On the east side of Manhattan on 2 East 91st Street, is a museum jewel, The Cooper Hewitt Museum. This museum is the Smithsonian Design Museum and housed in the family’s former mansion. It is home to the Target Design Center.
Peter Cooper, (1791-1883), patriarch of the Cooper-Hewitt family, was an inventor, manufacturer, and philanthropist. He is probably best known for “Tom Thumb,” the first steam locomotive. He wished to benefit society by helping his fellow man, and was much loved. The first free institution of higher education for young men and women in the nation, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, was created by Cooper, and he ran as a 1876 presidential candidate in the Greenback Party. Did I also mention he created jello? Well, he did.
Cooper and his wife, Sarah, had one daughter, Sarah Amelia, (known as Amelia), and in 1855 she married Abram Steven Hewitt. Hewitt, son of a fine cabinet maker, later became a businessman, and mayor of New York City in 1887. There were 6 children from this union.
It was a busy social life for the Hewitt children as successful and prominent people of the era were often at their homes in New York City, and Ringwood, New Jersey. All were immersed in the arts and education.
Hewitt’s daughters, Sarah and Eleanor, wanted to fulfill their grandfather’s long dream of a museum and began to purchase items on trips abroad for later inclusion in the museum. The decorative art items purchased were books, drawings and textiles. By 1897, the dream was achieved and the museum began.
Sarah and Eleanor never married but had fulfilling lives in their work and travels. Besides the museum home there is a fascinating Cooper-Hewitt summer home in Ringwood, New Jersey, which can be toured.
I began the tour with the video on the home in its prime which was hidden on the second floor to the left of the staircase. It is a must see.
Much of the mansion furnishings are in storage, however, pieces are brought out for display on occasion. The Cooper Hewitt collection has more than 210,000 objects and are digitalized. For questions as you tour feel free to ask security staff as they are knowledgeable and accessible.
On the museum ground floor items are displayed from the winners of the National High School Design Competition. Here’s a design winner which is now located in the museum gardens. Surprisingly, the chair was a comfortable and fun seating. Love the color..
Cooper wanted the theme of his museum to be for the advancement of science, and in this first floor wing it certainly is. Multi-colored DNA pictures are posted along with video explanations. I was unaware of the beautiful colors of DNA. There was also an orthotic electrical hand on display. But, perhaps my favorite was the hydroponic growing system seen behind this glass enclosure.
On the second floor patrons are allowed to develop their own designs via computer. These designs are then broadcast on the walls of the room. Works can be reclaimed or forwarded to home ports.
Textiles and the history of the paisley print was also displayed on this floor. The Hewitt sisters, Sarah and Eleanor, were known for their eccentric qualities. Perhaps this is best seen in the 1865 Steerhorn Chair from San Antonio.
And as you depart take time to stop by the gardens. Science and nature are here at its best.