Writer Susan Morgan investigates Esther McCoy's efforts to save the first modernist home in the West, and the film made as part of the campaign.
As a writer researching a writer I revere, working with the Esther McCoy papers is an incomparable experience: the more I learn, the better it gets. Best-known for her landmark book Five California Architects (1960), McCoy identified the distinctly West Coast roots of American modernist architecture. Among that book’s featured five was Irving J. Gill (1870–1936), a master of machine age efficiency, essential forms, and refined aesthetics. Although Gill’s designs boldly anticipated mid-century modernism, his reputation was sadly eclipsed within his own lifetime.
When McCoy started researching Gill’s architecture during the early 1950s, she sought out his unheralded buildings, interviewed his surviving colleagues and supporters, published articles about his work, and curated a retrospective of his work (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1958). Following the Irving Gill trail through the McCoy papers is a riveting and often heart-breaking saga. Throughout the 1960s, McCoy spearheaded a campaign to save Gill’s Walter L. Dodge House (1916)—the first truly modernist residence in the West, a stunning 6,500 square foot house on nearly three landscaped acres in the heart of West Hollywood. In 1939, the house and grounds were acquired by the city of Los Angeles through eminent domain and a municipal order set to build a school on the site. The school plan, however, was soon abandoned and the property shuffled between city and county agencies. For years, the house remained intact and was used as classrooms by a technical college: institutional-scale baking was taught in the kitchen and apprentice car mechanics practiced their trade on the grounds.
By 1963, the Los Angeles Board of Education declared the Dodge House “surplus” and the County Board of Supervisors re-zoned the area from R-1 to R-4, from single-family homes to apartment buildings. While the street underwent a radical condominium-ization, the Dodge House was slated for the wrecking ball. Unannounced, on a February morning in 1970, the entire property was demolished. A neighbor who witnessed the destruction reported: “I went out in the morning and when I came back two hours later the wrecking crew was there. They beat it and beat it and it wouldn’t go down. It was like an animal being beaten. They kept beating and beating and it finally cracked up. The trees didn’t want to go either but they beat them until by late afternoon everything was gone.” Gill believed that a “house should be simple, plain, and substantial as a boulder.” The Dodge House, with its serenely unadorned surfaces and eight inch thick reinforced concrete walls, was the fulfillment of that vision. Then, in a single day, it was gone forever.
Among McCoy’s papers, I came across a print of the 1965 film she’d written and produced as part of her campaign to save the Dodge House. Directed by Robert Snyder (1916–2004), an Academy Award–winning documentarian and son-in-law of Buckminster Fuller, this film—like the house itself—was almost lost. The Snyder collection at the Motion Picture Academy holds just one print, a silent, reversal master that can’t be screened. Baylis Glascock, the young filmmaker who served as the project’s camera man/editor/general factotum, didn’t own a copy and had reached various dead ends while searching for one. McCoy’s personal copy, a 16 mm reel inside a splitting cardboard box held together by a desiccated rubber band, had been in archival storage for more than twenty years; and I had no way of knowing what shape that print was in, when it was last projected, or whether it had been damaged over time by ordinary household indignities—spilled coffee, dust bunnies, or ashes from stray cigarettes. When I expressed my concerns to Megan McShea, the Archives of American Art’s audiovisual archivist, she took McCoy’s Dodge House film under her remarkably sympathetic and tech-savvy wing.
With a grant from the Women in Film Preservation Fund, Megan ingeniously facilitated the restoration of this important film. In the autumn of 2011, I presented the new, beautifully restored print twice: at the R.M Schindler House (1922) on Kings Road in West Hollywood, a block away from where the Dodge House once stood, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York during their annual film preservation program. Each time, the audience reaction was tremendously moving: people were astonished by Gill’s design, McCoy’s awareness and dedication, and Glascock’s tender view of a now vanished place. In the Dodge House, Gill had tinted the plaster walls to capture changing shadows and daylight. His windows and porches framed garden views, mosaic-tiled fountains, and distant mountain vistas. The house’s cabinetry conveyed a Shaker simplicity; the Honduran mahogany glowed as warm as amber. As architectural historian Robert Winter, a dear friend and colleague of McCoy’s lamented recently, recalling the demolition: “If only they had warned us. I remember Esther called and said, ‘if we’d known, we could have at least taken out the banisters and saved them.
In McCoy’s script for the Dodge House film, the final lines are strong and poignant: “We prize the distant past,” she observed. “But if the immediate past is ripped away there will be no distant past for the future. Our heritage is diminished. And there is a hole in the fabric of history.” Hearing those words, I’m reminded once again of my gratitude to the Archives of American Art and how I much I treasure McCoy’s life and work.
- Esther McCoy papers, 1876–1990, (bulk 1938–1989)
- Oral history interview with Esther McCoy, 1987 June 7–Nov. 14
- SPANS: Photographs from the Esther McCoy papers at the Archives of American Art
- “Being There: Esther McCoy the Accidental Architectural Historian” by Susan Morgan, Archives of American Art Journal 48: 1–2
Writer Susan Morgan is a contributing editor at Aperture and East of Borneo. Her research into the life and work of Esther McCoy has received support from the Graham Foundation for the Advancement of Art and Architecture, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. She is editor of the forthcoming anthology Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader and, with Kimberli Meyer, co-curator of Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design (MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, at the Schindler House), closing January 29, 2012. Morgan lives in Los Angeles.