A Joseph Urban maquette of the Rooftop scene in Flying High

Bwog has hopped and camped in libraries, but we’ve never actually explored their contents. The Columbia libraries are a treasure trove of exciting history, so with the help of our lovely librarian friends, we’re going to highlight some hidden jewels. For our first installment of BiblioBwog, Carolyn Ruvkun talked to Jennifer Lee, Performing Arts Curator at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, about the Joseph Urban exhibit.

A titan of the twenties, Joseph Urban was an innovative Art Deco set designer, architect and illustrator. Urban was so famous that while staying in the hospital before his death, he was listed as John Smith to ward off gossipers. After a brief stint for the Boston opera, Urban arrived in New York to design for Ziegfeld’s Follies, Broadway shows (the first production of Showboat) and the Metropolitan Opera (the premiere of Turandot). Jennifer Lee explained she organized the exhibit chronologically to show all the various artistic projects Urban was involved in at once. Fully engaged in every single production, Urban meticulously crafted his sets with detailed 3-D models or maquettes, and watercolor illustrations. Urban even worked with the actors in William Randolph Hearst’s famous film company. The newspaper magnate was one of Urban’s wealthiest supporters, and the letters they exchanged are displayed in the exhibit. With his trademark bright “Urban blue,” the restless designer infused all of his work with excitement and fantasy.

Columbia received the archives of Joseph Urban as a donation from the artist’s widow, the former director of “pageantry, spectacle and dance” and Barnard College. (Yep, you could study pageantry). For decades, hundreds of Urban’s works were buried in the stacks of the Rare Book library. Recent grants and private donations contributed to a finding aid for identifying what lay hidden in the collection. Columbia then hired conservators to repair Urban’s disassembled models, and librarian Jennifer Lee curated the fascinating exhibit. Jennifer’s favorite piece was put together from a box of miscellaneous scraps she purchased sight unseen from a dealer in upstate New York. Turns out, the package contained a full set model of one of Urban’s early productions for the Boston opera. Guided by a complementary drawing and photograph from the collection, the conservationists reconstructed the entire maquette.

Despite his artistic achievements, few remember Urban. John Loring, former design director for Tiffany’s, ventured to spotlight the larger than life (and physically massive) Urban in his recently published biography. With hundreds of Urban’s stage models, watercolors and sketches, Columbia provided Loring with material evidence of the artist’s imaginative work. In one of Urban’s illustrations, the Empire State building appears as an imposing palace against the backdrop of the signature blue sky. “The Empire state building had just been completed in 1931, and Urban showed the pride of this great civic accomplishment,” Jennifer marvels. “Sometimes you come up out of the Subway and try to look at the state building as if you’ve never seen it before to try to capture the excitement of the day.” Urban wrote that theater should be “felt rather than seen” —an experience of “total immersion for the person attending.” The models and watercolors displayed in the exhibit celebrate an artist who revolutionized theater.

“Joseph Urban: the World as Theater” is open to all Columbia students in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library on 6th floor of Butler through December 23rd.  If there’s anything else in the library you want Bwog to check out, tell us in the comments!