New York’s Fire Island, a sliver of land flanking Long Island’s south shore, has long been known to come alive in the summer as a vivacious gay vacation spot. The flip-side of this identity is the island’s reputation for breathtaking natural beauty, and both served as an inspiration to modernist architect Horace Gifford in the 1960s.
Gifford designed and built 63 homes on the island in total, embracing cedar and glass as his materials, as well as high ceilings and lots of natural light. Christopher Rawlins, architect and author of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction, a new book exploring Gifford’s life and work, uses the latter phrase to describe Gifford's Fire Island aesthetic.
“As the gay rights movement progresses, the houses open up in reflection of that,” Rawlins says, noting how Gifford’s Fire Island homes mirrored that movement in the mid- to late 60s. “There’s an openness and implicit flirtation, and the spaces are literally named for sexual adventurism -- make-out lofts and conversation pits -- in reflection of a very kind of hyperactive period of social experimentation.”
While many of his designs are still standing on the island, Gifford himself had been relegated to obscurity before the publication of Rawlins’ book. Born and raised in coastal Florida, Gifford attended the University of Florida at Gainesville and moved to New York to work at an architecture firm. He would eventually pursue a master’s at the University of Pennsylvania with a full scholarship under renowned architect Louis Kahn, inexplicably leaving a semester short of graduation.
He returned to New York to continue his “day job,” as he called it, at the same firm, winding up in the Fire Island community of the Pines one summer weekend and finding himself entranced by both the island’s social life and its natural charm. This first trip sparked a love affair with the island and a career that would prove to be something of a calling.
Rawlins explains that part of the reason that Gifford found artistic and financial success on Fire Island was that as a condition of commissioning him, his customers were required to work with his team of contractors and craftspeople.
“They received a high level of artistry and craftsmanship for a low price,” Rawlins says. “He [Gifford] essentially had a standard catalog of details, and with each house he worked on a different form for that particular site.”
His clients were members of an elite New York creative class, and they loved his designs for their inherent simplistic beauty and the way they interacted with the natural landscape, in stark contrast with the prefabricated structures that had been the norm on the island up until that point.
Just as Gifford had been inspired by Fire Island decades before, Rawlins himself was inspired by Gifford. He discovered the architect during a series of summer trips to Fire Island several years ago.
“When you go to the Pines, it doesn’t really look like anywhere else you’ve ever been before,” he says. “There were about a dozen houses that had a great presence to me -- they sort of had a certain character to them.”
Rawlins started knocking on doors, and every one of the houses he had pinpointed was designed by a man he had never heard of. It started him on a journey of discovery as he collected information and memories from Gifford’s original clients in the Pines, which eventually led him to an archive of drawings and slides that Gifford had entrusted to a friend, taking up an entire garage in a home on Long Island.
Gifford passed away from AIDS in 1992 at the age of 59, and Rawlins describes post-modernism and the AIDS epidemic as the “one-two punches” that cloaked Gifford's life and work in obscurity until now.
“Gifford and his audience passed away in such staggering numbers,” he says. He estimates that a third of the original houses that Gifford designed and built are roughly in original condition, while the other two thirds have been modified to some extent or are unrecognizable. There are no historic preservation protections on any of the homes.
Rawlins has recently started taking commissions for beach houses on Fire Island himself.
“I can take so much from Gifford, and very little of it is dated,” he says. “I find him both as this fascinating, eccentric figure from one slice of time, but also as someone with precocious sensibilities that make him entirely relevant to what we should do today.”