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Maestro of Mar-a-Lago

books and culture

Maestro of Mar-a-Lago

Joseph Urban’s grandiose aesthetics characterized everything he created—from the Ziegfeld Follies to the Winter White House. November 24, 2017
Arts and Culture

Some three decades ago, a visiting New Yorker appraised Palm Beach through a cab window. To while away the time, he asked the driver, “What’s for sale in town that’s really good?”

“Well,” came the reply, “the best thing by far is Mar-a-Lago, but I guess you wouldn’t be talking about that.”

The hell he wouldn’t. Within days, Donald Trump tracked down the place, its origin, and its owners. To others, Mar-a-Lago (Spanish for “sea-to-lake”) was a neglected 128-room white elephant set on 17 fallow acres between the Atlantic and Lake Worth. But to the arriviste, it held an overpowering allure. “I immediately knew it had to be mine,” Trump recalled. Jay Gatsby would have understood completely.

Mar-a-Lago was the property of the Post family, famously rich from the profits of their cereal business. Heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post had not only purchased the land; in 1924, she also hired the most dramatic designer/architect in the country. Everything Joseph Urban created had a touch of exotica and grandeur. Post’s mansion featured Spanish tiles, Florentine frescoes, Venetian arches, a panoramic view of the ocean, a ballroom, and a nine-hole golf course. No wonder Trump wanted the place so badly.

Joseph Urban (Flagler Museum)

Born in Vienna in 1873, Carl Maria Georg Joseph Urban was a wunderkind who had made an international reputation by 19. The Khedive of Egypt, on a tour of Continent, saw the young man’s spectacular drawings. Beguiled, he brought Joseph to Cairo to design a pleasure palace of white marble, with interiors marked by vibrant hues and gold medallions.

From there, Urban went from strength to strength, building to building, stage set to stage set. After planning more than 50 European theatrical and operatic productions, he looked for new fields to conquer, and America offered a slew of them. In 1912, he assumed the role of designer for the Boston Opera Company, then relocated to New York to do impressionistic, pastel-colored backgrounds for the Metropolitan Opera, but these projects were hardly enough to contain his prodigious energy. (A magazine profile described the chunky gourmet as a man with “the vitality of two or three athletes.”)

"Parsifal," Klingsor's garden, 1920 (Dwight Primiano Photography/Columbia University)

In bad weather, Urban removed himself to Florida, where he oversaw the building of Mar-a-Lago and the Bath and Tennis Club in Palm Beach. During the other seasons, he and his wife lived at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, where he designed Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies (as well as the Ziegfeld Theater) and other Broadway producers’ musicals and plays. In his spare time, he worked on sets for Cosmopolitan Productions, William Randolph Hearst’s new movie company. Citizen Hearst was so impressed that he asked Urban to design the International Magazine Building.

The Ziegfeld, at 54th Street and Sixth Avenue, was typically grandiose. Replete with huge floodlights, it showcased a frieze of winding abstract forms, with two immense female figures guarding Melpomene and Thalia, the muses of comedy and tragedy—plus an auditorium surrounded by scenes from the Bible. The Architectural Record applauded; Urban’s work was a needed leap over the “pathetic Adamesque creations in the latest interior decorator manner.” In contrast, the New Yorker condemned the design as “dreadful,” the frieze being nothing more than “a writhing band of pretzels.”

Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, facade, 1926–27 (Columbia University)

Urban was ready with his response: there was no contradiction between the high art of grand opera and the lowdown musicals and revues of Broadway. As der Meister saw it, he was leading an aesthetic revolution, bringing the exuberance of theater to buildings and the discipline of architecture to the stage. Art Deco represented “a fusion of the pictorial and the dramatic,” whether that art was created by Giuseppe Verdi or Irving Berlin, vocalized by Enrico Caruso or Fanny Brice, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or Joseph Urban.

Excited by new uses of electric power and light, Urban began to set the tone for both the Main Stem and the Met—but he was suddenly struck down by a heart attack in 1933. As the country rose from the Great Depression, new buildings reached up and out; fresh styles dominated Broadway and Hollywood. The name of Urban fell into obscurity. Cultural critic Deems Taylor, who guided Fantasia, Walt Disney’s animated salute to classical music, offered a lament. Urban’s “greatest misfortune, as well as his greatest glory, is the fact that his contributions to his art were so fundamental that they are taken for granted.”

Art Deco is still with us, but only a few Urbanic structures remain. South of Columbus Circle, the base of the Hearst Tower supports a glittering glass extension. In Greenwich Village, the exterior of the New School for Social Research, where so many of Urban’s fellow Teutons found an intellectual home, resolutely stands. And in Florida there is, of course, Mar-a-Lago, also known as the Winter White House. And therein lies the conclusion of the tale of the taxi.

When Marjorie Merriweather Post died, the Post Foundation willed Mar-a-Lago to the federal government in the hope that it would be used as an official Winter White House. After a few years of trying to maintain the Xanadu of South Florida, the National Park Service returned it. In the mid-1980s, Post’s heirs let it be known that they were no longer interested in maintaining the estate. The family put it on the market for $25 million. Trump saw a way to knock down the price. He announced that unless the sellers met his terms, he would purchase a thin strip of land between Mar-a-Lago and the Atlantic, on which he would build a structure blocking the maritime view. A wall, it seems, was an effective bargaining device even then, and the Posts caved. In 1985, Mar-a-Lago became Trump’s for the bargain price of $7 million.

Palm Beach society was distressed by this incursion; they expected a development of McMansions to desecrate the landscape and reduce the value of their own homes in the process. The Old Money was astonished to see the new owner’s elegant restoration of Urban’s original design. Real estate prices in Palm Beach have since risen like the spring tide, and the carping has fallen like the neap. Donald Trump has been fairly pilloried for his vulgarity and egomania. But at least here, in the playground of the ostentatious, the art of the deal has been eclipsed by the deal of the art.

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