Urban's New York Stage Models Now Online

NEW YORK, October 20, 2004 - The Libraries at Columbia University has introduced a newly designed website (www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/archives/rbml/urban/) that gives viewers unprecedented access to approximately 2,650 rarely-seen images of Joseph Urban’s stage designs, documents, and drawings. The digitization of Urban’s work is part of a larger project funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to preserve, photograph, stabilize, and improve access to approximately 340 three-dimensional stage models created by Urban for New York theaters.

The collection consists of 15,000 items including three-dimensional stage models, drawings, photographs, and sketches dating from 1914-1933, when Urban worked on New York productions such as the Ziegfeld Follies, the Metropolitan Opera, and a variety of Broadway productions. Although Urban worked in Boston, Vienna, and elsewhere in the United States, the project focuses on his work in New York, where he spent most of his professional career. The Urban collection is among the most heavily used by researchers and scholars at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“Joseph Urban made these stage models true works of art, down to the finest details, and the colors he used are amazing,” noted Janet Gertz, Director of the Preservation Division at Columbia University Libraries. “It has been a thrill to have them in the Conservation Lab and get a really close look at them. Now that the images are online, everyone will be able to appreciate what Urban achieved.”

During the project, flat documents from the collection were scanned in the reprography laboratory. Transparencies of fragile watercolor drawings were scanned and added to the image collection. Finally, sixty-one assembled, three-dimensional stage models were photographed and then digitized. Each model is shown from a number of angles, and in many cases, important details were captured in the photograph.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Urban’s name was synonymous with modern design. Born in Austria, he moved to the United States in 1911 to become the 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 the New York night life of the period, including the St. Regis Roof, the Central Park Casino, and the Paradise Restaurant. During his lifetime he designed between 500 and 700 stage sets for at least 168 productions, many of which he also directed.

The Joseph Urban Papers Stabilization and Access Project was a joint effort of the Digital Program Division, Preservation Division, and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University Libraries.

The Libraries Digital Program Division at Columbia was created in September 2002. The Division is responsible for collection-based digitization projects, improving access to and management of Columbia’s licensed commercial electronic resources, and implementing technological solutions for the Libraries’ evolving digital needs.

The Preservation Division, organized in 1974, is one of the five oldest library preservation programs in the United States. The division has primary responsibilities for maintaining the Libraries’ collections through proper care, housing, and disaster prevention. The division provides treatment of items to ensure their continued availability for use, and reformatting when use is not longer possible due to damage or severe deterioration. The division is responsible for the preservation of materials in all formats and genres, including sound recordings, and digital resources created by the Libraries.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library owns over 500,000 rare books in some 20 book collections and almost 28 million manuscripts in nearly 3,000 separate manuscript collections. It is particularly strong in English and American literature and history, classical authors, children's literature, education, mathematics and astronomy, economics and banking, photography, the history of printing, New York City politics, librarianship, and the performing arts. Individual collections are as eclectic as they are extensive.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is an independent grant-making agency of the United States government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.