Fire Island Pines New York - Modern Architecture
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Pavillion 1

The Pavillion Nightclub - Fire Island Pines, NY



Fire Island, three miles off the shore of New York's Long Island, has long been a haven for the Northeast's LGBTQ community. The Pines were developed in the 1950s, making the enclave one of the youngest on the island. In the '60s, The Pines quickly went from a clothing-optional beach with a few coastal shacks to a clothing-optional beach flanked by impressive, architecturally assertive homes. In The Pines, design talent of the era found a primed audience, and the area rapidly became exceptionally rich in significant modernist residential architecture.

529 Sail rooftop 

In his book, Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction, architect and designer Christopher Rawlins lays out one of the first authoritative histories of the island’s homes. He provides valuable context for modernism's potency and triumph on The Pines’ meager 1 square mile.


Fire Ilsand Modernism

Much has been written about the effect of the AIDS crisis on the gay community, Rawlins explains, but the two hopeful decades before the epidemic are best encapsulated by the bacchanal atmosphere of Fire Island—and that atmosphere was best embodied by the houses that rose up during this time.


 Bay Walk House double pool

Marina Zarya shares her experience: "My tour started at the house of my guide. Scott Bromley lives in an early '60s house by celebrated architect Horace Gifford, a man whose beach house designs have come to define The Pines' transformation. Bromley is an architect, too, having got his start under the tutelage of Philip Johnson, one of the most influential American architects to have ever lived. Bromley designed Studio 54 and hobnobbed with the likes of fashion designer Halston and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Now, he and and his business partner Jerry Caldari are the torchbearers of Fire Island modernism."


modern wood beach house on fire island by horace gifford


Bromley’s home is a testament to Gifford’s great love of pavilions—as the communal center of a home with off-shooting bedrooms, for example. In Gifford’s designs, this feature becomes much less stern. The central space of Bromley’s home is an octagon with a tented ceiling. It looks closer to something you’d see in Bali than New Canaan. It’s also, Bromley notes, ideal for a roller skating party.


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Like his mentor, Louis Kahn, Gifford looked to Eastern monuments for inspiration, eschewing the "skin and bones" architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other fathers of modernism. Two years before Bromley’s house was built, Gifford built three houses in the style of Kahn’s bath house in Trenton, New Jersey.


 150 ocean 1

There are no cars allowed in The Pines, so Bromley drove me around on his John Deere Gator. We zoomed along the boardwalk, surrounded by vegetation. Rawlins mapped notable homes on his website, Pines Modern, and though I studied it in advance, I can easily imagine getting lost.


 Fire Island A Frame Beach House 22 

“It’s a very public way to enjoy private architecture,” Rawlins explained. The trick lies in knowing what to look for.  On that sunny day, the aluminum roof of Bromley Caldari’s towering A-Frame was the first landmark I saw from the ferry. Just next door is one of Gifford’s "tree houses." Borrowing from fellow Fire Island architect Harry Bates, Gifford inverted the layout of the house by arranging bedrooms downstairs and elevating the kitchen to the second floor. “You had to go up to preserve your view,” Rawlins explains. The development of the island created a windbreak for vegetation to flourish as the septic system enriched the soil. "The architecture was sustainable before it was fashionable."

gifford 5


The best way to experience the variations in the island’s vernacular is to walk along the beach. On the southern shore of The Pines, the community’s western edge is marked by a home that shows Giffords’ eventual embrace of curved volumes. Rawlins put the sinuous design on the cover of his book to emphasize that modernism seduced Fire Island, just as the inhabitants of Fire Island were being (willingly) seduced. Next door is a 1977 home by Arthur Erickson. It’s a fine example of using cedar to blend with the weathered seascape. Then comes a recent Bromley Caldari home and guest house. Though the plot is large for the island, the home sprawls out and not up, more like a village than an imposing villa.


 Calvin Klein house pland by Horace Gifford

Clavin Kline's Fire Island Pines Beach House - Architectural Plans 


calvin Kline double house with 50 feet pool

From the deck is a view of Calvin Klein’s former Gifford house, which was the setting for Longtime Companion, the first major feature to address how AIDS devastated the gay community. Walk further East down the beach and you’ll reach 122 Ocean Walk, the only house Gifford built in 1970. The architect was bipolar, and productivity came in waves—but he didn’t let that derail him from pursuing perfection. “He was cognizant that everyone would see it,” Rawlins wrote of the home; just as they would be seen frolicking within this series of stacked, largely transparent cubes.


house 2

The most private space in the house? A ‘womb room’ lined with blue shag carpet. Gifford called it ‘the cave’ in his blueprints. Groovy. “It embodies the voyeuristic quality of the heady post-Stonewall period,” Rawlins added. On the island, the lines between rich and poor were diminished. There was sex appeal and there was great architecture, and most importantly there was the freedom to exist. Nobody knew what was coming down the pipeline. Gifford died of AIDS in 1992.


Gifford Horace METROPOLIS FIMpg166 67.jpg.0x545 q70 crop scale


Fire Island is a delicate ecosystem. It used to be twice its size, but in 1683 the ocean burst through and separated the current land mass from Jones Beach Island. The Fire Island Inlet Bridge opened in 1964. For a community well-versed in resiliency, it's fitting how well the architecture here stands the test of time.



Architecture of Seduction 

Horace Gifford was born in Vero Beach in 1932 and passed away from AIDS in 1992 at the age of 59. Christopher Rawlins, architect and author of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction “describes post-modernism and the AIDS epidemic as the ‘one-two punches’ that cloaked Gifford’s life and work in obscurity until now.” Horace Gifford was a descendent of Henry T. Gifford who settled in Vero Beach in the fall of 1887. Henry Gifford is considered a pioneer for taking out Homestead papers for 160 acres of land which comprise much of the present City of Vero Beach. He started the first post office in the area in 1891 and used the name Vero.




Many historians think he named it after his wife, Vero. The Beach was added to her name in later years. Horace Gifford was a celebrated beach house architect of the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties. He led the “modernist transformation” of Fire Island, N.Y, where in Fire Island Pines there are roughly 700 Gifford designed houses blended into a square mile of dunes and scrub pines.


 Otero The H House 523 Snapper Walk 


Four pavilions connected by an open air living area create the letter H. Situated on the eastern end of the Pines and close to the bay this house was a hidden gem designed and built by noted architect Horace Gifford. A place he called home. Neglected by renters and owners for years and overgrown with vegetation the house had fallen into disrepair when Carlos Otero and Laurence Isaacson found it one Saturday afternoon. 

Pines Ferry at Pavillion 


“My line to people is that the Pines is to gay people what Israel is to Jews,” Andrew Kirtzman, a longtime Pines resident and real estate developer, said recently. “It’s the spiritual homeland. There’s just a sense of history in the air, almost tangible but not quite. You just feel like you’re part of some kind of grand creation meant solely for gays.” The history of the Pines, Mr. Rawlins said, is one of “people who had felt like outcasts finding community.” The free sexuality he celebrates in his book “was probably a natural outgrowth of what happens when you repress a people for 2,500 years.”


horace gifford 


An openly gay man, in a time when this made him a true outlier, Gifford first arrived in The Pines on Fire Island in 1961 and impulsively – but understanding the area’s potential – bought a small plot of land and built himself a beach house. It wasn’t long after that everyone wanted a Modern beach house designed by him and at an age when most architects are still working out electrical and bathroom details on the lower rung of a design firm, Gifford not only saw development potential but an opportunity to get his designs built his way. An opportunity he took full advantage of with 70 of his houses being built over the following 20 years.


371 nautilus 1969

 371 Nautilus, Fire Island Pines, NY - During Construction in 1969


Gifford’s designs were modest, affordable (then) yet expressive buildings made from cedar – which weathered well – with large glass windows to take advantage of the ocean views, and built around a central social space with built-in furniture and sunken seating areas. From the early 1960’s into the 1970’s saw tremendous social change with the nascent gay community of The Pines becoming the joyful and hedonistic expression of the gay liberation movement. And Gifford’s designs reflected this social change. As pretenses fell away Gifford began using larger glass windows and what were once private, inner social rooms were turned outward for voyeuristic pleasure as the community he helped build moved into full uproarious swing.


 Otero The H House 523 Snapper Walk 

523 Snapper Walk, Fire Island Pines, NY


Sadly, the Pines scene that Gifford helped create became too much for him and by the end of the 1970’s, as so often happens with popular architects, his designs went out of style. Struggling with depression Gifford briefly moved to Houston and by 1980 he was designing very little and gave up on Fire Island entirely. In 1992 he passed away.


252 Bay Walk


Horace Gifford led a twenty-year modernist transformation of Fire Island. His forward-thinking, sustainable houses – with their theatrically layered and voyeuristic spaces – perfected a hedonistic Modernism in cedar and glass. Gifford’s Fire Island homes were pavilions of refuge from a hostile world and his exuberant designs were bacchanals of liberation. A nearly forgotten architectural maestro of an era whose eloquent works trace the rhapsodic arc of a nearly forgotten generation.”