Esther McCoy, an architectural historian specializing in American modernism, wrote and produced Dodge House 1916 as part of an ongoing effort to save the Walter Luther Dodge house in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. The house was a key architectural work by Irving John Gill, an early modernist American architect. Her film, produced in 1965 at breakneck pace in the shadow of the wrecking ball, helped to mobilize the cultural and architectural communities to rally for the building’s preservation. Sadly, like many landscapes that succumbed to short-sighted projects in that era of “urban renewal,” her campaign was unsuccessful, and the building was demolished in February of 1970.
The fight for the preservation of the Dodge house began in 1963, when the Los Angeles Board of Education put the building up for auction. The ensuing effort to stop its demolition was a roller coaster of grassroots organizing, surprise developments and eleventh-hour reprieves that lasted seven years. The house became a cause célèbre among the cultural communities of Los Angeles and professional architects. McCoy’s film depicts the home and its grounds in thorough detail, and explores Gill’s career and development as an architect. In retrospect, the house’s destruction only raises the value of the film, the best existing visual record of this now-extinct piece of cultural and architectural heritage.
McCoy was not a filmmaker herself, but she recognized the potential of film to educate the public and advocate for her cause. McCoy’s Five California Architects, published in 1960, prompted serious study of modern architecture in Southern California for the first time. The book, now considered a classic, is still in print today. McCoy went on to use every instrument available to her to document the structure and argue for its significance, surveying the property for the National Parks Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in 1968 (hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ca0221 <hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ca0221>=), and entering a successful nomination for Dodge House to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, shortly after the Register was established by Congress in 1966. At that point, only 13 other properties in the entire country had been placed on the register.