Pioneering Architects: Eugene Choy

Choy home

Eugene Choy’s own home, completed in 1949, nearly didn’t happen. But more than 70 years later, it is setting real estate records in Los Angeles.

Fewer than one in five new architects identify as racial or ethnic minorities, and just about two in five are women, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. As we work to achieve a future of greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession, we can learn important lessons in reckoning with the past.  The Pioneering Architects series celebrates the legacy of architects who overcame unimaginable obstacles. In sharing their stories, we aim to pay overdue tribute to their talents, honor their courage, and learn from their experiences.

Eugene Kinn Choy was the second Chinese-American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. In the lore of association membership, he is often overshadowed by I.M. Pei, AIA’s first Asian-American architect, whose career and plum commissions from New York to Hong Kong to Paris have few comparisons.

But Pei and Choy were contemporaries whose lives mirrored one another. Both were born in Guangzhou, China, and both graduated from prestigious architecture schools on the eve of World War II (Pei graduated from MIT, while Choy was the first Chinese-American graduate of the USC School of Architecture in 1939). Both were actively involved in the wartime effort (Pei designing incendiary bombs for the National Defense Research Committee and Choy designing prototype bombers for the Hughes Aircraft Company). Both also went on to found successful firms later inherited by their sons.

Choy was a pioneering force in the architecture world of Southern California during the post-World War II boom years – opening his firm, Choy Associates, in 1947. The look and feel of Chinatown in Los Angeles is synonymous with Eugene Choy and other architects such as Gilbert L. Leong, Helen Liu Fong, and Gin D. Wong—all featured in the 2012 exhibition “Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles (1945-1980).”

Choy’s storied career included commercial buildings such as the 1949 Gee How Oak Tin Association, the 1951 Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the 1955 Jin Hing Jewelry Store, all of which remain touchstones of both Chinatown and the Chinese-American community in the greater metro area. Perhaps his most famous commission is the 1962 Cathay Bank headquarters in the heart of Chinatown, which balances Corporate Modernism of the 1950s with vernacular decorative elements such as the roofline scalloping composed of small hipped forms that evoke dynastic palace architecture of the Ming and Qing eras.

Eugene’s Choy’s Cathay Bank branch in LA's Chinatown, completed in 1962, remains a hub of the Chinese-American community and an architectural icon in the neighborhood.

But it’s his residential commissions in greater Los Angeles that critics have remembered best. Choy homes continue to be sought after by waves of homebuyers and investors eager to associate with his brand of modernism, focusing on forms as much as textures and a rich material palette. His 1956 Kawaguchi House (later enlarged by architect Jack Levinson in 1973) in the hills overlooking Silver Lake, and his 1959 Brander House, a ranch-style rambler in the Hollywood Hills routinely show up in the pages of shelter magazines as new generations of architects renovate them.

Making headlines these days is the 1949 house Choy designed for his own family in Silver Lake. In an overheated real estate market, it’s not uncommon for a home to sell for $50,000 or $100,000 above the asking price. But Choy’s Silver Lake house set local records last year when it sold for $1.6 million, a cool $221,000 over the asking price. It’s a home locals and architecture enthusiasts know well for its modest frontage and graceful spaces. The interiors were immortalized three generations ago in Julius Schulman’s photographs, and its exterior remains today just as it was intended to be: a low-slung and unassuming contribution to an eclectic neighborhood whose residents prize privacy. Its facade doesn’t scream “an architect was here” so much as it provides a backdrop to native fruit trees, palms, and pampas grasses and serves as a respite for its lucky owners.

Choy’s son, Barton, joined the firm in 1972 to form Choy, Choy and Associates. Despite the firm’s success, he’s said, it was neither a smooth nor obvious road for his father. In a 2012 KCRW interview, Frances Anderton asked Barton about the empty piece of land Eugene chose to build the family home. Before he could buy the land, Choy faced discrimination from neighbors, as well as from the covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) that, for decades, plagued other Asian-Americans, as well as African- and Jewish-Americans looking to secure their own piece of the American dream.

“What’s interesting to note is in order to acquire the property, my father had to go door to door and ask permission because of the existing CC&Rs that prevented peoples of color from moving into this neighborhood,” Barton said. “He also was unable to secure financing. He had to build the house first, then invite the bankers over to show them what he had done. It was then that he was provided a loan.”

Like his father, Bart (also a USC graduate) designed his own award-winning home in 1974, an angular cedar-clad building in the vein of Peter Eisenman’s “deconstructivist” Houses I-VI of the era. After Eugene died in 1991, Bart carried forward the firm’s legacy for more than 20 years until 2013, when new owners Pedro Cordova and Sheila Goergen-Cordovato changed its name to Cordova Associates. But the work of Choy’s firm from its first quarter century remains the highlight of Chinatown walking tours, not to mention the real estate pages, for some of Los Angeles’ most coveted neighborhoods.

Image credits

Choy home

Dan Ortega at Sothebys International Realty

Cathay Bank, Chinatown

Cathay Bank

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