The Man Who Was Everything

Joseph Urban and the world of international Viennese design

Josef Urban at work in his study | Photo: Columbia University

To this day, people debate just what it was that mattered about Joseph Urban. Some know him as a stage designer in the golden days of Broadway in NYC, some as the architect of a U.S. Presidential retreat, others of palaces in Europe, and others as a gold medal winner for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. And still others remember reading that New York developer Donald Trump was his biggest fan.

He sounds larger than life. And in fact, Joseph Urban was all of these things. Urban is one of Austria’s best-known architects, stage designers, and exponents of the Jugendstil.  He left behind an extraordinary collection of designs for buildings, interiors, furniture, and theater sets. And after he left Austria, he became a global figure.

My awareness of Joseph Urban began when I visited the Villa Landau on Semmering.  Several years of living this “villa culture” had made me aware of area’s unique history, and with the designation of the famed Semmering Railway as a UNESCO world heritage site its uniqueness was only confirmed.

Set in a gentle natural cushion of trees with an outstanding view of the soaring heights of the Schneeberg, Villa Landau looks down the mountain meadows towards Gloggnitz, an amazing sight, especially in the morning when the thick Styrian fog – the “Steirer Nebel” – flows down from the Semmering pass like water.

The Villa has an inviting glass entrance and very intricate geometric roof design covered with green metal. Just inside, a café lounge leads to a formal dining room followed by a vintage one a glow with brass Jugendstil lamps in each. In the dining room an 1895 Bösendorfer grand piano reigns in perfect working order, against a background of dark wood paneling, and a parquet floor restored to its original magnificence.

Joseph Urban was born in Vienna in 1872 and trained as an architect at the Polytechnic University under Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer, architect of the Burgtheater.  At the age of 19, while still a student, he received his first commission to create a new wing for the Abdin Palace in Cairo for the young Khedive of Egypt. A few years later he designed a castle for the Esterhazy family in St. Abraham, Hungary.  He received his first recognition as an architect in the U.S. in 1904 when his design for the interior of the Austrian Pavilion at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, was awarded a Gold Medal.

It was only three years later, in 1907, that he designed and built the Alpine Villa Landau in Semmering for the Vienna industrialist, Max Landau. With generous use of Jugendstil concepts, especially the outside windows, he wove a sensuous linear pattern throughout the villa, parallel lines that frame and then end in an oval. The north facing window series in the main dining room is especially impressive, almost unchanged today.

The Swedish couple that owns the Villa plans to restore as many things to original as possible, it is a long process. They have even traveled to the Columbia University Urban archive to look at the original models of Villa Landau, and the numerous illustrations of the interior design. Urban originally furnished it with the pieces he used in his 1904 St. Louis worlds fair installation. The Villa has recently been restored and reopened in 2010 as a hotel and conference center, true to the original designs, with  the ground floor a full conference center and wellness wing, with indoor swimming pool, and 10 bedrooms, modernized to keep with the times.

During his rise to architectural and theater fame, Urban received much attention in Austria as an illustrator, providing paintings for a group of seminal children’s books, including Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1905), Kling Klang Gloria (1907), Anderson ’s Kalendar (1911), and Mary’s Child (1914). While all this was going on, he was also very active in stage and production design; from 1904 to 1914 he designed more than fifty productions for theaters and opera houses in Vienna and throughout Europe.

The Alpine Villa Landau in Semmering built for Max Landau | Photo: Anders Henriksson

Urban left Austria in 1911 to become the art director for the short lived, but influential Boston Opera Company and designed some 30 productions.  In 1915 he moved to New York where he designed all the productions of Florenz Ziegfeld – the Follies, Midnight Frolics, and eighteen musicals.  Altogether, Urban designed twenty-six musicals and sixteen plays for other Broadway producers, plus numerous films, mostly for William Randolph Hearst’s production company. He also became the art director for the New York Metropolitan Opera, designing 51 productions, some staying in the repertoire into the 1960s.

Never losing his connection to Austria, he actively promoted the Vienna Arts and Crafts Movement and the famed Wiener Werkstätte, and in collaboration with Gustav Klimt designed a high-profile showroom for the group in New York City in 1922.

While many of his U.S. buildings have been demolished, a few still remain. The New School (now part of Colombia University) in NYC is regarded as the first modernist building of importance in the U.S., and from an architectural point of view, one of Urban’s most important contributions.  The International Magazine Building in NYC was also designed by Urban for William Randolph Hearst, to which, in the 1980s, a dramatic modern tower was added by acclaimed British architect Sir Norman Foster. The “new” Hearst Tower, has been voted the most beautiful skyscraper built in later years in NYC by The New York Times and is a New York City Registered Landmark. It is also still the main office for one of the most powerful media group in the U.S., publishers of Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Town and Country, “O” and a dozen other magazines.

Urban’s lavish Palm Beach Villa design “Mar-a-Lago” was built at the end of the 20s for Marjorie Merriweather Post (a socialite and also a Kellogg, founders of General Foods). The Villa is large and has a Mediterranean design, with a very creative interior. Post was the wife of E.F. Hutton (one of the most important Wall Street profiles at the time). Some of Urban’s Vienna collaborators, like Franz Barwig, also helped out on the project. When Post died, she left the Mar-a-Lago to the U.S. government, which used it as a presidential retreat for a short time. It ultimately ended up in the hands of Donald Trump who completely restored the 10,000 square meter main house to its original condition and used it as his personal residence for 10 years.

Urban has recently been the topic of several books; The definitive creative biography Joseph Urban, by John Loring, design director emeritus of Tiffany & Co. and 35-year contributing editor to Architectural Digest.

And in 2000, a biography appeared, entitled Joseph Urban: Die Wiener Jahre des Jugendstilarchitekten und Illustrators, 1872-1911, by Viennese writer Markus Kristan (Albertina). Both books are rich in images and designs, giving the reader a sense of the diversity of Urban’s oeuvre.

If you are in New York City, you can visit the Joseph Urban Archives at Columbia University – models, theater designs and architectural drawings, on permanent display in the exhibition: “Architect of Dreams: The Theatrical Vision of Joseph Urban.”

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