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The Mother of Us All: Esther McCoy

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Ocean Park is the Victorian seaside getaway at the south end of Santa Monica that still has a crop of charming craftsmen bungalows, and manages to retain a bohemian flavor absent in the haute-bourgeois part of the city north of Wilshire.

One of O.P.'s gifts to the arts was Richard Diebenkorn; another is the less widely-known but arguably more influential Esther McCoy, currently the subject of a revival of attention and a newly published book, Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader. Who was this woman and why the interest now?

Esther McCoy was a fiction writer who turned to architectural writing in the early 1940s. She gained her entrée into the profession and to an education in early Southern California Modern architecture through becoming a draftsman in the office of R.M. Schindler and she wrote first about his work, then of fellow experimental Californians, present and past, formulating a lineage, in her seminal book, Five California Architects, that connected pioneers from Bernard Maybeck to Schindler and beyond.

In 1941, for $1500, she bought an Ocean Park bungalow on Beverly near Hollister, and remodeled it, with the help of Schindler, living and working there to her death at 85 in 1989. There, the talkative, witty Esther and her husband, Berkeley Tobey, entertained left-wing friends and progressive architects; and McCoy, cigarette in hand, worked in an office filled with piles of books and papers. Julie Silliman, a Santa Monica planner, grew up in the neighborhood and remembers entering Esther's home, "with tall stuffed bookcases and smoke billowing at me as I entered. The west-facing wall of her home was glass, so the smoke was backlit with trees and greenery beyond."

I feel very drawn to Esther McCoy, and sad that I never met her -- because of her Ocean Park home; her tobacco and paper piles habit (I've long given up, with some regret, the former, but persist, regrettably, with the latter); the fact that she managed, in her pre-architecture life, to fulfill a fantasy of mine: write detective novels; and because a couple years back I was honored with the Esther McCoy Award by USC School of Architecture, for efforts to communicate architecture to the public (McCoy herself was discouraged from applying to USC Architecture school, immediately after WWII, on grounds of her age, 40, and gender).

I am not alone in this yearning for Esther McCoy. In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in her and in her role in shaping California architecture history, resulting in the last year in a show at the MAK Center, "Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design", the abovementioned book, "Piecing Together Los Angeles," and ongoing research into McCoy's writings at Woodbury University's Julius Shulman Institute. This McCoy revival is being lead by three women, Kimberli Meyer at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, Susan Morgan, co-curator with Meyer of "Sympathetic Seeing" and editor of "Piecing Together Los Angeles," and Emily Bills, Director of the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University.

This revival comes at a time when women are becoming a more powerful force in the architecture profession, but when architecture critics are disappearing from the pages of national newspapers, and design magazines are disappearing altogether. It is also a time when the progressive political and architectural clarity that McCoy and her circle represented seems now so elusive. I asked Meyer, Morgan and Bills for their reflections on McCoy and why she mattered, then and now.

Why the interest in Esther McCoy now?

Kimberli Meyer: My sense is that in Los Angeles, people are becoming more and more interested in the history of the city, and McCoy represents a very special slice of LA's cultural and architectural history. That she was a woman influencing a male-dominated field is also quite notable.

Susan Morgan: For people born in the second half of the 20th century, there is a naturally growing interest in understanding how their times were shaped. McCoy's voice is astonishingly fresh and engaging; her writing delivers an articulate first- hand account of significant cultural developments.

Emily Bills: I think there is a growing interest in the role women have played in the history of modern architecture as designers, writers, editors, photographers, and patrons.

While McCoy would never characterize herself as a "woman writer," her letters and personal writings reveal how central she felt women were to the development and execution of midcentury house design, which is where Los Angeles' modern architectural history is best in evidence. She forged strong friendships with the wives of male architects and learned how they influenced design decisions, particularly the floor plan, which was the germ or starting point from which many modernists developed the rest of a structure.

McCoy also promoted the work of women landscape architects in the "Los Angeles Times Home Magazine" (landscape architecture being a somewhat easier profession than architecture for a woman at that time to enter).

What was her role in California's architecture history?

SM: Working variously as an author, editorial scout, lecturer, exhibition curator, and preservation activist, McCoy illuminated California's architectural heritage, its distinct contributions, significant participants, influences, context, and ideas.

EB: McCoy articulated the key elements we now associate with Southern California modernism: a sensitivity to hilly sites and a warm climate; casual indoor-outdoor living; and experimentation in materials, particularly the plywood, steel, and aluminum produced in L.A.'s wartime factories.

Can you tell me anything about her Ocean Park home and how she lived?

EB: McCoy was what we would call a freelance writer today and was always trying to balance the budget. She purchased her little house with her own savings and was proud of the fact that she never had to depend on anyone for financial support. Schindler contributed to the refurbishing of the property -- a project he never seemed to complete. He'd come over for dinner with his hammer and some nails in his pocket and start tinkering around with something that needed to be repaired. Berkeley would complain about the roof leaking and ask Esther to get Schindler over there to fix it.

What about McCoy's political leanings?

EB: McCoy and her husband were involved in leftist politics and held meetings with like-minded people in their home. In fact, she met Schindler through her friend Pauline Schindler, a political radical who was separated from her architect husband but still living in the same house. In the 1950s, it was quite dangerous to have these political interests, and Esther and her husband knew people in the art and architecture world who were called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee -- even Pauline Schindler, as noted in this exchange: From Berkeley to Esther, October 30, 1952 "enclosing also photo from Times of Pauline who looks mighty grim. As a matter of fact I called her on phone as soon as I saw photo and she was very much elated. First because she had been called before the Cal Un American Activities Committee (sic), second because she had not lost her temper when being questioned and refusing to answer, and third because 'I'm now one of the choir of angels,' or words to that effect."

Currently architecture critics are being dropped from national newspapers and publications. Do we need architecture critics and what can we learn from McCoy's approach?

KM: We very much need architecture critics! Architecture affects the public directly, and needs an arena in which to be analyzed, discussed, debated, critiqued, and celebrated. It is not possible to maintain an educated populace without public intellectuals like McCoy. Her ability to steep herself in a built environment and then clearly communicate the meaning of that experience can serve as a model for both writers and readers and interested observers.

EB: McCoy worked very hard to create straightforward, descriptive articles about buildings that anyone could understand. Through her writings, she took architecture out of its ivory tower and forced it to enter a dialogue with those who would commission it, occupy it, and hopefully fund it. In the process, she became a strong advocate for housing that, with its flat roofs and flexible plans, looked different than the traditional housing subsidized by the FHA and postwar finance industry. We take this type of architecture for granted today (Dwell Magazine [Ed. Note: Frances is the West Coast editor of Dwell] has based its entire publication on the concept), but there was a long educational process between the 1950s and the embrace of midcentury modernism we see today.

Give me one or more pithy statements by McCoy or about McCoy that you think illustrate who she was, as architecture critic and/or person.

SM: McCoy described the influential publication Arts & Architecture as a magazine that was "as thin as a tortilla and sleek as a Bugatti." She called mid-century design "the marriage between Walden Pond and Douglas aircraft." About McCoy, Reyner Banham said: "No one can write about architecture in California without acknowledging her as the mother of us all."

NOTE: The catalogue for Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design is available at,

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Top Image: Esther McCoy at work, Santa Monica, California, c. 1985. Courtesy of Esther McCoy Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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