Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction
Every once in a great while, there is a book that is immediately hailed as so essential one wonders not so much why it was never done before but how we managed to get by without it.
If that sounds overly effusive, buy, borrow or steal Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction and, after reading -- no, devouring it -- get back to me.
Horace Who?!? Well you might ask. Quick answer: the architect whose dozens of homes in Fire Island Pines turned a sleepy beach enclave for returning G.I.s from nearby Long Island into the world’s most famous gay beach resort.
After years of not-so-benign neglect, Christopher Bascom Rawlins has restored Gifford to primacy as the man who, along with Richard Neutra in Palm Springs and Norman Jaffe in the Hamptons, invented (or, as Gifford, who emphasized the environment for his inspirations, may have preferred, "discovered") the modernist beach house.
The New York Times described a Gifford house "that sits on a sand dune looking like an unpainted primary sculpture." Gifford’s aesthetic vision was to work with, rather than against, the natural setting of his projects. It was he who created the winding elevated pathways that lead from the roller-coaster boardwalks that follow the Pines’ dune patterns into cedar-panelled glass-clad boxes.
Seeking Out a Legacy
Rawlins had his work cut out for him. Gifford was a depressive who, according to Rawlins, suffered from a combination of a congenital condition exacerbated by an extreme form of what we now call Seasonal Affect Disorder. This was a man who eschewed the heroic architect image built up by Frank Lloyd Wright and exemplified by Gary Cooper in the film "The Fountainhead."
Instead of a fancy office in Midtown Manhattan where he could approach corporate clients as a peer, Gifford strolled along the beach to business meetings in the Fire Island uniform of a Speedo, professional valise in hand.
After Gifford, along with so many of his clients, died of AIDS, his papers, virtually forgotten in the ensuing years, languished in a suburban garage. Rawlins managed to unearth not only Gifford’s drawings, plans and documents, but also every article in every architectural magazine and newspaper.
It was a labor of love for Rawlins, himself a New York architect who shares the blond surfer god good looks of his subject. And it shows in his lovingly detailed descriptions of each of Gifford’s completed homes.
The result is a monograph that will enthrall students of architecture and interior design and the layman alike. Rawlins has a natural gift for language missing in most such projects. He writes with a breezy, yet authoritative style, that does full justice to his subject.
The Man Who Invented ’The Pines’
Gifford came to his calling naturally. He grew up in Vero Beach, which his ancestors helped found in the 1800s. He spent his formative years swimming on coastal beaches, a pastime that not only developed his affinity for the interplay of ocean and dune, but also gave him an athletic build that, while not a prerequisite for working in the Pines, certainly didn’t hurt.
Thanks to a combination of a moody personality and uncompromising vision, Gifford didn’t complete the academic requirements that would enable him to register as an architect, which meant that he was dependent on others to sign off on his plans. An arrest in the Meat Rack, the undeveloped forested area between the Pines and the older neighboring gay community of Cherry Grove, for nighttime sex cruising in the late ’60s also inhibited his professional recognition, according to Rawlins.
Gifford professionally came of age just as the Pines was morphing from a motley assortment of shacks floated over whole from the mainland and planted in the flattened dunes to a sophisticated gay-oriented community of New Yorkers.
The Pines wasn’t Gifford’s only playing field. He built some equally striking homes in the converted potato fields in the hamlets of Eastern Long Island collectively known as the Hamptons and in other Fire Island communities, such as Saltaire and Fair Harbor. He also built a striking house for a gay couple overlooking Long Island Sound in coastal Connecticut and a home for his sister in Houston, which is where he spent his last days.
But it was in the Pines, a planned community with relatively expansive lots, where Gifford found his metier. Rejecting equally the brutal formalism of his peers and the retro nostalgia for wood-shingled Cape Cods, Gifford forged a unique style that was perfectly suited to his well-heeled, cosmopolitan clients and the scrubby, semi-forested dramatic vistas of the Pines. (Perhaps ironically, it was Gifford’s tall structures that helped the pine trees to rise above the natural limits of the wind, a nice example of man aiding nature.)
