The Daily Heller: Hearing the Voices That Filled Cooper Union’s Great Hall

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I recall when my P.S. 40 fifth grade class took a trip to The Great Hall of The Cooper Union to see where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous 1860 speech that electrified the audience and gained him political support for his presidential campaign. In his address Lincoln launched a salvo against slavery. At least 21 signers of the Constitution believed Congress should control slavery in the new U.S. territories, he said, rather than allow it to expand. “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience,” an attendee wrote of Lincoln. His historic speech was transcribed, but we were far away from inventing technology to record the voice that spoke those incredible words.

Thousands of speeches by great men and women, influential artists, writers, social activists, candidates, and incumbent US Presidents have resonated through this vaulted chamber since the hall opened in 1858. More than a year before the institution was completed, it quickly became a destination for all interested in seriously discussing and debating the vital issues of the day.

Now 80 years of recordings and ephemera dating back to the Great Hall’s opening are available online for anyone to watch, listen and savor. Voices from the Great Hall is a priceless wealth of design history, NYC history, and American history all in one place, through the words of the people who helped to shape it from the stage of the Great Hall. This expansive collection presents digitized sound and video recordings made in the Great Hall dating back to 1941 and continuing to the present, as well as 8,900 objects, such as photographs, tickets, and fliers, related to more than 3,000 Great Hall programs dating to 1859.

Voices from the Great Hall is supported by The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. It includes some of the most renowned American thinkers and leaders from across disciplines, like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and National Organization for Women co-founders Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem. In the design fields, there are recordings by graphic designers and illustrators including Paul Rand and Milton Glaser (plus in the physical archive, which is available by appointment, are recordings by Tibor Kalman, among others).

To celebrate the launch, Cooper Union is hosting a live event in the Great Hall on Tuesday, May 17 at 7 PM. The evening will be hosted by Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning actor Sam Waterston, who will return to the stage where, in 2004, he performed the “Right Makes Might” address Lincoln originally delivered at there in 1860. The evening will feature a compilation of the archive’s original recordings, brought to life with large-scale, immersive projection imagery that surrounds the audience. Lincoln expert and author Harold Holzer will also return to the stage to offer reflections on the storied history of the Great Hall. The evening will feature performances by ensembles from the NY Phil Teaching Ensemble and Resistance Revival Chorus. The event is free and open to the public.