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Sustainable and Seductive Architecture in Fire Island: Horace Gifford’s Legacy

Words by Leon Kaye

Fire Island has long been known as a summer getaway for New Yorkers, who flock to the 30-mile-long, quarter-mile-wide sand bar that protects Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean. But this string of villages and resorts 50 miles away from New York City also became a laboratory for modern and experimental architecture. Many of the homes included sustainable and passive design features before those terms became part of our vocabulary. One talented architect, whose work until recently was largely forgotten, not only has left a lasting impact for his ideas on how homes could be sustainable, but also had a leading role in gay culture during what now are often seen as the halcyon days bookended by Stonewall and the 1980s AIDS crisis.

Horace Gifford was born in 1932 and was raised in Florida, where his family had developed the town of Vero Beach. His time growing up on Florida’s beaches left a lasting impact on him as he trained as an architect in college. He never finished his education as an architect so he had to rely on his peers to sign off on his work, but Gifford began to earn a stellar reputation after he arrived at Fire Island in the late 1950s.

At that time, the section of the island now known as Fire Island Pines had little more than a collection of shacks that were cobbled in Long Island then floated across the water. But this village’s landscape changed as Gifford developed a clientele of well-off gay men who sought escape from the confines of Manhattan on the rustic dunes of Fire Island.

Gifford was determined to build the homes his way by rejecting the formal, tidy New England style of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. He also wanted nothing resembling the mansions of the posh Hamptons. Eschewing painted surfaces, fences, lawns or any other features that smacked of 1950s suburbia, Gifford’s designs relied mostly on cedar and glass so they would blend with the local landscape. Since Fire Island was free of cars, he wanted his homes to contrast with the boardwalk that was the main thoroughfare of Fire Island: When owners and visitors approached a home, he wanted them to feel reconnected with nature while they zigzagged among trees before they reached the house’s entrance.

Instead of sprawling homes with large and ostentatious rooms, Gifford cajoled his clients into accepting houses that, on average, were not much more than 1,000 square feet. Many houses showcased a breezeway that allowed air to flow into the living spaces, which often boasted an open floor plan. Gifford wanted minimal barriers between rooms, so the living room, dining room and kitchen would often be one large space. Closets often lacked doors so collections of possessions would be kept to a minimum. And at a time when being gay was still largely unaccepted, there was a metaphorical explanation to Gifford’s omission of closet doors as well. But like the larger-than-life personalities for whom he designed, there was still a sense of the dramatic and grand: Small spaces were balanced by tall, soaring ceilings, and interior spaces often jutted over sand dunes.

“Someday we will learn to live with nature instead of living on nature,” Gifford was often heard saying, a harbinger to what many within today’s sustainable architecture and design emphasize in their work. Gifford ended up designing about 40 homes in Fire Island Pines and another 20 elsewhere on Fire Island between 1961 and 1981.

Not all of Gifford’s architectural features were understated. To give his clients an escape from a world hostile to homosexuality, he would tuck in spaces for built-in “maxi-couches” adjacent to recessed spaces he called “conversation pits,” and a living room could have a “make-out loft" soaring above. Gifford included a sheepskin-lined pit in a residence he designed for himself on Fire Island Pines. Outdoor showers were common in his Fire Pines collection; or if they were inside, they were built from glass walls.

But while more of Gifford’s clients reveled in a world where they felt they did not have to hide behind walls, his own life and career started to crumble. On his birthday in 1965, he was arrested by police in a popular cruising area on Fire Island at a time when getting caught in such an act could cause one to lose any professional license. His professional reputation began to suffer, though he still refused to live as a closeted gay man. Gifford’s biggest fear, however, was that his struggles with manic-depressive disorder would become public. By the 1970s, as other architects made their marks on Fire Island, Gifford’s output declined, and at one point he moved to Houston, Texas so his sister could take care of him. His plans for a revolutionary beach house development in nearby Galveston scored plenty of praise with critics and the media, but that plan never came to fruition.

On April 6, 1992, Gifford died of complications from AIDS at the age of 59.

Gifford’s work has come to life again thanks to the scholarship of Christopher Rawlins, a New York-based architect. Rawlins discovered Gifford’s impact on Fire Island, largely due to archives that had been stored in a garage of one of Gifford’s friends. Rawlins’ 2013 book retraces Gifford’s career and Fire Island’s transformation. In addition to his own practice, he regularly lectures about Gifford’s legacy, including last weekend at Palm Springs’ Modernism Week.

Many of Gifford’s homes have been altered — some to the point where they are no longer recognizable. But Gifford’s lessons are ones from which current architects and designers can benefit: livings spaces that are in harmony with and do not harm nature; smarter, not overly spacious, floor plans; and blending with the local environment instead of bending it to an architect’s or homeowner's will.

Images of Horace Gifford’s Fire Island Pines houses are available for viewing here.

Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Image Credits: Metropolis

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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