Above: Horace Gifford in the early 1960’s. Photo: horacegifford.org
Five miles off the Southern shore of Long Island there is a 30-mile long spit of sand known as Fire Island which underwent a Modernist architectural transformation started by a young, unknown architect named Horace Gifford. An openly gay man, in a time when this made him a true outlier, Gifford first arrived in The Pines on Fire Island in 1961 and impulsively – but understanding the area’s potential – bought a small plot of land and built himself a beach house. It wasn’t long after that everyone wanted a Modern beach house designed by him and at an age when most architects are still working out electrical and bathroom details on the lower rung of a design firm, Gifford not only saw development potential but an opportunity to get his designs built his way. An opportunity he took full advantage of with 70 of his houses being built over the following 20 years.
Gifford’s designs were modest, affordable (then) yet expressive buildings made from cedar – which weathered well – with large glass windows to take advantage of the ocean views, and built around a central social space with built-in furniture and sunken seating areas. From the early 1960’s into the 1970’s saw tremendous social change with the nascent gay community of The Pines becoming the joyful and hedonistic expression of the gay liberation movement. And Gifford’s designs reflected this social change. As pretenses fell away Gifford began using larger glass windows and what were once private, inner social rooms were turned outward for voyeuristic pleasure as the community he helped build moved into full uproarious swing.
Sadly, the Pines scene that Gifford helped create became too much for him and by the end of the 1970’s, as so often happens with popular architects, his designs went out of style. Struggling with depression Gifford briefly moved to Houston and by 1980 he was designing very little and gave up on Fire Island entirely. In 1992 he passed away.
Horace Gifford led a twenty-year modernist transformation of Fire Island. His forward-thinking, sustainable houses – with their theatrically layered and voyeuristic spaces – perfected a hedonistic Modernism in cedar and glass. Gifford’s Fire Island homes were pavilions of refuge from a hostile world and his exuberant designs were bacchanals of liberation. A nearly forgotten architectural maestro of an era whose eloquent works trace the rhapsodic arc of a nearly forgotten generation.
Just some of the 70 Fire Island houses designed by Horace Gifford. Click on image for full view.2521 false false true false true true false auto false ease-in-out 300 false 0 true true