nearly five years in the making, the archive was created by a team of Cooper Union archivists and designers including Steven Hillyer, Elizabeth Muller, and Chialin Chou and Cooper Union Library staff Dale Perreault, Lisa Norberg, and Mary Mann. Many of the historic recordings were previously stored in Cooper’s audio-visual department. With the onset of the project, they were cataloged, digitized, rehoused, and preserved. In their new digital format, the authentic sounds of presenters, captured at the time they were on the Great Hall stage, complete with all the dialects, syntax, and perspectives of their time came to life again. From there, the idea to create a formidable resource, fully accessible to the public, took shape. Additional recordings were transferred from the New York City Municipal Archives’ WNYC New York Public Radio collection. Ultimately, the archive project grew into a larger cause to consolidate every available piece of Great Hall information into this formalized resource. The physical and born-digital materials represented on the site are archived and available in The Cooper Union Library Archives and Special Collections.
“We made many discoveries as the recordings were removed from dusty boxes and came to light,” says Steven Hillyer AR’90, Project Director of the effort. “The most joyful moments came when we received digital files of them and began listening. Hearing the voices of so many luminaries for the first time was astounding. The archive is a treasure trove of thoughts, events, and voices that have the ability to inform our current and future thinking on so many important issues. The Great Hall digital archive will be invaluable for historic research and celebrated through future Great Hall programming for years to come. We invite everyone to explore it.”