The Old York Library, Seymour Durst’s collection of books and ephemera related to New York City and its history, has found a new and permanent home at Columbia University Libraries’ Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. Durst started his collection in 1962 after a trip to Germany where he purchased a scrapbook of ephemera from New York City. The collection grew to include more than 10,000 books, 3,000 photographs, 20,000 postcards and assorted maps and pamphlets at the time of Durst’s death in 1995. It comes as no surprise that the Old York Collection contains many documents related to real estate development in New York, as the Durst family is one of New York’s most respected commercial and residential real estate families.
As Barbara Cohen wrote in “The Master Builder,” her profile of Durst:
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).
The Durst family donated the Old York collection, along with a generous gift of $4 million to Avery Library and the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 2011. $1.2 million of the gift will be used to catalog and house the collection in Avery Library, as well as to create a digital Old York Library to ensure broad access to the materials. Once this multi-year digitization project is finished, Columbia students and the world at large will have access to invaluable primary source materials on the history of New York City.