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A brief history of the Great Hall at Cooper Union

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NEW YORK (MYFOXNY) -

Where 3rd and 4th Avenues meet to form Bowery, the designer of the first steam locomotive constructed a college. In the basement of that college, he built a great hall. And in that great hall (it's named "The Great Hall") on a cold day in February of 1860, an unknown congressman from the Far West -- as it was then called -- believed he spoke honestly enough to win a presidential election.

"Lincoln said it was this speech and that portrait by Matthew Brady that got him to be president," Cooper Union Director of Continuing Education and Public Programs David Greenstein said.

Today the Great Hall seats 855, but when it opened in 1858 the now-sloped floor was flat, instead of stadium seating benches filled the room, and the speaker's platform stood off to one side. The space could pack 1,500, which at the time made it the largest public assembly space on the East Coast.

"There were lots of very raucous meetings here," Greenstein said. "There were anarchists meetings here. There were women's suffrage meetings here. The NAACP had its first meeting in this room."

Eight presidents, Fredrick Douglass, Mark Twain, Chief Red Cloud, Susan B. Anthony and dozens of other politicians, labor leaders, abolitionists, activists, scientists, poets, foreign dignitaries, Nobel Prize-winners and more spoke in Cooper Union's Great Hall.

"I can't think of any other place in the United States (where) such an aggregation of social and political events happen(ed)," Greenstein said.

The Great Hall's seen rowdy debates, protests and even arrests -- none of which it's likely to witness when Mayor Bill de Blasio's voice echoes off these pillars to commemorate his 100th day in office, Thursday at noon. The mayor will stand at the same lectern from which Lincoln once spoke -- albeit, now equipped with a microphone -- and, if he's wise, draw upon the ghosts of other speeches still reverberating off Cooper Union's walls: Twain's wit, Teddy's brashness, Cady Stanton's morality and, yes, Abe's honesty.

"De Blasio's choice of this space?" we asked Greenstein.

"Think it's probably obvious," he said. "It is to me anyway. And I hope it is to him."

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