In the beginning: The intersection of Ocean Walk and Fisherman’s Path boardwalks in Fire Island Pines in the 1950s–before the full-on development of the enclave had really got going.
Six decades ago this summer, the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association was formed—and what had been been a desolate stretch of scrub and sand began its transformation into the fabled gay vacation Mecca. I’ve been spending my summers in the Pines since the early 1970s, both as a resident and an architect, so my partner, filmmaker Tony Impavido, and I were able to contribute to the official Pines’ 60th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee on June 22. The event’s centerpiece was a pop-up museum featuring photos, artwork, and memorabilia from the community’s history, so we combed the community for material to include in the exhibit. Tony also put together a 31-minute video from the images we collected looking back at everything from dance parties to weddings and children as well as the gorgeous natural surroundings of the Pines. One item we dug up was this 1979 story by Suzanne Slesin from the New York Times about a beach party I co-chaired with my then business partner, the late interior designer Robin Jacobsen.
Here’s a shot I took of the installation for the Beach Fire Island ’79 oceanside party. Jerry Caldari, with whom I would later establish Bromley Caldari Architects, helped design it. The entire construction took five days to build.
In addition to this summer’s anniversary celebrations, there are a couple of great books about the Pines published recently. The first is Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975-1983, by the photographer Tom Bianchi. Like me, Bianchi began spending time at Fire Island Pines in the early 1970s.
Bianchi used an SX-70 Polaroid camera to documented his friends’ lives in the Pines, amassing an image archive of people, parties, and private moments. This memoir collects those images for the first time, and for many of us, it conjures the sun-soaked magic of a bygone era. Here are a couple of my own memories:
In the early 1970s, I lived in the “TV House,” so called because it looked like a giant television screen from the beach.
Here’s a shot of me and a friend in the Pines from the same period.
The other book, Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction, by Christopher Rawlins, is an overdue monograph about a little-known architect who was crucial to the development of what we think of as Fire Island beach house style: “Houses of naturally weathering cedar, redwood pavilions set back from the boardwalk, their broad windows serving as prosceniums across which backlighted players in Speedos, or else nothing, played out a specific variant of the theater of late 20th century gay life,” as Guy Trebay put it in the New York Times.
In the ’60s and ’70s , Horace Gifford (1932-92) built around 40 small, innovative Modernist houses on Fire Island. Although an average Gifford house was only 1,000 square feet, it expanded upward with high ceilings and outward with oversized windows, decks, sun courts, and walkways. It was often seductive, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, sunken living rooms and conversation pits, and exposed outdoor showers. Gifford was a huge talent and, although I didn’t know him well, a big design hero of mine. Whenever I got the chance, I’d study his architectural drawings closely. Here are some classic Gifford Fire Island houses:
Fishman Residence, 1965. The house rises above the trees, framing views of the ocean and the bay while screening out the neighbors on Fire Island’s narrow lots. Photograph by Bill Maris.
Wittstein-Miller Residence, 1963. The house was originally presented as a sketch in the sand for its delighted clients, the famed set designer Edwin Wittstein and his partner Robert Miller. Tony Impavido and I now own the house, and my firm Bromley Caldari Architects restored it and added a teahouse and a bedroom suite in 1983. (Here’s a link to a post about another house we designed in the Pines.) Photograph by John Hall.
Crawford Residence, 1968. This is the Gifford house I covet the most. It was designed for Jay Hyde Crawford, a fascinating man who worked as an illustrator for Bonwit Teller, doing a famous redesign of the store’s violet-bouquet graphic before founding Quadrille Fabrics, a high-end textiles and wallpaper company, in the 1960s. Click here to read a great interview with Jay, who died in May this year at the age of 82.
Sloan Residence, 1972. This oceanfront home for a family with four young children was one of Gifford’s last significant commissions in the Pines. Around 1980, he expanded for its next owner, Calvin Klein, whose security concerns after the kidnapping of his daughter, Marci, meant a huge privacy fence. (Photograph by Barbra Walz.) The house was also owned by entertainment mogul David Geffen in the 1990s.
If the images of Horace Gifford’s wonderful beach houses has whetted your appetite for more, Christopher Rawlins, the author of the Gifford book, has organized Modern Masterpieces, a series of day-long, guided tours of mid-century homes that exemplify the best of Pines modernism. The tours will be conducted on Saturday, August 24th; Sunday, August 25; Saturday, August 31; and Sunday, September 1; plus an abbreviated, free tour on Monday, September 2 (Labor Day). Click here for more information.