When celebrated architect Andrew Geller died last month at the age of 87, he not only had established himself as something of an architectural visionary but left a special mark on Long Island.
After his first commission in 1953 -- a conventionally designed modified ranch in Great Neck -- he released his imagination and became famous for affordable, easy-to-build beach homes as well as other playful, modernistic structures that reflected the optimism of the times. His imaginative creations in exotic shapes were compared to everything from Mayan pyramids to giant brassieres.
Maybe that's one reason they evoke such strong emotions in their owners.
"I always feel like I'm intoxicated when I'm there," says Philip Monaghan, a retired fashion industry marketing executive who fondly details his restoration of a Geller creation known as the Frank house, which he uses as a second home on Fire Island.
Others who owned Geller-designed homes, such as former Newsday editor Aurelie Stack, felt the same and often said so when she drove up to the house in Mattituck. "She would get out of the car and say, 'I just love it here,' " Meg Maguire, a retired consultant living in Florida, says of her deceased stepmother.
The exact number of homes Geller designed is hard to determine, says Geller's grandson, Jake Gorst, a Northport filmmaker finishing up a documentary on the subject. He estimates there were about 80 individual homes on Long Island built, in addition to the 200 "Leisurama" vacation homes constructed at a subdivision in Montauk and once marketed at Macy's.
"He was truly an original," says Anne Surchin, former president of the Peconic Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture and a co-author of "Houses of the Hamptons 1880 to 1930." "Nobody did beach houses like Andrew Geller. Not with that kind of whimsy and creativity . . . and he used geometry to express it."
Gorst says he knows of only about 20 Geller homes remaining on Long Island, "but I keep finding more."
One reason is that Geller never meant -- or prepared them -- to last long. He told the buyer of a Fire Island home that, with rough beach weather, he expected it to only last 10 years. It lasted 50 and was only torn down last year.
He decided to expand on the triangular A-frame idea in 1955, when a friend, Betty Reese, mentioned that she wanted a better beach house than the renovated chicken coop she was renting in Sagaponack. But she had little money, a fact Geller accommodated by reducing the amount of glass and wood used in construction.
Geller's creation on her behalf was both inexpensive and charming. When a picture of it appeared in The New York Times, readers thought it was a model home and caused a traffic jam along the South Fork coming to see it.
"Poor Betty," Geller once said. "She should have charged admission."
The Mattituck house
Meg Maguire's characterization of the Geller house owned by her stepmother in Mattituck would fit nicely with the vision of its inventor. "We always called it the toaster house" because of slanted outer walls that looked like the exterior of an old-fashioned toaster. Geller had nicknames for his homes, including the Butterfly, the Box Kite and the Milk Carton. (The toaster house is on the market for $450,000, and the family says it is about to accept an offer.)
The home was owned by Maguire's late stepmother, Aurelie Dwyer Stack, a former Newsday editor who married John Stack late in life. "Both of them were in love with the house," Maguire says.
Geller had designed the toaster part of the house initially and was later hired to expand it. This included an upstairs studio for Maguire's stepfather, who liked to paint. The home has Geller's whimsical touch, such as floor-to-ceiling bookcases on the inward-slanting wall and an angled fireplace that rises like a brick tree through the middle of the house.
Through the years, the home became a gathering place for the large extended family.
"When you walked out of the kitchen to the back of the house, there was a spacious deck with a picnic table and benches, and then you could walk down to a big slate patio," Maguire says. "It was a great place for breakfast and lunch. During family gatherings, Dad liked to man the grill."
Visiting grandchildren also enjoyed the home's idiosyncrasies, such as its loft beds, she says. One was at the top of the stairs with a commanding view of the open living room below. Another was a child cave positioned in a space with a low-ceiling under the roof, accessible by ladder.
"It was just the sort of things that kids love," Maguire says.
The Frank house
When Philip Monaghan spotted the Frank house in the Fire Island Pines during a walk one day, it wasn't love at first sight.
"The house was very neglected when I found it," he says. "It was structurally unsound and needed to be attended to immediately."
Then, he discovered it had been featured in an architectural book about vacation homes on Long Island. Later, he got the home's plans from its original owners, Rudolph and Trudy Frank, and found a 1961 copy of a Life Magazine that had featured it.
"I was completely swept away with the concept of how the house could look again," he says.
A three-year restoration project returned it to its former glory. At its completion in 2007, the owner invited Geller for a visit, and he is quoted in a Newsday article saying, "It looks better than it ever did."
Mayan pyramids inspired the house's slanted surfaces, says Monaghan, noting that the home's original owners, the Frank family, visited the pyramids in Mexico on vacation. Some doubted the design would ever work structurally.
"There were bets among Fire Island residents as to how long before it fell down," Geller told him. He also said that the primary function of home was "comfort," a concept with which Monaghan diplomatically disagrees.
"One doesn't really think of comfort with a 28-foot living room lined with glass," he says. "The feeling I get is exhilaration."
The home's glass exposure makes it a toasty "terrarium" on sunny, winter days, he says. Of course, in summer, he has to counter the effect with drawn curtains and air-conditioning. Monaghan says he particularly enjoys the deck on top with its panoramic ocean views.
"It's heaven up there," he says. "It's really a lovely place to entertain and live."
Take the A-frame (Not Geller's, but close)
These three homes for sale were not designed by Andrew Geller, but are inspired by of one of his most popular concepts -- the A-frame. They demonstrate how the ease and simplicity of the design can captivate.
"It's fun to live in," says seller Doug Abeles, a television writer who has spent summers enjoying his Shelter Island A-frame house, below, with his wife and two sons. "It's a low-maintenance house . . . and we spend more time playing with the kids."
Shelter Island $495,000
LOCATION 4 Marc St.
LISTING HISTORY On the market for 11 months with one price change
ANNUAL TAXES $2,518
WHAT'S FOR SALE This renovated A-frame has three bedrooms and two baths. It has hardwood and tile floors, a kitchen, a dining area, a large screened-in porch, two decks, a second-floor balcony and an outdoor shower. The half-acre property is close to the town and beaches.
LISTING AGENT Wendy Willumsen, The Corcoran Group, 631-749-2515 or 631-839-4680
LOCATION 6 Phillips Lane
LISTING HISTORY On the market for eight months with two price changes
ANNUAL TAXES $10,650
WHAT'S FOR SALE This is a four-bedroom, two-bath, midcentury modern A-frame home. It has a kitchen, a custom stone fireplace and a one-car garage. Its main feature is a dramatic great room with glass doors and windows opening onto a new waterside deck with water access. The home has views of Shinnecock Bay.
LISTING AGENT Robert Lohman, The Corcoran Group, 631-283-7300 or 516-398-9829
East Marion $475,000
LOCATION 555 South Lane
LISTING HISTORY On the market four months with no price changes
ANNUAL TAXES $3,021
WHAT'S FOR SALE This is a three-bedroom, two-bath A-frame beach house with a kitchen, combined living room and dining room and a high-beamed vaulted ceiling with a loft area. The attached garage is accessible with an enclosed breezeway. The home has a brick patio and an outdoor shower. It is in a private community with deeded beach rights and water views of Gardiners Bay.
LISTING AGENT Diane Dunbar, Century 21 Albertson Realty, 516-524-9160