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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (another day trip for NYC architecture enthusiasts).
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.
“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."
Small plots and strict fire codes means there are no McMansions. Quality over quantity is in The Pines’ design DNA. (This extends to furnishings. I lost track of how many Tulip tables and Barcelona loungers I saw.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Travelers who want to do their own tour can get to The Pines via three separate ferry routes from Long Island: Davis Park Ferry, Sayville Ferry Service, or Fire Island Ferries. You can also drive by taking the Robert Moses Causeway or William Floyd Parkway.
What to Do in The Fire Island Pines
Here’s a map of the houses mentioned in this piece. For a more detailed map, visit Pines Modern.
To get to the Fire Island Pines from New York City, take the Long Island Rail Road to Sayville and a taxi from the station to the ferry dock at 41 River Road. A shuttle runs between the station and ferry at peak times. Ferry schedule varies, so check the website for more details. Note that bikes are not permitted in The Pines.
Where to Stay
Book a room at The Madison Fire Island Pines, at 22 Atlantic Walk. Bedrooms here are light filled and, of course, extremely clean and modern.
Where to Eat
Here for the day? Pack a beach picnic. It’s common to see residents wheeling coolers along the boardwalk. The food options are limited, and (as with most islands) overpriced. Grab a coffee and snack at the Canteen above the ferry dock, or have a sit down meal at the Pines Bistro (don't miss the fried calamari).