Five miles out from Long Island’s southern shore lies the narrow 30-mile long emerald sandbar known as Fire Island. While most locals today think of this little spit of paradise simply as the sleepier, campier, no-Range Rovers allowed alternative to the Hamptons, Fire Island has a far more interesting story to tell. Beginning in the late ‘50s, this secluded escape became the setting for major cultural and political shifts that would bring tumultuous and far-reaching transformations over the next two decades. From the mainland moral police came threats to the rising gay culture of Cherry Grove and the Pines, from mega-autocrat Robert Moses came threats of destroying the entire barrier island environment to make way for an expressway. Residents organized to fight for a way of life that preserved the natural dunescapes and forest preserves, and fostered outward expressions of freedom and liberation.
When Horace Gifford found himself for the first time in the Pines on Fire Island in 1961, this tempestuous and persuasive young architect impulsively bought a small plot of land and began to create what even he could never have anticipated, and no architect had really ever been able to achieve — the building of an entire community of modest yet expressive modernist houses. Often organized around a central, slightly exhibitionist social space that extended outdoors to one or more decks, these refined beach homes were highly attuned to the physical and social environment of Fire Island and only got more interesting during the cultural upheaval of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
With the release of Fire Island Modernist, NYC-based architect Christopher Rawlins has discovered a new hero in local architecture. Not one for those typical dry analyses of architecture, Rawlins' intimate writings bring us face to face with the events that shaped Gifford’s life and work, his deep commitment to a sustainable modern architecture, and his often turbulent life on Fire Island. By doing so, Rawlins reveals the humanity behind modernism, and is launching an effort to preserve a rare community of design that is in danger of being lost. Gifford advocated for an artful way of living simply and openly, and hoped that “someday we will learn to live with nature instead of living on nature.”
The following are just 12 of the more than 70 houses that Gifford created in the Pines and elsewhere on Long Island, in his prolific but tragically short life. They tell a story of a true talent coming into his own, and suggest a future we have yet to fulfill. Click through to get a "tour" of Gifford's best Fire Island work and world...our own personal swan song to a New York summer.