Architect Horace Gifford's Fire Island homes legacy

A Horace Gifford-designed residence in Fire Island Pines

A Horace Gifford-designed residence in Fire Island Pines built for Murray Fishman. (Credit: Bill Maris)

Horace Gifford not only had unorthodox ideas when it came to architecture, he had an equally startling way of presenting them.

The Fire Island modernist occasionally met prospective customers wearing only a Speedo and carrying an attaché case

He was so spontaneous about his untraditional homes that he sometimes based them on sketches he drew in the sand. He didn't mince words when it came to his personal life, either.

"There are two things you need to know about me," he once told a customer. "I'm gay and I'm manic-depressive."

"He was eccentric and charismatic and handsome," says Christopher Rawlins, author of the recently published "Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction" (Metropolis Books/Gordon de Vries Studio, $60). "I'm sure it allowed him to get away with a lot."

Specifically, what it allowed this largely forgotten home designer to do was complete 78 strikingly original homes -- 63 of which were built on Fire Island, the location that gave free reign to his nature-oriented imagination.

Many still can be spotted on the island and, in fact, architecture groupies have the chance to sign up for one of a series of tours curated by Rawlins of midcentury Modernist homes. The tours will include four Gifford works, as well as homes from other significant Fire Island architects from that period. There is even a Gifford house for sale.

Rawlins, a principal of Rawlins Design, a Manhattan-based architect and interiors firm, discovered Gifford for himself in 2003 while on a Fire Island vacation. That's when he spotted a winding wooden bridge leading to a house that seemed to be floating in the trees. When he asked the owners who the architect was, they told him it was Horace Gifford, whom he had never heard of. Inquiries at other homes with similar styles produced the same answer.

Who was this guy, he thought. And why had he faded into obscurity?

During three years of off-and-on effort, he learned that Gifford was a Florida native influenced by architects Ralph Rudolph and Louis Kahn, the latter of whom he studied under at the University of Pennsylvania. He never finished his degree, but he found an ideal palette for his ideas on Fire Island.

Gifford reached his peak during a 20-year period beginning in 1961, with 100 home designs and a client list that included Calvin Klein as well as other notables, such as prominent interior designers Angelo Donghia and Yale Burge. Fashion designer Halston once approached Gifford about designing a Manhattan town house, but he declined, preferring to stay on Fire Island in his swimming trunks.

In 1966, he was described by the editor of The American Home magazine as "undoubtedly the top beach house designer in the country."

Writing about the book, Gwendolyn Wright, professor of architecture at Columbia University, says, "Rawlins conveys the poignancy of Gifford's life and the exuberant yet simple delight of his architecture."

Then, perhaps because of nonchalance about his career, some bad personal choices (a two-year move to Houston that allowed others to poach his East Coast clients), changing public tastes that saw Modernism lose favor, and declining health (he had AIDS), his work significantly slowed. He died in 1992 at the age of 59.

Information on his oeuvre was hard to come by until one day Rawlins met Edward DiGuardia, an artist who had befriended Gifford in his final years and recognized his talent. He led Rawlins to a garage packed with thousands of drawings and slides.

"I've been waiting for you for fifteen years," he told the author.

The trove revealed Gifford's drive to create modest, affordable homes built of wood and glass that were environmentally oriented and designed to fit in with their surroundings. He discouraged clients from putting in lawns or pools and washers and dryers since he wanted the homes to be weekend getaways -- low-maintenance structures that reflected his disdain for consumerism.

What they lacked in size (they usually ranged from 800 to 1,300 square feet) he made up for with added decks, oversized windows, courtyards and walkways. Reflecting Fire Island's sexually liberated gay scene of the go-go '60s, he often included sensual touches -- things like a mirror on the bedroom ceiling and a sheepskin-lined "make-out loft."

As always, he tried to blend his creations with their natural surroundings.

"Someday," he said, "we will learn to live with nature instead of living on nature."

Spectacular as they look, there can be drawbacks to owning a piece of architectural history like a Gifford house.

"These houses aren't for everyone," says Eric Reinitz, 51, a media consultant who owns a soaring structure on the eastern end of Fire Island with his partner, Marc Blackwell, 57, maker of a line of high-end porcelain and glass home goods.

"You have to appreciate what was built and be the custodian of it," he says. "It's an obligation to architecture and the movement of that time."

Their home is generally considered Gifford's most innovative "tree house." It features slanted glass walls, a suspended floor, a large "chimney" skylight in its center and a lofty roof deck that provides spectacular sea views. The home is flooded with light in the day and surrounded by darkness at night, Reinitz says. Of course, the roof is the show-stealer.

"It's a wonderful area to have guests over for drinks and a great early morning coffee place. Ours is the last house east, and it's on the Atlantic migratory flyway so virtually every kind of species flies by," he says. "If you're up there and into birds, it's incredible."

Although Rawlins was originally drawn to Gifford because of his designs, he, too, learned how environmentally comfortable the artist's homes were after renting one for two seasons. It happened, he discovered, to be Gifford's own residence.

"He packed a lot of intelligence into seemingly modest structures that were very affordable," Rawlins says.

Tour four Gifford-designed Fire Island houses

Those who want a closer look at some of Gifford's homes, as well as get a sampling of other significant midcentury Modern architects, will have a chance during a series of guided tours in the Fire Island Pines curated by Rawlins and hosted by the Boffo Fire Island Art Camp, a nonprofit artist residency.

Four Gifford homes are listed in the walk, along with homes designed by Andrew Geller, James McCloud, Harry Bates, Don Page and Marcel Bretos.

The excursions, which begin at 11:15 a.m. in the Pines Harbor and extend through the afternoon with a 75-minute lunch break, will be Saturday and Sunday, plus Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. The tax-deductible cost is $150. A shorter, free tour will be held Sept. 2.

Not all homes may be available for touring each day, Rawlins says, but the walk also will pause outside other notable homes along the way. Receptions at a Modern home will follow the outings. Reservations can be made at modernmasterpieces.eventbrite.com.

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