On June 18, 1914, C. Emlen Urban did something he had never done before in his private life or in his career. It was 51 years and almost four months from the day of his birth when he applied for a building permit for the construction of his own residence.
For an architect, this can represent a crowning achievement that follows years of practice, an opportunity to showcase talent without the constraints of demanding clients, budgets or politics.
In 1914, Urban had been in private practice for exactly three decades designing an impressive array of building types, from private residences, mansions, schools and department stores to taverns, churches, factories, storehouses, theaters and public markets, to name a few. He also mastered the language and details for more than 20 architectural styles, including French Baroque, French Renaissance, Beaux Arts, Chateauesque, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival and Italian Renaissance. He had proven to a
discerning audience time and again that he was capable of undertaking any design challenge and executing it with a level of grace and skill that would defy his limited formal education.
Urban’s own day had finally arrived. He purchased a large parcel of land at the corner of Race and Buchanan avenues to showcase his talent. Interestingly, he chose one of the most classic and conservative residential styles of the time: Colonial Revival. The Antique Home Style magazine describes Colonial Revival as “stately and distinguished, rather than cute or cottage-like. (They) are substantial homes that declare that the owners are persons with a solid center and traditional values.” Urban’s style selection speaks volumes about his personality; Colonial Revival was his comfort food.
The distinguishing characteristics of Colonial Revival include strong symmetry and an impressive front door with transom, sidelights and hood. In true Urban style, he elected to introduce a few atypical design elements into his design, including the Dutch Colonial dormers, flared roof eaves and terra-cotta chimney pots. Additionally, the pent roof encircling the first floor allowed Urban to break from the strict five-bay symmetry typical to the style and introduce a large bay window in the formal dining room.
Historic interior photographs show a well-appointed and detailed residence with abundant natural light. He and his wife, Jennie Olivia, and their two children, Miriam and Rathfon, would reside there until 1923, when they agreed to sell it to Fulton Bank executive Harry Musser.
Did Urban design any other residences for himself?
Yes. In 1926, while living briefly at 619 W. Chestnut St., he designed and built another home across the street from his 1914 residence. He resided there until his death in 1939. Coincidentally, it too was Colonial Revival.
Did Urban have a favorite design style for his residences?
Toward the end of his career he leaned toward Colonial Revival. But prior to that, he designed residences in a dozen different styles.
- This column is contributed by Gregory J. Scott, FAIA, a local architect with more than four decades of national experience in innovation and design. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows. Email GScott@rlps.com.