The Real McCoy

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Esther McCoy wrote about the architecture of Southern California with such clarity, wit and admiration and managed to convince readers from around the world to love the buildings of Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright as much as she did. As a result of the Pacific Standard Time, the first exhibition and publication dedicated to her work has been organized by Mak director Kimberli Meyer with writer Susan Morgan.



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

Born in 1904 in Arkansas but raised in a large home in Coffeyville, Kansas, McCoy's father had a successful lumber business. McCoy attended the University of Michigan and, already an aspiring writer at age 19, began corresponding with the writer and socialist Theodore Dreiser. He encouraged her and in 1926, she moved to Greenwich Village where she worked for a time as his research assistant. She sold short stories, worked as a copy editor but came to L.A. in 1932 to recover from pneumonia. It became her home. In the late 30s, she learned architectural drafting and in 1941 married Berkeley Tobey, who was 23 years older and an editor.



Esther McCoy at her drafting board, mid-1940s
Courtesy of Esther McCoy Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution


Long involved in leftist politics in L.A. – she did much to convince the city's politicians to address the conditions in the one-room shanties of the poor -- she met Pauline Schindler, also an activist. She was married to the architect R.M. Schindler, who had come to L.A. to work for Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1922, he had designed his own house on Kings Road, a radically modern structure in the middle of a field.



Esther McCoy and Marshall Ho'o, Zuma Beach, Malibu, California, c. 1933
Courtesy of Esther McCoy Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution


In 1942, she was hired to do engineering drafting for Douglas Aircraft. After discouraged by USC from applying for architecture school, McCoy was hired by Schindler to do drafting. She applied her considerable talents to writing about his architecture as well as the other greats of the 20th century. Her book, Five California Architects, considered a classic, described the careers of earlier architects Charles and Henry Greene, Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck as well as Schindler. But it was her writing for design magazines such as Art and Architecture that led to a much greater awareness of Southern California as a crucible for the development of modern architecture. For example, she described mid-century architecture such as that of Richard Neutra as "the marriage between Walden Pond and Douglas Aircraft."



Esther McCoy (foreground) with husband Berkeley Tobey, Vera Dreiser (L) and Helen Dreiser
Pier at Santa Monica, California, September 5, 1949
Courtesy of Theodore Dreiser Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania

The exhibition now on view at MAK Center for Art and Architecture, which is housed in Schindler's Kings Road house in West Hollywood, features photographs, copies of the stories she wrote for magazines, transcriptions of interviews, a film and heartbreaking account of her attempt to save Irving Gill's 1916 Dodge House, though it was taken over by the L.A. Unified School District and razed in 1970, still considered one of the greatest losses to the area's architectural history. This exhibition is really meant to honor the career and life of a remarkable woman. The show continues to January 29. For more information go to



Chris Burden, Metropolis II, 2010
Three 1/2 hr DC motors with motor controllers, 1100 custom manufactured die-cast cars, 13 HO-scale train sets with controllers and tracks, steel, aluminum, shielded copper wire, copper sheet, brass, various plastics, assorted woods and manufactured wood products, Legos, Lincoln Logs, Dado Cubes, glass, ceramic and natural stone tiles, acrylic and oil-base paints, rubber, sundry adhesives
9' 9" (H) x 28' 3" (w) x 19' 2" (D)
Courtesy of the Nicholas Berggruen Charitable Foundation © Chris Burdern
Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA


Since the show made me think about architecture and urban planning, it seemed fitting to head over the L.A. County Museum of Art to see Chris Burden's spectacular new installation Metropolis II, an enormous erector set collection of freeways with 1,100 speeding miniature custom cars that periodically become jammed in traffic. They surround a collection of buildings, highrises, churches, shanties, even an Eiffel Tower, made of Lincoln Logs, Legos and hobbiest materials. I think Esther McCoy herself would have been delighted by its sense of invention and wicked wit. This artist's imaginative manifestation of noisy freeway chaos is owned by collector Nicolas Berggruen and on long-term loan to the museum but it runs on a specific schedule included below. Go to for further details.

Beginning January 14, 2012, the work will be on view on the first floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) and run on weekends during the scheduled times below.

Friday: 12:30–2 pm; 3–4:30 pm; 5–6:30 pm; 7–8:30 pm
Saturday, Sunday: 11:30 am–1 pm; 2–3:30 pm; 4–5:30 pm; 6–7:30 pm
Weekdays: not operational
* Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Monday, January 16): 12:30–2 pm; 3–4:30 pm; 5–6:30 pm; 7–8 pm

Banner image: Esther McCoy at work, Santa Monica, California, c. 1985; courtesy of Esther McCoy Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution