Joseph Urban may be a somewhat forgotten figure in America’s annals of culture, but during his lifetime he enjoyed an almost legendary reputation. An all-round creative talent, Urban was a prolific Gilded Age illustrator, set designer, and architect of private dwellings, theaters, and a university building in the city of New York. His Gingerbread Castle was built for a fairy tale themed amusement park in Hamburg, New Jersey.
His feeling for color and choice of materials did much to revitalize American stage design and architecture. The contrast between two of Urban’s extant buildings shows the range of his talent as an architect. It goes beyond that: the marked stylistic difference seemed to foreshadow the divisiveness of contemporary society.
Born in Vienna on May 26th, 1872, Joseph Urban attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts he studied architecture with Karl von Hasenauer. A proponent of revival styles, the latter had created several of the Neo-Baroque monuments around Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse.
Urban established himself as an architect as well as a book illustrator and set designer, often working in collaboration with his brother-in-law, the painter Heinrich Lefler. For over fourteen years the two shared offices. During this time, they decorated Vienna’s new “Rathauskeller” (City Hall restaurant) and produced a range of picture books, catalogues, and posters. Stylistically, Urban’s early architectural structures (most of which were privately commissioned) veered towards ornamental Jugendstil (art nouveau).
By the age of nineteen Urban had gained an international reputation. Abbas II was a student in Vienna when his father Tewfik Pasha, Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, suddenly died. On assuming the throne in January 1892 he invited Urban, whose work he admired, to join him in Cairo and design a new wing for the historic Abdeen Palace.
In 1899, Urban and Lefler co-founded the Hagenbund, an exhibiting modernist society that rebelled against the art establishment (the group was named after Herr Hagen, the proprietor of a Viennese inn where members gathered). Five years later he was awarded a Gold Medal for his interior design of the Austrian Pavilion at the World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri.
Frustrated with the constraints of realism, poets and painters were moving from the replication of observable phenomena to the revelation of dreamlike worlds and subconscious landscapes. They went in search of the unknown, the hidden, and the dark. Inspired by Adolphe Appia, the Swiss theorist of stage lighting and decor, Urban applied the principles of what became known as New Stagecraft to designs that reflected the intertwined realms of art and psychology.
After planning more than fifty theatrical and operatic productions in Vienna and other European capitals, he decided to widen his horizon. America offered a new challenge.
Boston & New York
Working in Vienna, Urban had been commissioned by the Boston Opera to design sets for four operas during 1911/2 season. When he was offered the post of Art Director at the Opera House, he had no hesitation in accepting the opportunity. Aged forty, he moved to Boston in 1912.
The innovations of New Stagecraft were driven by the ambition to produce a “total” stage work in which decor, lightning, costumes, orchestration, acting, and singing would express the fused vision of a single director so as to create a cohesive experience for the spectator. That approach was largely unknown in the United States and appealed to the audience. Urban’s debut production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann was well received but the Boston adventure did not last long as the Opera Company went bankrupt in 1914.
In 1917 Joseph moved to New York where he worked as head of stage design at the Metropolitan Opera until his death in July 1933. During that period he was responsible for fifty-one productions (some of which remained in the repertory until the mid-1960s). A man of relentless energy, he created scores of stage sets ranging from musical theatre classics to the American premiere of Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up).
He designed the Ziegfeld Follies as well as all other Ziegfeld productions from 1915 to 1932. From 1921 to 1925 Urban also worked as art director for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Studios at 126th Street & Second Avenue. He designed the spectacular sets for Little Old New York, the highest grossing film at the time selling over 200,000 tickets.
In 1926 he received his license to practice architecture in the United States after which he designed homes and theaters in New York and elsewhere. Urban’s close association with Florenz Ziegfeld culminated in 1927 with him building the Ziegfeld Theatre at 54th Street & Sixth Avenue (with financial backing from William Randolph Hearst). Its design was rather grandiose. Replete with floodlights, it showcased two immense female figures guarding Melpomene and Thalia, the Muses of Comedy and Tragedy. The auditorium was surrounded by scenes from the Bible.
The Art Deco design of the building represented Urban’s aesthetic principle that there was no contradiction between the “high art” of grand opera and Broadway’s “low down” musicals and revues. For him there were no value judgements that could separate the achievements of Giuseppe Verdi from those of Irving Berlin. Stylistically the architecture of the theater was meant to represent a fusion of the pictorial and the dramatic. Unfortunately, the building was destroyed in 1966.
When New York turned icy, Urban removed himself to Florida. There, amongst other activities, he oversaw the building of the exclusive Bath & Tennis Club in Palm Beach. The rest of the year, he and his wife lived in style at the St. Regis Hotel at East 55th Street, Manhattan.
