Every great invention needs an equally great storyteller, someone who’s steeped in the culture, versed in the technology and knows how to use plain English to convert skeptics. Think Disneyland and Walt Disney. Apple and Steve Jobs.
Modern American architecture had Esther McCoy, one of the foremost architectural writers of the 20th century. She successfully influenced the male-dominated profession’s views about the distinct Southern California style of modernism invented on North Kings Road by Rudolph Schindler.
McCoy intertwined her love of preservation with her writings, championing the Dodge House and producing a video about the remarkable home on Kings Road. A monument in the park to the house includes a quote from her about its significance.
Explaining modernism to a mass audience, McCoy often emphasized the central role of women in developing and executing this design for homes.
But it happened almost by accident. At mid-career, McCoy wound up working alongside experimental architect Schindler as a draftsman at his landmark studio-residence on North Kings Road in the early 1940s. This was her fallback position after the University of Southern California discouraged McCoy from applying to its School of Architecture because she was a woman in her 40s.
Schindler invented American modernism with his 1922 house – revolutionary at the time – for the way it integrated open plan interiors with easy access to the out of doors through wide sliding doors, patio living areas, glass walls and concrete slab floors.
Based on what she learned as an insider at the Schindler House in the 1940s, McCoy wrote six books and hundreds of articles that introduced a distinct Southern California style of modernism to the world.
“It was Esther McCoy who first gave shape to the story of modern architecture in Los Angeles,” wrote Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne in 2011. “She explained our best architects and their finest work to the rest of the country and the world. And she did it in a remarkable fearless and readable way.”
McCoy’s seminal 1960 book, “Five California Architects,” delivered a close-up look at Southern California modernist architecture through the eyes of five leading practitioners: Schindler, Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck, and the brothers Charles and Henry Greene.
When a new edition was published in 1975, The New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote, “It was (McCoy), almost single-handedly, who awakened serious scholars to the extraordinary richness of California architecture.”
Her book, he added, “was largely responsible for rescuing from obscurity the five almost-forgotten architects.” They had none of the broad fame back then that we take for granted today.
In more blunt terms, McCoy justified to the rest of the world “the eccentric band of architects that was putting up flat-roofed houses on palm-lined streets,” in the words of the “Los Angeles Times.”
USC: ‘Just Say No to Architecture’
McCoy wanted to study architecture at the University of Southern California at the midpoint of her career. Her experience as a draftsman at military contractor Douglas Aircraft during World War II whetted her desire for more responsible positions in the field.
“I decided to go into architecture after Douglas and went to the University of Southern California to get into architecture school,” she told The New York Times in 1984. “But they discouraged me because I was a woman, and because, by the time I finished, I’d be older.”
Seats were being saved, as it turned out, for young men returning from the war and attending school on the G.I. Bill of Rights. McCoy was a woman in her 40s who didn’t fit another kind of bill that was based on sex and age.
“The prejudice against women in the (male-dominated architecture) profession limited her to drafting positions,” claims the Dictionary of Art Historians.
After being discouraged by USC, she learned of an opening working for Schindler and applied for it with drawings she’d made to renovate her own home in Santa Monica. Schindler hired her at the end of their only interview.
When architectural publications heard she was working for Schindler, they began asking her to submit articles about modernist architecture. That’s when the historian part of her career began in the mid-1940s and continued for some 40 years.
Taking California Architecture Seriously
McCoy once noted that “If you lived in New York, it was proper to make fun of Los Angeles.” That helped explain why California architecture was ignored: The architectural and cultural establishment in those days was based almost exclusively on the East Coast, where modernism didn’t take hold as it had in Europe and on the West Coast.
Back then, Los Angeles was more isolated from New York and Washington, D.C., than it is now. “As a female chronicler of a West Coast avant-garde, McCoy was trying to climb a pole greased many times over,” the Los Angeles Times said.
“One incentive to write about Southern California was that it was so neglected,” McCoy once told an interviewer. “It was a place that was not taken seriously. And damn it, I wanted it to be taken seriously.”
She took up the fight to save the Irving Gill-designed Dodge House on Kings Road, writing many articles and producing a video about it. Preservation became an essential part of her efforts to trumpet local architecture.
An Accidental Architectural Historian
McCoy biographer Susan Morgan, writing in a Smithsonian Institution journal, noted that “As McCoy’s career evolved, she became almost an accidental architectural historian.” She held many jobs – author, editorial scout, lecturer, screenwriter, architectural preservationist and exhibition curator – but historian was never a part of her plan.
“I was going to work in publishing in New York, save up enough money, go to Paris, sit there and write,” she recalled. On her 21st birthday, she set out for New York from Ann Arbor, Mich., after undergraduate studies. By age 22, she had “fearlessly transitioned herself into the avant-garde Bohemia of lower Manhattan,” her biographer wrote.
While at the University of Michigan, McCoy initiated a fan’s correspondence with New York-based novelist Theodore Dreiser. They struck up a relationship that continued when she reached New York, where she worked for Dreiser as a research assistant. Her biographer said Dreiser was “generally regarded as a great novelist who wrote badly.”
Their friendship continued after McCoy and Dreiser took separate paths to Los Angeles. She was a frequent visitor at Dreiser’s house on North Kings Road, just two blocks from the Schindler House where McCoy worked, as history would have it.
Tributes and Honors
McCoy received the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) national honor award for excellence in 1985. The AIA declared that she was “one of this century’s great American writers on architecture … at once a historian, critic, essayist, and memoirist.”
To which Los Angeles Times architecture critic Sam Hall Kaplan replied in print, “Nice thoughts, but one must wonder why it has taken AIA so long to recognize McCoy’s contribution to architecture. Perhaps, if she had written from the perspective of New York City’s West Side or Washington, D.C.’s northwest instead of about the West Coast from the West Coast, the institute might have responded more quickly.”
The AIA didn’t mention McCoy’s most famous quote as an architecture critic and witness to the birth of midcentury modernism. She called it “a marriage between Walden Pond and Douglas Aircraft.” Nor did it use her quote about the influential magazine Arts & Architecture, saying it was “as thin as a tortilla and sleek as a Bugatti.”
A heavy smoker, McCoy died of emphysema at the age of 85 on the last day of 1989. McCoy’s extensive collection of papers and her numerous slides and photographs are held by the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution.