Archive of Architect Joseph Urban to Be Preserved

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University has received a $220,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve and catalog the archives of the modernist architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban (1872-1933).

Donated to Columbia in 1955 by Urban's widow, the collection totals 15,000 items and includes architectural drawings, stage models, glass plate and acetate negatives, sketches, drawings and paintings, many in fragile condition, said Jean Ashton, library director.

During the 1920's and 1930's, Urban's name was synonymous with modern design. Born in Austria, he moved to the United States in 1911 to become art director of the Boston Opera. Equally skilled as an architect, set designer and interior designer, his work ranged from the exuberant art deco forms of the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City and the Ziegfeld Follies sets to the refined international style of the New School for Social Research and the Hearst International Magazine Building. Many of the decorative interiors he created between 1928 and 1933 became synonymous with New York night life of the period: the St. Regis Roof, the Central Park Casino and the Paradise Restaurant. At his death he had designed between 500 and 700 stage sets for at least 168 productions, many of which he also directed.

The Urban collection is among the most heavily used by researchers and scholars at the Rare Books and Manuscript Library.

"The deteriorating condition of the Urban materials is a source of great concern because it threatens future access," Ashton said. The two-year grant will allow the library to hire two full-time employees who will improve storage of the materials to protect against further deterioration, make minor repairs and identify items that will need major conservation work. "In the past conservation work has been limited to items loaned for exhibition and the borrowing institutions have paid for restoration or repair," said Ashton. "But the scope of the problem and the size of the collection demands more than scattershot attention."

In addition, the new staff will reorganize the collection to make it easier to use. "This will entail identifying the name and history of each architectural or design project and each theatrical production represented, determining which items within the collections belong to each project or production and establishing a record of the names and dates associated with each group to provide access points," Ashton said. "Researchers then will be able to locate all items needed from a single source, instead of having to move through a complicated series of folder and format-based lists, as is now the case."

Part of the Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum collection, the Urban materials have been cited extensively in numerous books, including Joseph Urban: Architecture, Theatre, Opera, Film by Robert Reed Cole and Randolph Carter (New York: 1992) and The Ziegfeld Touch: The Life and Times of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. by Richard and Paulette Ziegfeld (New York: 1992).

Brander Matthews, author, critic and a Columbia English professor from 1891 to 1924, was an influential figure in the literary and theatrical New York and London.

Works from the collection have been loaned for exhibition at the Performing Arts Research Center, Lincoln Center, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of the City of New York, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Metropolitan Opera and the National Museum of American History. A major exhibition of architectural materials from the collection was mounted earlier this year at the Kunsthalle in Vienna.

Columbia University Record -- September 22, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 3