In 1924 Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress of a vast family fortune made in the cereal business, commissioned Urban to design a “Spanish style” villa complex in Palm Beach. Named Mar-a-Lago, the estate was completed three years later.
Having called in the support of his former Hagenbund colleague, the Viennese sculptor Franz Barwig, Urban’s design exuded an air of exotica and grandeur. The mansion featured Spanish tiles, Florentine frescoes, and Venetian arches. With a panoramic view of the Ocean, it had a ballroom, a nine-hole golf course, and an underground tunnel linking the estate to the Bath & Tennis Club.
When Marjorie Merriweather died, the Post Foundation willed Mar-a-Lago to the Federal government hoping that it would be used as an official “Winter White House.” After a few years of maintaining the opulent mansion at enormous expense, the National Park Service returned it to the Post-family who put the estate up for sale. Using his familiar bullish negotiating tactics, Mar-a-Lago was snapped up at a bargain price by Donald Trump.
He originally wanted the mansion to become a “trophy” home, an extravagant token of his entrepreneurial success but the cost of maintenance was exorbitant. What made Mar-a-Lago survive, was the decision to turn the estate into a private members’ club. Having opened in 1994 (Palm Beach’s first non-sectarian club), the estate has been a golden egg for the Trump organization ever since. Where other business ventures struggled or collapsed, Mar-a-Lago has subsidized the owner’s lifestyle. It came to symbolize the chicaneries of the Trump era.
In 1919, several professors at Columbia University took a public stand against America’s entry into the First World War. Having been censured by Columbia’s President, they resigned in protest, fearing that academic freedom was in danger. They joined up with other progressive educators to found the New School for Social Research (later renamed The New School) which focused on adult education. The NSSR was housed in six leased brownstones on West 23rd Street, Chelsea.
As the lease was coming to a close, its Director Alvin Johnson decided to create a permanent home for the school, one that would give visible form to its identity and ideals. A fundraising plan was needed, along with a visionary design that would inspire potential backers (in a time of deepening financial crisis). Two architects were shortlisted, Frank Lloyd Wright and Joseph Urban. Johnson convinced the Board of Directors that the latter was the best choice.
Urban’s design was driven by Bauhaus principles. Completed in 1931 and believed to be the first International Style structure built in the United States, the New School at 66 West 12th Street in Greenwich Village was the designer’s last architectural work before his death in 1933.
Alarmed by the growing threat posed by Adolf Hitler, Alvin Johnson began offering positions to scholars who had fled the Third Reich. Their presence initiated the formation of a University in Exile which eventually consisted of more than 180 exiled faculty members. Some scholars who were offered a place at the institution never reached its premise.
One of them was the journalist and pacifist Rudolf Olden, the co-organizer in 1933 of “Das Freie Wort” congress where over 1,500 participants pledged their support for freedom of speech. He was forced to seek safety in London. Interned as an enemy alien in Britain, he was released after being invited to lecture at the New School. Traveling on the City of Benares, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on September 18, 1940. Olden and his wife died in the tragedy (Monica Mann, the novelist’s daughter, was one of the survivors).
The University in Exile program was originally funded by contributions from Hiram Halle and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1934, it was chartered by the State of New York and changed its name to Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. Exiled scholars helped transform the academic approach to the social sciences in the United States. They also launched the journal Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Political and Social Sciences. The periodical still thrives today (published by John Hopkins University Press).
In 1937, Thomas Mann recalled that the Nazis had removed a plaque bearing the inscription ‘be the Living Spirit’ from a building associated with the University of Heidelberg. His suggestion that the University in Exile adopt the motto ‘To the Living Spirit’ was embraced by Alvin Johnson. It remains the inspiration behind the project to this day. In 2018, the New School University in Exile Consortium was established to continue the mission of the original group by providing support and space to exiled or persecuted scholars.
Two buildings and a single architect – one is an extravagant 1920s Art Deco residence that mirrors the senseless opulence of private wealth; the other is a functional Bauhaus structure that represents both the sobering realities of the 1930s (in New York itself and in Urban’s native Vienna) and the urgent need for social sciences to intervene.
In today’s political context the buildings seem to speak for a polarized society: Trump’s national selfishness versus the New School’s goal of international partnership and participation.
Illustrations, from above: Joseph Urban (Flagler Museum, Palm Beach); Gingerbread Castle (1928), Hamburg amusement park, New Jersey; Durban’ set design for Tales of Hoffmann, Metropolitan Opera, 1924; Mar-a-Lago, built between 1924 and 1927 by Joseph Urban (Library of Congress); and sketch of the New School 66 West 12th Street Building (University Archives, Columbia University).