Gifford pointedly rejected fences, privacy hedges or anything else that separated his homes from their surroundings. Instead, he used a riot of mirrors, on walls and even ceilings; large, open main rooms, where there was no differentiation between kitchen, dining room and entertainment areas, and walls of glass to make the houses as public as possible.
Perhaps most significantly, Gifford inverted the conventional pattern of the family home that has dominated American architecture from the brownstones of New York City to the two-level ranch houses of suburbia. The bedrooms, normally at the top of the house, became the smaller base that supported that public rooms (a point not emphasized by Rawlins).
Rawlins does a great job of explaining how Gifford both reflected and furthered the Pines’ ethos as a locus of hedonism. The houses didn’t hide the goings-on inside; they invited passers-by to join in the festivities.
This was perfectly pitched to the ’70s, a time that author Brad Gooch memorialized as "the Golden Age of Promiscuity." If gay men were having sex in dark spaces in New York’s Greenwich Village, they were doing it everywhere in the Pines. This was a time when you could walk down a boardwalk and see two men engaged in serious foreplay and being as hidden about it as if they were sharing a cigarette.
The gay men who became famous and wealthy in the ’70s like Halston and Angelo Donghia, and the groovy straight families who worked (and played) with them, wanted their summer homes to be as fabulous as their fabulous city apartments. Gifford fed their desires with houses that remain today as a testament to a time when sexual desire was something to be celebrated, before the AIDS epidemic would equate promiscuity with fatality.
So we get those oh-so-’70s "conversation pits, with their modular surrounding sofas, and even a "make-out loft" covered in the white shag that so dominated the era. This was sex-as-theater. Rawlins gets most of this, although he manages to describe one room-sized mirror in a bedroom without commenting on the voyeuristic aspect.
That is one of the few times Rawlins misses the point. Once in a while, his phrasings go a little too far into that interior design-ese of the real estate porn endemic to magazines like Architectural Digest. For example, he describes a series of boxes as "a disco," when the whole point of a disco is one big, empty room.
(There are very, very few minor mistakes: The opening segment of ür-gay porn film "Boys in the Sand" takes place, not in the Meat Rack, but the National Seashore east of the Pines; Marilyn Monroe never made it farther east than Ocean Beach, where she summered with Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg’s family. Liz Taylor never made it out to the Pines. But again, these are very minor.)
It was Gifford’s passion for summer homes that ultimately made for his undoing. He passed up the chance to design Halton’s New York townhouse because he feared that such commissions would mean a suit-and-tie existence in a dreary office suite. But Halton’s residence became one of the touchstones of the anything-goes ’70s. By rejecting it, Gifford gave up any chance of expanding his repertoire and forwarding his aesthetic into the far more notable (and lucrative) city commissions.
Gifford’s last significant commission heralded a fundamental change in the tenor of the Pines. His oceanfront home for the Slones, a family with four young children, would be expanded by its next owner, Calvin Klein, whose passion for privacy after the kidnapping of his daughter, Marci, meant a huge privacy fence.
In the ’90s, the house’s owner, Hollywood mogul David Geffen, furthered the mania for privacy. I remember walking right into Geffen’s dining area to ask him if he would like to be a sponsor of a benefit. If that sounds shockingly bold, keep in mind that we all walked into each other’s homes without notice -- it was part of the Pines’ ambience in those days.
As I was leaving, I could hear Geffen upbraiding his housekeeper for not locking the gate to his home. These days, Pines homes have morphed into grand estates where one has to be buzzed into the gates. The deer that once leaped boldly among the homes as they blithely destroyed any low-lying greenery now amble fearfully around these grand, gated homes. Air conditioning and satellite TV have further turned homes inward.
Ah well. Nothing remains the same. Fortunately, we have Rawlins’ wonderful cache of photos and his beautifully written text to remind us of the dream one man, at least, had of a sybaritic community united in taste, affection and pleasure.