Four Centuries of NYC History in the Old York Library

December 17, 2008 | CUNY Graduate Center

Laying hands upon a tangible piece of the past can be both profoundly informative and viscerally exciting. For those who have a particular fascination with the history of New York City – scholars and non-scholars alike – the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library, housed at The Graduate Center, is a distinctive treasure.

Looking through the collection, one can handle an invitation to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883; leaf through the pages of an author-autographed copy of Theodore Dreiser’s 1929 book on New York life, My City; peruse the definitive maps and cityscapes of I.N. Phelps Stokes’ pre-World War I Iconography of Manhattan; or search among one-of-a-kind images in the photo archive of the long-gone New York Herald Tribune. The late Seymour Durst, a successful real estate developer, collected these items, as well as 10,000 books, 20,000 postcards, and thousands of photographs, maps, newspaper tear sheets, guidebooks, textbooks, and memorabilia encompassing four centuries of New York City history.

Durst made acquisitions judiciously and, at times, whimsically. (The collection includes both a 1776 edition of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and a copy of the 1896 book Bicycling for Ladies.) He spent hundreds of hours in bookshops, pored through catalogues, and purchased lots at auctions and estate sales. During his lifetime, the collection resided in his 61st Street townhouse, carefully arranged according to a quirky cataloging scheme that came to be known as the Durst Quintessimal System. Materials were stored in all but four of twenty rooms and, eventually, on stairs, in the refrigerator, and in the bathtub. Spaces for personal use were transformed into the Architecture Closet, the Art and Theatre Room, the Commerce and Finance Room, and the Postcard and Guide Room.

Having spent over thirty years assembling the library, Durst welcomed researchers into his home. He believed these materials were not meant to be locked up behind glass, or handled antiseptically with latex gloves. Said his daughter Wendy Durst Kreeger, “He didn’t see himself as a collector. He thought of collectors as people who collected books and left the pages uncut. He assembled the books for the information within their pages. He wanted them used.”

Durst passed away in 1995. In 2000, seeking to ensure that the collection would be well-used and, above all, that it would remain under one roof, the Durst family (through the Old York Foundation) donated the collection to The Graduate Center. A portion of it resides today in the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library Reading Room within The Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library. Here, in a space that is an approximation of Seymour Durst’s study (and furnished, in part, with his couches, table, breakfront, and rug), researchers can read and enjoy some of the rarest and most frequently consulted books. The materials on display are organized according to his original categories, as is the bulk of the collection, which is stored in the nearby Durst Old York Library Research Room.

Given Durst’s professional interests (his real estate company changed the face of large swaths of midtown Manhattan), it’s not surprising that this collection is particularly strong in the history of New York real estate, zoning, and infrastructure. However, individuals researching theater, economics, politics, geography, architecture, education, or just about any aspect of urban culture, can find gems of insight among its wealth of primary and secondary sources.

The collection is not unique in its holdings; some of its materials can be found at other institutions. Rather, its strength, according to archivist Madelyn Kent, is that it is “a whole component” about New York City that is eminently “browsable.” This was the vision of Seymour Durst, who believed that the serendipity of browsing could result in deep understanding. Within the Old York Library, valuable facts can be discovered. Just as important, an individual can become immersed in materials that convey “the feel” of life in New York during a given period of history – colonial times, the Civil War era, the Gilded Age, post-World War II, etc. Though the core of the collection relates to Manhattan in the nineteenth century, there are items about all of the City and its surrounding areas from the 1600s through the 1980s.

Seymour Durst would be pleased that the collection has, indeed, been used. It was consulted extensively during preparation of the New York Skyscraper Museum’s inaugural exhibit, Downtown New York: The Architecture of Business/The Business of Buildings. It was a major resource for an online exhibit titled Disaster!, which looked at the ways in which natural and human-made tragedies have shaped and re-shaped the city. It has been used by graduate students, authors, documentary filmmakers, curators, and members of the public. To support the process of research, a database of the collection’s contents (which is not yet comprehensive) has been created, and part of this resource is available online.

The Graduate Center is currently exploring ways of making of the Old York Library even more accessible to both scholars and the wider community. A series of public programs featuring materials from the collection is being planned. Celebrated New Yorkers – including authors, journalists, performers, and leading scholars – will read selections of their choice from items in the Library. (This might include the work of writers as diverse as Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, E.B. White, Alfred Kazin, Jane Jacobs, Jacob Riis, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Washington Irving, O. Henry, and Walt Whitman.) Talks on specific topics (such as photography in the mid-twentieth century or the history of tourism) will be illustrated with images from the collection. The Old York Library website will be strengthened; this initiative includes the possibility of placing the catalogue online in a way that makes it available through Internet search engines. Also under consideration – the development of new teacher education programs designed to incorporate New York City history into social studies classes.

The Old York Library that resides today at The Graduate Center is, essentially, the library that Seymour Durst assembled, reflecting his interests and retaining his personal stamp. It is a “closed” collection in the sense that there is little new acquisition, but it is “open” in another important sense – scholars and researchers from all walks of life are welcome.

Browsing in a Reading Room at The Graduate Center, one can take a leisurely stroll along New York’s first paved streets; get lost in the noisy, well-dressed crowd after attending a play on the Great White Way of the nineteenth century; see a treeless swamp in the center of Manhattan transformed into the bucolic Central Park; or feel the pulse of the Depression-era City as the Empire State Building rises defiantly in midtown. By informing our intellects and inspiring our imaginations, the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library does more than preserve our collective memory; it enhances our understanding of who we are as New Yorkers, as Americans, and as inheritors of and contributors to civilization.

Gail Goldberg

The Seymour B. Durst Old York Library and Reading Room is open to all by appointment only. For more information, contact Madelyn Kent at MKent@gc.cuny.edu or (212) 817-7267. To access the online database for the collection, go to www.oldyorklibrary.org.