Durst Old York Library
Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library

About the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library

Seymour B. Durst loved New York for the opportunities it afforded people through commerce and he was passionate about improving its underlying economic and social structures. He dedicated his professional life to assembling development sites and commercial real estate. He was a scholar of the urban planning, development, civics, and sociology of New York City. His scholarly pursuits led him to his lifelong hobby for collecting published and archival materials on New York and its history focused largely, though not exclusively, on architecture, cultural heritage and urban planning. At the time of his death in 1995, his “Old York Library” collection had virtually taken over his entire five-story townhouse. His collection of more than 35,000 items is comprised of historic photographs, maps, pamphlets, newspapers, books, and New York City memorabilia. Today, the collection forms the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Mr. Durst collected New York related materials in the broadest definition of the topic, amassing historical and contemporary publications, unique antiquarian documents and manuscripts, maps, city planning reports and documents, as well as rare and mass-produced ephemeral items. The collection documents more than four centuries of New York history. Within this span of time, are an equally expansive range of collecting subjects and item types: more than 9,000 books and historical pamphlets, landbooks and serial publications; 600 maps and New York City guidebooks, thousands of brochures, theatrical and musical performance programs, and menus. But the largest trove of materials are the more than 25,000 pictorial items – postcards, illustrations, photographs – that recall bygone eras, windows into lives led by New Yorkers over the passage of time, World’s Fairs and other festival events, and views of streets, parks and buildings lost from memory in a city marked by constant change.

Within the collection is a group of books that Mr. Durst turned to again and again, Seymour's Favorites. In his home, these were kept together and close at hand. In order to facilitate access to such an extensive collection, Mr. Durst designed a custom classification system using thematic groupings that reflected his particular interests and provide a window into his collecting philosophy. At Avery they are now shelved in the Avery Classics rare books reading room, in memory of and appreciation for Mr. Durst’s wonderful legacy of collecting the history of New York.