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McCoy, Esther

    Full Name: McCoy, Esther

    Other Names:

    • Esther McCoy

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 18 November 1904

    Date Died: 30 December 1989

    Place Born: AR, USA

    Place Died: Santa Monica, Los Angeles, CA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre) and sculpture (visual works)

    Career(s): art critics


    Architectural critic and historian. McCoy graduated from the University of Michigan, working as a freelance editor in New York. She joined the the city’s avant-garde literary circles working as a research assistant for the writerTheodore Dreiser (1871-1945). She moved to Paris, living there until the Depression forced her return. She settled in Key West, Florida, where she wrote short stories and a novel. In 1932 she moved to Santa Monica, CA, where she remained the rest of her life. She married Berkeley Tobey (d. 1962) in 1940. During the World War II she contributed to the war effort as a draftsman for Douglas Aircraft Corporation. Her experience there in design convinced her togo into architecture. The prejudice against women in the profession limited her to drafting positions, howver, one of which she took in the Hollywood office of the modernist architect Rudolf M. Schindler (1887-1953) in 1944. Through the firm she came in contact with many architects. She left Schindler’s employ in 1947 resolving to combine her interests in architecture and writing. She was a contributing editor to Art and Architecture between 1951 and 1957. McCoy published her first two books bothin 1960: Neutra and Five California Architects. The latter became her seminal work and helped create the climate that permitted California’s remarkable architecture of the 1970’s and 1980’s to flower (Goldberger, 1990). The New York architectural critic Paul Goldberger became one of her most ardent champions, writing the introduction to the 1975 reprint of Five California Architects. In 1985, she received the American Institute of Architects’ national honor award for excellence. A smoker, she died of emphysema at age 85 in her life-long Santa Monica home. “Almost single-handedly, [McCoy] awakened serious scholars to the extraordinary richness of California architecture;” she largely revived the reputation of Bernard Maybeck, Irving Gill, R. M. Schindler and Charles and Henry Greene from obscurity (Goldberger, 1975). She discovered that California was the place where the American dream fused more naturally and intensely with modernism (Goldberger, 1990).In her writing she argued that the Modern Movement developed in America at least as early as in Europe (Dictionary of Architecture). McCoy’s prose–like her personality, Goldberger quipped–was blunt and “matter-of-fact.” She wrote about an architect using art history, sociology, economics and biography.

    Selected Bibliography

    Five California Architects. New York: Reinhold, 1960; Richard Neutra. London: Mayflower, 1960; Guide to U.S. Architecture, 1940-1980. Santa Monica, Calif. : Arts + Architecture Press, 1982; The Second Generation . Salt Lake City : G.M. Smith, 1984; Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art/MIT Press, 1989; and Rosa, Joseph. A Constructed View: the Architectural Photography of Julius Shulman. New York: Rizzoli, 1994.


    Venturi Robert, and Scott Brown, Denise. “Perspectives.” Progressive Architecture, lxxi/2 (Feb. 1990), pp.118-19; “McCoy, Esther” A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Curl, James Stevens, ed. Oxford University Press 2006; [obituary:] “Esther McCoy Is Dead Architecture Critic, 85.” New York Times December 31, 1989; Goldberger, Paul. ” Learning to Take California Seriously.” New York Times Sunday, January 14, 1990, p. 33.


    "McCoy, Esther." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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