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Esther McCoy papers, circa 1876-1990, bulk 1938-1989

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Stephanie Ashley and Erin Kinhart
Scope and Contents
The papers of Southern California architectural historian, critic, and writer Esther McCoy measure 44.4 linear feet and date from 1876 to 1990 (bulk 1938-1989). McCoy was interested in both Italian and Mexican architecture as well as the folk art and crafts of Mexico and South America. The collection documents McCoy's career, as well as her family and personal life through biographical material, extensive correspondence, personal and professional writings, project files, Southern California architects' files, clippings and other printed material, a large collection of photographs and slides, and taped interviews of Southern California modern architects.
Biographical and family material consists of awards, resumes, identification documents, and other documentation of McCoy's personal life. Included are a transcript of a 1984 interview of McCoy by Makoto Watanabe and material relating to her friend, Theodore Dreiser.
Correspondence focuses on her personal relationships with family, friends, and lovers, and general correspondence relating primarily to her work as a writer. McCoy's personal correspondence is valuable to researchers who are interested in her personal life, her struggles as a young writer, and the way in which her family, friends, lovers, mentors, and colleagues helped to shape her work and career. As documented in this correspondence, her life offers a glimpse into twentieth-century American social and political history, especially the radical leftist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Researchers interested in the roots of feminism in the United States should also find these papers useful in documenting the life of a creative and productive woman who was successful in a field then almost entirely dominated by men. Correspondents of note include her husband Berkeley Tobey, lovers Geoffrey Eaton and Albert Robert, writers Ray Bradbury and Theodore Dreiser, and artists and architects, such as Dorothy Grotz, Craig Ellwood, A. Quincy Jones, Hans Hollein, and J. R. Davidson. General correspondence is primarily with researchers, professors, architects, publishers, and professional organizations.
Personal writings include McCoy's diaries, notebooks, and memoirs, and writings by others including friends, lovers, and colleagues. Also included are drafts of McCoy's fictional works, both published and unpublished, including short stories, teleplays, and novels.
The collection contains in-depth documentation of McCoy's pioneering study of the modernist work of twentieth-century architects in Southern California. The bulk of her papers consist of her writing files for books, exhibition catalogs, articles, and lectures on architecture. Because many of the architects about whom McCoy wrote were her contemporaries, she developed personal relationships with several of them through her research and writing. Her writing files include drafts, notes, research material, photographs, and correspondence. McCoy also traveled extensively, particularly in Italy and Mexico, and wrote about architecture, craft, and culture in those countries. Project files document McCoy's other activities related to architectural history, such preservation projects, juries, grants, the Dodge House Preservation Campaign and related film project, her work for the Society of Architectural Historians and the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), and her work at the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, compiling a slide library and cataloging the Richard Neutra's papers. McCoy also maintained architect files which may contain correspondence, notes, photographs, research material, interview transcripts, about architects and their works. Among these extensive records, the files documenting the careers of R. M. Schindler, Irving Gill, Richard Neutra, and Juan O'Gorman are particularly rich.
Printed material in this collection documents McCoy's career as well as her personal interests. Included are books, clippings, magazines, newsletters, press releases, as well as publications arranged by subject such as architecture, art, Italy, and Mexico. McCoy also collected literary and leftist publications. The small amount of artwork in this collection consists of artwork sent to her by friends, including a drawing of her by Esther Rollo and etchings by various artists including Thomas Worlidge.
There are personal photographs of family and friends and of McCoy at different times in her life, as well as photographs gathered during the course of her research on architecture. Found here are photographs of architects and their works, including a large number depicting the work of Gregory Ain, Luis Barragan, J. R. Davidson, Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck, Juan O'Gorman, R. M. Schindler, and Raphael Soriano. Many of these photographs were taken by notable architectural photographers Julius Shulman and Marvin Rand. Also found are photographs of architecture designed for the Case Study House program of Arts & Architecture magazine; exhibition photographs, primarily for the exhibition "Ten Italian Architects" in 1967; and other research photographs primarily documenting architecture and craft in other countries and the history of architecture in California. This series also includes approximately 3,600 slides of architecture.
Audio and video recordings include a videocassette of McCoy's 80th birthday party and 55 taped interviews with architects, people associated with architectural projects, and artists.
The collection was given to the Archives of American Art by Esther McCoy in 1986. Before her death in 1989, McCoy assisted in the organization and identification of the papers. Original pre-print film elements for Dodge House 1916 were donated to the Archives of American Art by the Academy Film Archive in 2018.
Related Material
Also in the Archives of American Art are eight sound cassettes of a transcribed interview with Esther McCoy conducted by Joseph Giovannini, June 8-November 14, 1987.
Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Processing Information
A generous grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation supported the initial organization and description of the papers in 1993. Additional processing and description was completed by Stephanie Ashley in 2005. The arrangement and finding aid was further refined by Erin Kinhart in 2009-2010 and the collection was fully digitized in 2010-2011 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Motion picture film reels were inspected and re-housed in 2016-2017 with funding provided by the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund.