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In the dunes of Fire Island
by Uwe Bresan | 8/8/2016
Constructed in 1969, the design of Crawford House has its roots in the essentially liberal lifestyle of mostly homosexual clients, who had their beachfront villas or bungalows built on the coast of Fire Island off New York in a mid-century Modernist vein. Photo © Horace Gifford + Yale Wagner

Fire Island, less than a two-hour drive from the city center, is a favorite destination for New Yorkers. The barrier island measuring almost 50 kilometers long and at some places no more than a few hundred meters wide lies off the south coast of Long Island and separates the Great South Bay from the Atlantic. The broad beach extending over the entire island links the communities lined up along Fire Island like a string of pearls. There is no road. And indeed only a small section in the west of the island that is almost completely a conservation area is linked to the mainland via a bridge. Ferries that cross Great South Bay are the main means of transport to
Fire Island.

The island has served New Yorkers as a summer vacation resort since the end of the 19th century. Unlike the Hamptons at the east end of Long Island, which in the summer months are still frequented by New York’s monied aristocracy, who retreat to its impressive estates and castle-like manors, from the early 20th century onwards Fire Island developed into a recreation area for the middle classes, but also for creative professionals and intellectuals. The island’s relative isolation and its almost endless seeming white beaches with secluded wooded dunes turned Fire Island into a Mecca for New York’s homosexuals in the 1930s. Here they could enjoy their sexuality more or less freely without suffering the harassment they faced in the city.

Constructed in 1969, the design of Crawford House has its roots in the essentially liberal lifestyle of mostly homosexual clients, who had their beachfront villas or bungalows built on the coast of Fire Island off New York in a mid-century Modernist vein. Photo © Horace Gifford + Yale Wagner

Boys in the sand

Today, the two neighboring resorts “The Pines” and “Cherry Grove” continue to attract many New York homosexuals in the summer months. A video clip on YouTube accompanied by wild beats describes how to reach the island using public transport. The clip follows three attractive men, who wake up in bed together, as they make their way from the city to the beach and explains the individual stops on the journey, starting with the commuter train then the shuttle bus through to the ferry. Hardly a building in The Pines and Cherry Grove is more than 60 years old. After a heavy storm devastated the island in 1938 it took until the end of World War II before vacationers returned to the island in large numbers and the hotels were renovated. But in the 1950s and 1960s the two resorts experienced the largest construction boom in their history. The American economy was flourishing and allowed broad sections of the population previously undreamt-of prosperity. Increasing numbers of New Yorkers could now afford to flee the city’s humid, oppressive climate in the hot summer months, or at least on the weekends, and stay in their own beach houses on Fire Island.

As had been the case before the War, owing to their largely gay public The Pines and Cherry Grove occupied a special position. Above all during the McCarthy era, overshadowed by widespread denunciations of gays, in the dunes that today still separate the two resorts they were able at least temporarily to indulge openly in a homosexual lifestyle. Subsequently, the liberal reputation of The Pines and Cherry Grove spread to the whole of North America. And in 1971 Broadway choreographer Wakefield Poole made the legendary homosexual pornographic movie “Boys in the Sand” here, which numbers among the classics in this genre. In sensitive shots the film enthusiast and self-taught filmmaker painted a realistic picture of homosexual life on Fire Island beyond all social clichés about gay sexuality. And the fact that the movie was also reviewed at length in the feature pages of several broadsheets triggered a national debate about homosexuality, which contributed substantially to a liberalization of society as a whole.

Built in 1972, Rosenthal House offers an ideal setting for relaxation: the somewhat deeper sofa pit and the open fireplace offer an ambience that is both exclusive and unpretentious. Photo © Tom Sibley

Mid-century modernism

Wakefield Poole aside, Tom Bianchi can also be described as a chronicler of homosexual life on the island. In the 1970s the well-known New York photographer spent many summers on Fire Island and captured life on the beach and in the dunes there with his Polaroid SX-70. However, the typical somewhat pale shots of the legendary folding camera not only depict muscular, tanned male torsos in skimpy bathing trunks, but also provide a glimpse of the particular architecture of The Pines and Cherry Grove. Small bungalows whose huge glass frontages and terraces open up the interior to nature; houses on solid stilts that rise up tower-like above the landscape to exploit the view to the full; and large villas whose gently rounded extensions seem to envelop the outside and bring it into the house. Clad with cedar wood and nestling spectacularly in the wild dune landscape, they bear witness to the extraordinary talent of Horace Gifford, who shaped the architecture of the two towns like no other. Between 1960 and 1980 – in just under 20 years the architect realized over 60 summer houses in the two communities and in doing so created a unique ensemble of late mid-century modernism that is largely preserved today.

Best-looking boy

Simultaneously, Gifford must have been one of the most colorful architectural figures of his time. He reportedly enjoyed receiving his clients on the beach clad in no more than bathing trunks. A glance at the high school yearbook in which Gifford is celebrated as the “Best-Looking Boy” of his year shows he needed have no qualms about his appearance. And it can be supposed that given his particular clientele his beach appointments had a not inconsiderable influence on his clinching deals. Moreover, the architect was by no means averse to being approached by his clients. For example, Gifford was involved in a ménage-à-trois lasting several years with his first New York client, set designer Edwin Wittstein and the latter’s partner, art director Robert Miller. Initially, the couple had given the commission for a weekend house to Andrew Geller, who was causing a big stir at the time with a series of experimental beach houses on Long Island. But after Wittstein began an affair with Gifford the contract with Geller was cancelled and Gifford (then not even 30) was given the job instead. For the architect born in 1932 in Florida, it marked the start of a rapidly ascending career.

