Joseph Urban and Cosmopolitan Films

After Cosmopolitan Films

From Matthew Wilson Smith's essay "Joseph Urban and the Birth of American Film Design" in Arnold Aronson's Architect of Dreams: The Theatrical Vistion of Joseph Urban:

"Urban designed his last film for Cosmopolitan in 1925, after which he established an architectural studio in New York (paid for with earnings from his film work) and continued designing sets for the Metropolitan Opera and other companies [including for Ziegfeld]. While he would return to film with a few projects for Fox in the early thirties, his major innovations were largely behind him; the Werkstätte–influenced designs that he offered for the Fox productions seem almost tame beside the enthusiasm for art deco that had since swept the nation. Urban's contribution to film design could be seen, however, in the more sophisticated sense of design inherited and promoted by art directors who came after him. Urban noted this development himself when, looking back on the course of American film from the standpoint of 1930, he wrote with pride that "directors have more and more turned their attention to the proper lighting of scenes, to an expressive location of the camera eye in the scene picture and to the development of new beauties in the art of photography." Characteristically unwilling to rest on his laurels, however, he criticized directors for their unwillingness to take creative risks and looked forward to the day when "the highly individual picture" might be "dominated by one creative will." As a plea for cinematic auteurism, Urban's dream came some twenty years too soon. Urban, as usual, was ahead of his time."

For the full text of this essay and the entire Architect of Dreams, please see:

Before coming to American in 1912 to work for the Boston Opera, Urban had been a licensed architect in Vienna. But after leaving Cosmopolitan Productions when his contract expired on February 19, 1925, he had to reestablish himself, and he received his license to practice architecture in the United States in 1926.

One of his first major projects as an independent architect, with an office located at 5 East 57th Street, was to build the only theater that Florenz Ziegfeld would call his own. This would be the original Ziegfeld Theater, at 6th Avenue at 54th Street in New YOrk City, on land owned by William Randolph Hearst, just across the street from Hearst's newly built Warwick Hotel that still stands. Having a major theater venue right there, north of the city's theater district, was sure to increase property values. Ziegfeld had been in legal battles with Abe Erlanger, owner of the New Amsterdam, and longed for his own theater. Hearst agreed to finance the entire project with Urban as architect.

On February 27, 1927, the Ziegfeld Theatre opened for the premiere performance of Ziegfeld's show "Rio Rita," also designed by Urban. Not only was the show the season's biggest musical hit, but the building was hailed as a triumph, with an oval shaped auditorium, good accomodation for performers including rehearsal and storage spaces, proper dressing rooms with showers, and a dining area, office spaces for Ziegfeld and his staff, and even air conditioning.

The Ziegfeld Theatre would be the venue for the first production of "Show Boat," that opened on December 27, 1927, and ran for 572 performances; "Show Girl," that opened on July 2, 1929, and featured Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra on stage; "Simple Simon," that opened on February 18, 1930; "Smiles" that opened on November 18, 1930; the "Ziegfeld Folles of 1931," the last of the Follies, that opened on July 1, 1931; and "Hot-Cha! (Laid in Mexico)" that opened on March 8, 1932 — all designed by Joseph Urban.

Florence Ziegfeld died on July 22, 1932, and Joseph Urban died on July 10, 1933. It has been suggested that this was a blessing in a way, since the stock market crash of 1929 meant that funding was hard to come by and all of their projects had requied deep pocket support. It may also be a major reason that so many of Urban's Metropolitan Opera productions were still in use up until the Met moved from the old house to the new one at Lincoln Center.

The Ziegfeld Theater was torn down in 1966. As Paul Goldberger has written: "The Ziegfeld was one of those buildings that went just a few years too soon. Had it been able to hold on just a bit longer, a later age would surely have seen its value and refused to sanction its destruction."

While working on the Ziegfeld Theater, Joseph Urban created another major building for William Randolph Hearst, the International Mazagine Building, located on 8th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets in New York City. The facade was protected by law and still exists. The interior was completely gutted to make way for the 46-story glass and steel skyscraper that was built inside it in 2006, now called Hearst Tower.

The International Magazine Building, still the headquarters of many Hearst publications, was originally designed to be 20 stories high, but was built only to the 6th floor height. A New Yorker reviewer with the bi-line "T-Square" (George S. Chappell) wrote: "This is theatric architecture to be sure. At first survey, I feel that it is perhaps a stunt. It has an 'exposition' quality, observable in other of Mr. Urban's designs. But whatever he does goes with a swing. One feels back of the design a vigorous, compelling personality."

Only this facade, and the original building of The New School, shown below, are still standing to show Joseph Urban's New York City architectural work.

In 1930 Urban won the coveted commission to design the first important Modernist building in America, that of The New School for Social Research, on West 12th Street in New York City. The runner-up was none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. Thankfully, the building still stands and some of Urban's original interiors still exist, including the Auditorium and the Dance Studio.

The Auditorium, like that of the Ziegfeld Theater and other unrealized works of Urban's was elliptical, and it clearly inspired the design of Radio City Music Hall, with no credit given to Urban. But later critics, such as S. H. Shirakawa in Theater Week, have suggested that the Music Hall was "Joseph Urban's masterpiece."

For a listing of Urban's Architecture and Design work, as held in his archive in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, please see the collection finding aid:

Urban's wide-ranging work, beginning in Vienna, was so vast that not everything is included in the archive and, along with the missing Cosmopolitan Production films, much is yet to be discovered.

Columbia University Libraries / Butler Library / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-7309 /