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Fire Island, the glam mecca of artists and modern architecture

It has been a glam gateway off the coast of Long Island since the Sixties attracting names such as Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli and Yoko Ono. There we met with Charles Renfro and Studio 54 architect Scott Bromley, who told Domus more about the architectural aura of this place.

Historically, seekers of the ideal nature getaway traveled to out of the way locations, where connecting to nature, its quietness and fresh air, was uninhibited by oppressive urban qualities. One such place, located an hour and a half drive outside of New York City, is on a thin barrier island, basically a long strip of a sand dune, off of the coast of Long Island. Fire Island is composed of several small communities wedged on the sand between the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the communities, the Pines, contains a completely seasonal population that resides in the 600 houses, 100 condominiums and one small hotel, with a small number of intimate commercial businesses dotted along a small harbor. The only way to arrive on the island is by a ferry. There are no streets for automobiles in the Pines, and a grid of six feet wide elevated boardwalks connects the houses to the harbor and the beaches. The moment you step off of the ferry, the sounds of the ocean, birds chirping and the breeze rustling the marsh grasses envelops you. The journey has completely removed and mentally separated you from the sounds and frantic pace of the city and transports you to a magical place surrounded by nature, and a vast collection of stunning yet simple modernist architecture that celebrates this natural beauty. Starting around the 1930’s, this section of Fire Island began to attract a creative crowd that was highly involved in the theater and artistic circles of Manhattan.

Horace Gifford, Shore Walk 615, 1962. Credit Pines Modern. Photo Tom Sibley

Inhabiting tiny wood shacks and sometimes even in just canvass tents, this community reveled in the escapism and freedoms that the island enjoyed. As the popularity grew, more glamourous personalities began to arrive in the 1960’s. With the likes of Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, and Angelo Donghia inhabiting the island and entertaining their famous friends Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli and Yoko Ono, sophisticated, chic and sexy minimalist beach architecture followed. A young beach-going architect Horace Gifford happened to be in the right place at the right time. Embracing a casual seaside way of living he would meet with clients, sometimes on the beach wearing only a speedo and carrying an attaché case, to design small, weathered cedar clad houses that acted as a sort of outdoor pavilion in which to live and entertain. Architect Charles Renfro, who is a partner in the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, seasonally lives in one of these early Gifford houses.

“The houses are basically wood tents, a type of primal shelter. The architecture is stripped down to its essence where it is about the ‘living’ and not the ‘looking’.”  Chatting with Charles Renfro on the pool deck of his house, we are surrounded by natural swamp, tall reed grasses and scrub pines. There is not an obvious barrier between the interior and exterior living spaces, with full wall openings of glass doors on both the front and rear of the ‘pavilion’. 

“You simply walk off the sand and into the house,” he keeps explaining. “The architecture gives you the agency to live in and with nature in a minimal luxury.” The natural typography of the Pines has influenced each house in ways it celebrates the uniqueness of the site. Houses perched on top of high dunes reach for the sky with tall geometries to capture the ocean views, while others have graceful undulating forms that flow with the beach sand and trade walls for glass as to not obstruct the ocean breezes. Houses on stilts are gently organized on more wooded lots, echoing a child’s treehouse, but one built for lounging and entertaining adults.

Horace Gifford, Sail Walk 529, 1975. Credit Pines Modern. Photo Tria Giovan

Architect Scott Bromley, who himself lives in a house designed by Horace Gifford and designed the famous Studio 54 in Manhattan, is a local resident who has a long experience with the Pines.

“My first impression of the Pines on Fire Island was how beautiful Mother Nature can be: the beautiful the colors of the ever changing sand, sea and sky. I came first to the Pines when I was about 24, a fresh young kid from Canada…and have loved the Pines for over 50 years.” Scott’s architecture firm, Bromley Caldari Architects, has designed many of the homes in the Pines. This architecture captures the ‘Spirit of Place’ by utilizing the beauty of raw materials and by embracing the ethos of a simple yet elegant living that evokes the surrounding natural beauty. “I’ve always been a minimalist and Fire Island is about having fun and entertaining so why have details that just get in the way or attract dust. Our beach house architecture has no moldings, mostly floor to ceiling windows and doors (to let the outside in), hidden hardware and built-ins mostly of wood. You just want to arrive, open the door and start living!”

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