A New World at The Cooper Union

Whatever happened to the Nightingale-Bamford Class of 1932?  Jane and one of her classmates described what they’d been up to for the  school’s 1933 Year Book: Five of the sixteen girls entered women’s colleges: two were at Vassar, two at Sweet Briar and one at Sarah Lawrence. Two others were on a European trip with one of their mothers, one had married, and Betty Pearl, one of Jane’s good friends, “finds time between proms and bridge for an active interest in hospital work—she may end up as a sister of mercy yet!” Alice Drake, Jane’s co-author on the report, was “learning to punish a Remington, Corona, Underwood, Royal, or anything else available at Miss Conklin’s Secretarial School.” As for Jane, she “has been spending her time studying art in its Higher Aspects and writing letters of condolence to Mr. Hoover,” who had just turned the White House over to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the early summer of 1932, the stock market hit bottom. Financial reverses and unexpected expenses in Virginia and New York had depleted Randolph Hicks’s savings. Although Jane had always dreamed of going to college, the costly private colleges that appealed to a handful of her classmates seemed impractical and unnecessary to him. The women the Hickses knew were supported by their husbands. But Randolph admired Jane’s sketches and drawings, so he and Rose encouraged her to try art school. How relieved they must have been when she was accepted at the all-scholarship Woman’s Art School of Cooper Union. Admission to the full-time four year course was by competitive examinations in spatial relations,vocabulary (reading comprehension), art judgment, and drawing. But the first year was provisional; each student would be evaluated again in the spring to see if the school was a good fit. In 1932, the Day Art School was still known as a “school for respectable females.” An aging Edith Wharton served on its Advisory Council; J.P. Morgan was one of the trustees.

Cooper Union Foundation Building

The Foundation Building of Cooper Union is an Italianate masonry brownstone that dominates a triangular-shaped pocket of Manhattan on Seventh Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. It was home to the arts and engineering schools, one of the best public reading rooms and libraries in Manhattan, and the Great Hall, the site of famous lectures including one by Abraham Lincoln that had set him on the path to the presidency. Most Cooper students worked during the day and studied at night, giving the school its “proletarian” atmosphere; even in the Day Art School, according to a lengthy 1937 New Yorker profile of the campus, there were “no wealthy pupils.” Founded in 1869, Cooper Union remains dedicated to the advancement of science and art, to the principle that education should be available to the average (talented) person at no cost.

The students dressed in what today would be considered business attire, with the women wearing skirts, blouses, or dresses, and the young men jackets and slacks. Even so, the atmosphere could not have been more different on the Lower East Side than it had been on Carnegie Hill. Jane Hall began her daily commute to Cooper Union on the Lexington Avenue IRT (or possibly the Fifth Avenue bus) to Astor Place, perhaps with warnings from her aunt to stay clear of the Bowery. There the unemployed congregated, and questionable types populated the sidewalks and shops, desperate to pawn, sell or exchange whatever they could for an illicit beer or something more nourishing.

Jane was intrigued by the energy of the neighborhoods that surrounded Cooper, filled as they were with the scents of ethnic food and people of different national origins—Italians, Slavs, East European Jews, Russians, Poles, Greeks and Hungarians. These were the merchants, grocers, machinists, and the bus and taxi drivers whose labor built New York and kept it moving, and whose wives’ and daughters’ sewing machines made the clothes that filled the city’s department stores. Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a mix of  pushcarts, tiny shops and larger industrial buildings, squalid cold-water flats, tenements, and a few elegant homes that remained near Astor Place. Cooper Union was also an easy walk to the East Village, Washington Square and Union Square, to several secondhand bookstores, Wanamaker’s Department Store and McSorley’s Old Ale House where no women would be served until 1970.

But Jane joined the Class of 1936 at a time of transition.The art school had just hired a new director and the Day Art School was about to become coeducational – at least in name. (The men would prefer the Night Art School as they no doubt all held jobs or wanted to find them.) The school year began at the beginning of October and ended in the middle of May; classes started promptly at 9 A.M. and ended at 4 P.M. with a one hour break for lunch  at noon.

Jane’s adventures there begin in the next post.

 Postscript: I am grateful to David Chenkin and Carol Salomon at Cooper Union for helping me get the facts right about the Day Art School in the mid-1930s. There are no annual reports for these years.