Carl Maria Georg Joseph Urban (1872–1933) was one of the most significant stage designers of the early 20th century. Beginning with his work in Vienna, then in Boston, and later in New York, Urban's importance lay in his use of color, his introduction to American theater of many of the techniques and principles of the New Stagecraft, and his architectural sensibility.
Presented to Columbia University in 1955, the Joseph Urban Collection, with more than 135 linear feet of material, including 700 watercolor drawings, as well as architectural plans, elevations, scrapbooks, photographs, and 328 stage models, is the largest single holding of Urban's work. It covers a prolific and eclectic career encompassing not only his buildings and stage designs, but also his designs for films, exhibitions, interiors, automobiles, furniture, store windows, roof gardens, and ballrooms.
Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation provided for rehousing the collection and the creation of an archival finding aid. In 2002, the library received a grant from the NEH to preserve the three-dimensional stage models, and to support the creation of a digital archive. The Joseph Urban Stage Design Models and Documents Stabilization and Access Project Web site focuses on Urban's New York period (1914–33).
Researchers worldwide now have access to the work of one of the world's most creative designers. Equally at home in grand opera and more populist entertainments, Urban created over 50 productions for the Metropolitan Opera, including the US premier of Turandot (1926). For Florenz Ziegfeld, he designed 12 Follies and many other productions, including Showboat (1927). His New York City building designs included the Ziegfeld Theater, the New School for Social Research, and the interior of the Central Park Casino.
When William Randolph Hearst engaged him as art director for his movie studio (1919–25), Urban became one of the first artists to design for film. A chart showing how various colors appeared in black and white indicates how Urban used color for depth and texture.
During the past decade the collection has been cited in a number of books including: Robert Cole and Randolph Carter, Joseph Urban: Architecture,Theatre, Opera, Film (1992); Mary Henderson, The New Amsterdam: The Biography of a Broadway Theatre (1997); and Christopher Innes Broadway to Main Street: Designing Modern America (2005).
Works from the collection have been lent to exhibitions across the US and Europe; theater students have learned from the stage models; architects renovating Urban's buildings, such as Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, have studied his project files; color theorists have examined his drawings made as director of light for the Chicago World's Fair, A Century of Progress, 1933. Urban's work continues to delight and instruct. He was truly the "architect of dreams."
Collection Profile and Overview: Jennifer B. Lee
Illustrations: Dwight Primiano
Urban Stage Design Models and Documents Stabilization and Access Project: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/
Architect of Dreams: The Theatrical Vision of Joseph Urban http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/
Papers finding aid: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/libraries/indiv/rare/