The Voices from the Great Hall digital platform encompasses all known sound and video recordings made in the Hall and held by The Cooper Union, from John Dewey’s 1941 address "In Philosophy" to the 2019 panel "America’s Death Penalty Problem." This historical collection, which documents over 3,000 Great Hall programs, also includes photographs, fliers, press releases, and other ephemera dating back to 1859. Among the renowned speakers represented here are poet and author Carl Sandburg; cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; architect Louis I. Kahn; psychologist and writer Timothy Leary; feminist, journalist, and activist Gloria Steinem; nearly every New York City mayor from the 1950s to the present; and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Great Hall

For over 160 years, Cooper Union’s Great Hall has been a bastion of free speech, social activism, education, culture, and electoral politics. The largest meeting hall in New York City below 14th Street when The Cooper Union opened in 1859, the Great Hall has hosted critical lectures and debates that have shaped New York City and our nation, including the earliest workers' rights campaigns, the birth of the NAACP, the women's suffrage movement, the founding of the Red Cross, and Abraham Lincoln’s February 27, 1860 “Right Makes Might” address, which propelled him to the United States presidency. Prominent thinkers from every field, including 11 aspiring, sitting, and former Presidents, have spoken from the Great Hall stage.

Programming in the Great Hall has been the responsibility of both The Cooper Union and external groups over time. During the late nineteenth century, The Cooper Union hosted public lectures on government, political economy, and the American Revolution, which evolved into the Free Saturday Evening Lectures, coordinated by Abram Hewitt. In 1893 and 1894, Columbia University and the New York City Board of Education added additional lectures. The People’s Institute took over programming in 1898, providing free lectures until 1934. Subsequently, The Cooper Union resumed programming responsibilities and created “The Cooper Union Forum," a platform for free lectures and performances held several nights per week.

Beginning in 1949, under the direction of Johnson E. Fairchild, Forum programs were recorded and broadcast locally on the radio by WNYC on Thursday nights at 9pm as “The Cooper Union Forum.” Selected lectures were syndicated nationally on educational radio stations through the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB). Additionally, in 1962, the Monday night “Great Issues” lectures were broadcast on local television channel WUHF. Since the late 1970s, recording of the lectures has been carried out primarily by technicians and students working in The Cooper Union’s AV/Multimedia Services department, with some programs recorded for broadcast by networks such as C-SPAN and PBS.

Today, Great Hall programming is coordinated through the Office of Communications, which produces events and often hosts those of outside organizations.

Voices from the Great Hall 

With the generous support of the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the Voices from the Great Hall Digital Access Project assembled this archival collection and completed the digitization, cataloging, and preservation of over 6,100 audio and video recordings, 1,300 images, and 1,300 documents, as well as the creation of this digital platform between 2018 and 2021.

The Voices from the Great Hall collection was compiled from multiple sources. In the decades previous to their transfer to The Cooper Union Archives and Special Collections, most recordings were stewarded by the AV/Multimedia Services department, in particular due to the efforts of one long-time staff member, Winston Wilkerson. Additional recordings were transferred from The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, the School of Art, and New York City Municipal Archives WNYC collection. The bulk of textual and photographic materials were assembled by the Office of Public Affairs and Office of Continuing Education during the course of their creation.

The archival materials on this website are part of the Voices from the Great Hall collection (RG.001) in the Cooper Union Library Archives and Special Collections. For more information, please visit the Contact Us page.