Built in 1972, Rosenthal House offers an ideal setting for relaxation: the somewhat deeper sofa pit and the open fireplace offer an ambience that is both exclusive and unpretentious. Photo © Tom Sibley

Moral obstacles

Gifford had begun his training at the University of Florida, where he studied among others under Paul Rudolph, whose legendary Florida Houses on the beaches of Sarasota had made a lasting impression on him. But Gifford saw his real mentor as Louis Kahn, whom he met in 1958 while taking a Master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania. After finishing his studies the young architect moved to New York, where he worked in the office of J. Gordon Carr, then a sought-after interior designer. Having grown up on the sunny beaches of Florida and not one to turn down affairs, Gifford had not long been in New York when he discovered the dunes of The Pines and Cherry Grove. He would spend a large part of the summer months on Fire Island, and only really felt alive on the beach. In the city and above all in the winter months he was often overcome by a deep melancholy. “I’m gay, and I’m manic-depressive,” Gifford said of himself, half-joking. In 1965 his erotic, escapist beach life proved his undoing when he was arrested in the dunes on Fire Island and sentenced for immoral behavior. Consequently, Gifford never applied for a license as an architect to open his own office, as his application would have been rejected owing to his lack of “good moral character”, a criterion still applied by the immigration authorities in the United States today. This meant that when dealing with building authorities Gifford always had to rely on the support of his peers. And he had little hope of participating in public tenders.

“Everything about the Pines was new, the very idea of a place where you could play on the beach and hold hands with a guy and be with like-minded people and dance all night with a man,” says Tom Bianchi, photographer of the book “Fire Island Pines” remarking on the liberal lifestyle from the 1960s to 1980s on the coast off New York. Photo © Tom Bianchi

Seeing and being seen

As a result Gifford seems to have concentrated more on private commissions, whose number increased every year and gave the architect scope to experiment with a rich creative repertoire. Sunken seating areas that could when needed be transformed into large bed areas in front of an open fire were just one of Gifford’s specialties. He also used mirrors on walls and ceilings, which not only served to make spaces appear larger but could also set a voyeuristic game in motion, when they permitted broken, kaleidoscopic glimpses of supposedly closed-off bathrooms and bedrooms. At some point Gifford even began to replace mirrors in his clients’ bathrooms with windows with darkened panes to increase the eroticism of seeing and being seen. Similarly, when it came to the obligatory outdoor showers on the expansive terraces for use after spending time on the beach the architect always designed them a little more open and revealing than was absolutely necessary. This is perhaps one reason why Christopher Rawlins, who wrote a wonderful monograph about Gifford, described his works (not without justification) as the “Architecture of Seduction”.

Epilog: AIDS

Asked why despite his considerable work, which was extensively published, Gifford fell into almost complete oblivion after his early death in 1992, Rawlins has a simple answer: AIDS. An entire generation of gay men fell victim to this disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which is why in the initial panic people often branded it the “gay epidemic”. It struck Gifford as it did many of the people he knew, clients, developers and friends alike. Indeed, there was hardly anybody left to look after Gifford’s legacy after his death. We have his partner of many years, Robert Greenfield, to thank for the fact that at least his estate was saved. Though Greenfield only lived a few months longer than the architect, he made it a condition of his will that Gifford’s archive be preserved. With the outbreak of AIDS an era came to an end on Fire Island. The carefree lifestyle in the dunes of The Pines and Cherry Grove, as Gifford had known it, was over.

Literature

Alastair Gordon: Weekend Utopia. Modern Living in the Hamptons, Princeton Architectural Press, 2001
Mission Possible: How To Get To Fire Island Pines
Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975-1983, Damiani, 2013
Alastair Gordon: Andrew Geller. Beach Houses, Princeton Architectural Press, 2003
Christopher Domin & Joseph King: Paul Rudolph. The Florida Houses, Princeton Architectural Press, 2005
Christopher Rawlins: Fire Island Modernist. Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction, Metropolis Books, 2013


Catalogue

Fire Island Modernist. Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction
Christopher Bascom Rawlins (eds.)
202 p., hardback, english, 150 fig.
Metropolis Books, New York 2013
ISBN 978 1 938922 09 1
50 Euro

“Everything about the Pines was new, the very idea of a place where you could play on the beach and hold hands with a guy and be with like-minded people and dance all night with a man,” says Tom Bianchi, photographer of the book “Fire Island Pines” remarking on the liberal lifestyle from the 1960s to 1980s on the coast off New York. Photo © Tom Bianchi
Horace Gifford (1932 to 1992), photographed in 1963 by his first client, and lover for some time Edwin Wittstein. Photo © Edwin Wittstein
Horace Gifford (1932 to 1992), photographed in 1963 by his first client, and lover for some time Edwin Wittstein. Photo © Edwin Wittstein
In Kauth House (1964) the enormous expanses of glass provide a maximum feeling of openness and expand the interior to incorporate the surrounding nature. Photo © Michael Weber