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Author to Talk About Local Pioneer of Architectural Criticism at Santa Monica Library

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

April 5, 2013 -- Esther McCoy spent more than forty years writing about Southern California from her bungalow in Ocean Park and single-handedly changed the way the world viewed architecture in California.

“In the spring of 1932, writer Esther McCoy arrived in Santa Monica, intending to return to New York the following year,” said author Susan Morgan. “She stayed instead and southern California became her greatest subject.”

McCoy, a social and architectural critic who Frank Gehry once said was the first writer to take his work seriously, will be the subject of a talk Morgan will give Saturday at the Santa Monica Public Library Montana Branch.

Photo of

Photo from the Dreiser collection at UPenn. Esther McCoy, foreground. left to right: Vera Dreiser Scott, Helen Dreiser, Berkeley Tobey [McCoy's husband] at Santa Monica Beach Pier, Santa Monica,California, September 5, 1949

Morgan, who is currently working on a biography about McCoy, will also be reading selections from "Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader," which she edited.

The city was young and was not taken seriously by architects and academics when McCoy settled on the West Coast, but she immediately saw something in the burgeoning urban landscape that she wanted to make known.

“When McCoy was newly arrived in California, she liked the look of the Monterey-style houses in Santa Monica with their austere Yankee facades constructed out of lime-washed adobe and wrapped with second-story wooden balconies borrowed from the Caribbean,” Morgan wrote in Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design.

The Monterey-style houses, mostly built in the 1920s by John Byers and Edla Muir, can be found around La Mesa Drive, one of Santa Monica's wealthiest neighborhoods.

For McCoy, these Monterey-style houses were not only interesting for how they looked, but also for the story they told about who built them.

Early European and east coast settlers to Los Angeles built homes that were facsimiles of the houses they had left behind, she said.

“Houses straight out of Salem, whose mullioned windows, grape arbors and picket fences were brought stick by stick around the Horn, were to be found in California,” McCoy wrote in a Los Angeles Times article dated July 19, 1953.

“The New England house made itself at home in California only when it was blended with indigenous house, to form what we know as the Monterey house,” she wrote.

McCoy's ability to read what the architecture of Los Angeles said about its culture and its society is why Morgan is hesitant to pigeon-hole McCoy as simply an architectural critic.

“Esther McCoy is really a wonderful writer,” Morgan said.

“Her life and her work is much bigger than architecture,” Morgan said. “She's really a social critic. She was a witness to mid-century design as it was being created.”
McCoy was active in leftist politics, as well.

When McCoy first came to L.A., it was “famously a non-union town,” said Morgan, so McCoy went to work for a labor lawyer named Leo Gallagher. When the war broke out, McCoy bought her Ocean Park bungalow and found work with Douglas Aircraft.

“The aircraft industry before the war, an order of four planes a year was a big order. When war was declared, they had to go into round-the-clock production,” said Morgan.

Later McCoy would go to work as a draftsman for architect R.M. Schindler.

Morgan first experienced McCoy's writing when she moved to Los Angeles with her husband some 20 years ago from New York.

She picked up McCoy's seminal work on west coast architecture, published in 1960, called Five California Architects. That book introduced the world to the works of Bernard Maybeck, Irving Gill, Charles and Henry Greene and her former employer, Schindler.

Morgan was struck by just how well-written the book was.

“She was also a fiction writer, so she really understood narrative,” Morgan said. “She also understood how the built environment came out of people's lives.”

“You don't have to be an architecture nerd to appreciate her writing,” she said, referring to McCoy's 1973 article for Progressive Architecture about the Santa Monica Pier.

“Nothing much changes at the pier,” wrote McCoy. “My husband left his glasses at a restaurant in 1941 and in 1946 he recognized them on the carved face of a coconut decorating the bar. When he claimed them, the bartender said, 'I thought you’d come back after the war.'”

Saturday's talk will start at noon on Saturday, April 6. For more information, visit

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