Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader

For the most part, Los Angeles architecture has made its mark and numerous international and domestic architects will compete for an opportunity to design a residence, a public, or a commercial building. This was not always the case. There was someone who recognized the value, quality, originality and importance of the West and its architecture, at a time when it was not considered worth evaluating, predominantly by those in the East. In an interview Esther McCoy said, “ … Los Angeles has always been open to new ideas. Los Angeles is not rigid at all. It’s a plunger city. San Francisco from the beginning was more oriented to New York and Europe than Los Angeles. So Los Angeles became a place where experimentation was freer. It’s true even in postmodernism that Los Angeles has led the way.” Her insights and thoughts have stood the test of time. As with her writing, her life was distinctive and outstanding. Her name and achievements are not that well known, which is why this collection of her works is so important and valuable. She wrote about what interested her, not only about architecture. There were short stories, novels, and what we would call investigative journalism. In 1937, she wrote a well substantiated opinion inThe Daily News, stating why rents should come down, rather than go up.  She was an inspired critic who had the talent and ability to make analysis compelling and fascinating. She makes us look, and look again, and then think.  Other than Esther McCoy I doubt there is anyone else who could make us look anew at the Bradbury Building. "A vast hall full of light, the Bradbury Building," published in 1953 and included in this collection, will make you want to do just that. 

Originally from Arkansas, born in 1904, her life was peripatetic, with lots of travel in the United States and abroad. For a while during the 1920s she lived and worked in New York City, as an assistant to Theodore Dreiser, and as a freelancer, which she would do for the rest of her life. She moved to Los Angeles for her health and worked as a draughtswoman in R. M. Schindler’s West Hollywood office. At some point she applied to USC's school of architecture, but her application was "discouraged." The field was known for its overt misogyny and ageism, and at the time, after World War II, preference was given to male students on the G.I. Bill. We will never know what architecture lost. From her diverse interests, curiosity, and eloquence, it is very clear what we gained. Susan Morgan compiled this selection of essays and opinions and this was the first book published by East of Borneo Books. Morgan tells us that Esther McCoy wrote and contributed even more articles and numerous short stories to a wide range of periodicals. I would love to read them all, so this is a clarion call to someone out there to gather those works and get them published. We deserve to read everything that she wrote and published, and her work merits a book or two that compiles everything.  Although the styles of writing and the interests are different, she and Joan Didion were writers who looked at the world, thought about it, and wrote in ways that were unique and distinctive. And, their thoughts and works make us look at the world around us in new ways.