Esther McCoy (1904-1989) is remembered best for her pioneering work as an architectural historian, critic, and proponent of Southern California modern architecture of the early to mid-twentieth century. McCoy was interested in both Italian and Mexican architecture as well as the folk art and crafts of Mexico and South America. Although her professional interests ranged from writing fiction to studying the folk architecture and crafts of Mexico, McCoy achieved her most notable success for her numerous articles, books, and exhibitions about Southern California architecture and the architects associated with the modernist movement.
Born in Arkansas in 1904, Esther McCoy grew up in Kansas and attended various schools in the Midwest. In 1926 she left the University of Michigan to launch a writing career in New York, where she moved in avant-garde literary circles and conducted research for Theodore Dreiser. She began writing fiction in New York and continued to write after moving to Los Angeles in 1932, working on short stories, novels, and screenplays. She published numerous short stories between 1929 and 1962, with works appearing in the New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, and university quarterlies. Her short story, "The Cape," was reprinted in Best Short Stories of 1950. Many of the novels that she wrote from the mid-1960s through the 1980s were related thematically to architects and architecture.
During the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, McCoy participated in the politically radical movements of the period and wrote for leftist publications. Her interest in the lowcost housing projects of modern architects was prompted by one of her articles about slums for Epic News. During World War II she entered a training program for engineering draftsmen at Douglas Aircraft and in 1944 was hired as an architectural draftsman for the architect R.M. Schindler. As she became increasingly interested in modern architecture and design, she combined her two major career interests and began to focus her energies on architectural research, writing, and criticism. Her first article on architecture, "Schindler: Space Architect," was published in 1945 in the journal Direction.
McCoy began writing about architecture in earnest in 1950 as a free-lance contributor to the Los Angeles Times. From then until her death in 1989, she wrote prolifically for Arts & Architecture magazine, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Architectural Record, L'Architectura, Zodiac (Italy), Progressive Architecture, Lotus (Italy), and Architectural Forum. In addition to her numerous articles, McCoy wrote several books on Southern California modern architecture and architects. Her first major work, Five California Architects, published in 1960, is now recognized as a classic work in modern architectural history. It promoted a serious study of modern architecture in Southern California and introduced to the world several leading California architects and their work: Bernard Maybeck, Irving Gill, Charles and Henry Greene, and R.M. Schindler. That same year, she published another important book focusing on the work of the California architect Richard Neutra. Other books by McCoy include Modern California Houses: Case Study Houses (1962), Craig Ellwood (1968), Vienna to Los Angeles: Two Journeys (1979), and The Second Generation (1984).
In addition to these books, McCoy organized and wrote catalogs for several significant exhibitions focusing on contemporary architects. Her first was the R.M. Schindler Retrospective, a 1954 exhibition at the Landau Art Gallery in Los Angeles. Her other exhibitions and accompanying catalogs include Roots of California Contemporary Architecture, 1956, Los Angeles Municipal Art Department; Felix Candela, 1957, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Irving Gill, 1958, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Juan O'Gorman, 1964, San Fernando Valley State College; and Ten Italian Architects, 1967, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Moreover, McCoy contributed numerous essays to other exhibition catalogs and publications, lectured at the University of Southern California, participated in preservation projects, organized tours for the Society of Architectural Historians, and contributed to a number of documentary films. Her energy and interests also led her to catalog and transcribe Richard Neutra's papers at the University of California Los Angeles Archives.
McCoy received national recognition from the American Institute of Architects for her seminal and prolific work in the field of Southern California modern architectural history and criticism. Her interests, however, were not exclusively bound to California. She traveled the world and was interested in both Italian and Mexican architecture as well as the folk art and crafts of Mexico and South America. She made five extended trips to Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, publishing regularly about the architecture there and curating the exhibition Ten Italian Architects. She was a contributing editor to two Italian journals, Zodiac and Lotus, and was awarded the Star of Order of Solidarity in 1960 by the Republic of Italy for her research and writing.
Esther McCoy died of emphysema on December 30, 1989, at the age of eighty-five. Her last contribution was an essay for the exhibition catalog Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study House. The show opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles one month before her death.
Born November 18 in Horatio, Arkansas. Raised in Kansas.
Attended preparatory school at Central College for Women, Lexington, Missouri.
College education: Baker University, Baldwin City, Kansas; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri; University of Michigan.
Visited Theodore Dreiser in Michigan.
Began writing in New York City.
Researched and read for Theodore Dreiser.
Worked for editorial offices and publishers.
Traveled to write in Paris (1928), Key West, Florida (1930), and Los Angeles, California (1932-1935).
Moved to Santa Monica, California.
Married Berkeley Greene Tobey.
Employed as engineering draftsman at Douglas Aircraft.
Worked as architectural draftsman for R.M. Schindler.
Began architectural writing career.
Wrote script for film Architecture West.
Joined editorial board of Arts & Architecture.
Worked as free-lance writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Traveled to, researched, and wrote about Mexico and Mexican art and architecture.
R.M. Schindler Retrospective exhibition at the Landau Art Gallery, Los Angeles.
Roots of California Contemporary Architecture exhibition, Los Angeles Municipal Art Department.
Felix Candela exhibition, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Irving Gill exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Traveled to Italy.
Contributing editor to Italian periodicals Zodiac and Lotus.
Five California Architects (New York: Reinhold).
Richard Neutra (New York: G. Braziller).
Awarded Star of Order of Solidarity by the Republic of Italy for reporting on arts and crafts in Italy.
Death of Berkeley Greene Tobey.
Modern California Houses: Case Study Houses (New York: Reinhold) (reprinted as Case Study Houses, Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1978).
Resident Fellow at Huntington Hartford Foundation.
Juan O'Gorman exhibition, San Fernando Valley State College, Northridge, Calif.
Consultant for the California Arts Commission.
Wrote and produced the film Dodge House.
Lecturer at University of California at Los Angeles, School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Resident Fellow at MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire.
Ten Italian Architects exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Honorary Associate of the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Regents' Lecturer at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Craig Ellwood (New York: Walker).
Distinguished Service Citation from the California Council of AIA.
Lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Contributing editor of Progressive Architecture.
Graham Foundation Grants.
Regents' Lecturer at the University of California,Santa Cruz.
Vienna to Los Angeles: Two Journeys (Santa Monica, Calif.: Arts & Architecture Press).
Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
Los Angeles Chapter Women's Architectural League Honorary Member.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Modern and Contemporary Art Council Award for Distinguished Achievement.
Home Sweet Home: The California Ranch House exhibition at California State University.
The Second Generation (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books).
American Institute of Architects, Institute Honor.
High Styles exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Vesta Award for outstanding scholarship.
Award from the Historical Society of Southern California.
Award from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study House exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Died in Santa Monica, California, December 30.