The Master Builder

Seymour Durst

Seymour Durst, a major New York City real estate developer, left the city more than steel and glass. Durst, who died in 1995, assembled what is surely the most inclusive and quirky private repository of New York books, ephemera and illustrated material, and with characteristic humor, named it Old York Library. The Durst family donated the Old York collection to the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2000. At present, it is being relocated to The Columbia University Libraries’ Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library where it will be processed, digitized and made available to scholars in the near future.

Mr. Durst did not consider himself a collector, and his interests defy pigeonholing.  His avid interest in early American history, the Revolutionary War, and Alexander Hamilton is evident, but he enjoyed his acquisitions whether it was an 1893 promotional piece for developing Harlem or the first edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.  Along with books of every relevant topic, era and size (from miniature to elephant folio and from the sixteenth century through the 1990’s), his collection contains scores of maps, real estate prospectuses and surveys, pamphlets on every subject (from eighteenth century merchants’ complaints on tariffs to sensational nineteenth century murder trials), rare eighteenth century almanacs, early-twentieth century advertisements, postcards, photographs, theater posters, song sheets, and atlases, and even a copy of Anderson’s Isometric Map of New York (1980).

Mr. Durst graciously welcomed scholars and researchers into his home to dig into his eclectic and rare repository of New Yorkiana for their particular interests.  Books were strewn on tables, floors, stair landings and every spare corner; the walls held visual treasures including the grandfather of all maps, the 1811 Commissioners Map of New York, an enormous (more than eight feet long), optimistically laid out gridiron plan of what Manhattan was to look like once it was developed to 155th Street.

A cursory glance along the shelves showed multiple copies of books that caught Mr. Durst’s fancy.  One of his favorites was The Last American (14 copies), a comic fantasy about Persian explorers who discover the ruins of New York in 2951 and try to puzzle out its civilization from a few remaining scraps.  Durst also clearly could not resist picking up City on Many Waters by Meyer Berger, or E.B. White’s Here is New York, or Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York whenever he found them.

Durst lived for many years surrounded by his collection in a narrow row house in Turtle Bay (with an old mile marker out front).  Antique chairs and tables held stacks of books and newspaper and magazine clippings.  A Ludwig Bemelmans painting and rare early New York maps shared wall space.  After having filled his home with his growing collection—his kitchen cabinets and pantry were repositories for atlases—Durst moved uptown to a larger townhouse. The traditional, elegant twenty-room building was given over to his library except for the top floor, his living quarters. Each floor was devoted to a subject—journalism, photographs, city planning, theater and entertainment, 42nd Street. The collection was dotted with whimsical touches.  Cigar boxes stacked up on the floor held unpublished bound masters’ theses.  A large tiled bathroom with a jacuzzi housed his collection of 42nd Street girlie show posters.  Randy pieces from Red Grooms’  Ruckus Manhattan were tucked in corners.  Kitchen cabinets were used for books on urban planning.  An antique breakfront held rare books. When Mr. Durst again ran out of space, he rented a floor in an adjacent building to accommodate his ever-growing stock. Two stone lions chained outside the house guarded the Old York Library.

Although Mr. Durst was a private man with a scholarly bent, he occasionally made his interests very public.  He created the National Debt Clock, which estimated the growth of the national debt, second by second, to express his concern over the ever-expanding national debt.  It is still in use.  He also wrote many letters to the editor of the New York Times and took out advertisements that were comically critical of the government’s intervention in the real estate market on the bottom of its front pages.

Seymour Durst’s some fifteen thousand acquisitions reflect a thirty-year passion and an original, idiocentric sensibility.  One could not help but feel his presence when standing in the Old York Library.  I doubt that he set out to build a great private library dedicated to New York, but that is precisely what he has done.  Thus, not only will he be remembered as an eminent Manhattan real estate developer, he will also be remembered as a passionate collector who assembled a quirky yet grand collection on New York City history.

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  1. Joseph Ditta’s avatar

    Fantastic profile! I’m curious about one thing, though. You write:

    “Durst lived for many years surrounded by his collection in a narrow row house in Turtle Bay (with an old mile marker out front).”

    Would you happen to know which mile marker this was? And where and how Mr. Durst acquired it? It is a pet project of mine to keep track of all the surviving milestones in New York City, and I had not heard of this one in Mr. Durst’s front yard.

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  2. Yukie Ohta’s avatar

    Hello Joseph! What a great “pet project!” We do not know offhand which mile marker it is but will do a little digging to see if we can find out. As the Old York Library is currently being relocated to Avery Library at Columbia, it may take a bit of time, but we will get back to you. And on another matter all together, we have a few questions about your Gravesend book. Please email me offline at yukie@newyorkboundbooks.com if you have a spare moment. We love N-YHS!

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