Love and Death on Fire Island

Horace Gifford’s name may be largely forgotten, but he lives on in the 60-odd houses he designed for Fire Island’s gay community.

A year before he died of complications arising from the HIV virus, Horace Gifford packed a small suitcase and, leaving his home in New York, traveled to his sister’s home in Houston, Texas. He and his life-partner of 20 years had parted company and his circle of friends had severely narrowed. His sister and her young daughter looked after him; he sank into a distant world, suffering both loneliness and considerable pain. Gifford died in 1992; he was only 59 at the time. His younger brother, who was an undertaker, made all the arrangements for the funeral, which took place in their hometown in Florida.

That is how Gifford quietly disappeared from the map. He had no children and was “survived” by hundreds of blueprints and photographs of homes he had planned during his lifetime; all these materials were collected and stuffed into a small, remote warehouse belonging to one of his friends. On Fire Island, a long, narrow island situated 90 kilometers east of Manhattan, most of his blueprints became actual structures, while his name became a blurred memory. Many of those who visited Fire Island preferred to put aside the bitter memories and thoughts of the thousands of their friends who had succumbed, one-by-one to AIDS. The legendary town of Fire Island Pines, a lively, luxurious resort town favored by gay New Yorkers since the 1950s, gradually became a very quiet place and many of its frequent visitors just stopped coming.

Over the past decade, the Pines has revived and the town is once again packed on weekends between May and September. Young and older men make their way there in order to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. There are no cars in the Pines; no restaurants and no Internet. There are also fewer worries. However, there are the wooden homes and the dunes, as well as many parties. There are also drugs, sex and alcohol. With the revival of the Pines and with the renewed interest in the town, memories of Gifford, a brilliant and handsome architect, have also resurfaced. Gifford would walk along the town’s paths wearing the traditional Fire Island uniform – a Speedo – and carrying a valise filled with blueprints.

“I started coming to the Pines in the early 2000s,” says architect Christopher Rawlins, author of a new book, Fire Island Modernist, which, for the first time, presents a comprehensive and exhaustive documentation of Gifford’s life and work, “and I was clueless and friendless, and curious but knew nothing about the history of the houses in this place, which were obviously great pieces of architecture. I started asking and basically started knocking on doors, and it turned out that each house I was interested in was by this Horace Gifford, of whom I had never heard before. Extraordinary houses, ahead of their time.”

Rawlins’ book has aroused great interest among architects and has been reviewed by nearly every American journal of design. Editors and scholars are confused: Why were they not aware of the extensive work of such an interesting architect and why has the architecture of such an extraordinary place as Fire Island Pines not been studied before?

“Gifford was overlooked due to a combination of quite a few factors,” says Rawlins, “and Gifford was responsible for a part of it too. Generally, who was interested to hear about Modernism or Post-Modernism in the early 90’s? Practically no one. Especially not when it comes to the gay community, after the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. In many ways, I believe that Gifford represents a whole generation that was lost, with many creators who just now are coming back to be discussed. He is someone who worked passionately, but passed away before securing his future.”

On Fire Island’s southern shore, in a meditative spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, one can still see the home that was Gifford’s final work – the last in a series of 60 homes that he planned and built. There is an old photograph showing the home’s former owner, fashion designer Calvin Klein, going down the wooden path leading from the veranda to the beachfront. Klein hired Gifford to plan this vacation home in 1978. It was at a stage of Gifford’s life that he was beginning to feel rejected. Together with the deterioration of his physical and emotional health, he could no longer bear the hedonistic atmosphere of the Pines. When he finished the work on Klein’s home, Gifford left Fire Island and never returned; that was the last home he planned and built there.

Architect Charles Renfro of the major New York-based architectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro relates that this month he purchased a home in Fire Island Pines that Gifford planned. “Gifford’s importance is outstanding,” points out Renfro. “He inserted new forms and ideas into the modernist lexicon and turned things that were hidden in gay culture into physical details. I think that anyone who has been to a Gifford house is forever changed. I mean, he naturalized gay architecture. And I mean that in both its connotations: he connected the gay culture to nature and also made something that was forbidden be liberal and accepted. His houses barely touch the dunes; it’s a very considerate way of planning. Maybe he was even the first green architect.”

Blending into the environment

Gifford was born into a lower middle-class family in Vero Beach, Florida, a town founded by his grandfather and grandmother. He decided to study architecture, an unusual choice in his immediate surroundings. Leaving the home he had grown up in, he began studying at the University of Florida, where he soon became known as someone who did not quite fit into the general student community because of his sexual preferences. He was tall, fair, assertive and stubborn. After graduation, he began working for an architectural firm whose projects did not particularly interest him but which at least provided him with a steady income. To supplement his income, he worked as a model and managed to save enough to continue his architectural studies at the University of Pennsylvania. One of his professors, Louis Kahn, became his mentor. Despite his scholastic success, Gifford suddenly dropped out of school. Rawlins claims that this kind of behavior was typical of Gifford, whom he describes in his book as displaying capricious conduct from time to time. At a later stage in his life, Gifford discovered that there was a chronic reason for his sudden mood changes. “There are two things you should know about me,” he would tell his clients. “I’m gay, and I’m manic-depressive.”

Gifford first came to Fire Island in his 20s, just before he dropped out of architectural studies. The Pines was a small coastal town where a few families would come to spend their summer holiday. Nearby was a resort town, Cherry Grove, which, ever since the 1920s, had attracted actors, actresses, writers, artists and gays. Writer Christopher Isherwood was a frequent visitor and would come there with his two male lovers. Other glamorous figures who frequented Cherry Grove included Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland.

Gifford built a small home for himself there, which was a clever way of making himself known to the island’s visitors. Within a few short months, he had already received numerous orders to plan and construct homes. He worked energetically, producing nearly ten homes a year. “Gifford was such an interesting character because he didn’t create these categories between life and work,” says Rawlins. “It was all a continuous life that he was creating for himself. And in those years he really was kind of happy-go-lucky.” As a money-saving measure, and perhaps for other reasons as well, he moved in with a couple for whom he had planned a house and lived with them.

Cuddling corners

Gifford relied substantially on Kahn’s design principles, which he blended in a form that more closely resembled Paul Rudolph’s style, known as Brutalism. The main materials Gifford used were cedar and pine, which he employed without applying paint or any external cover, as well as mahogany for the interior of the houses. He would provide his clients with a blend of urban sophistication, simplicity and modesty. One of his clients, Marlo Sloan, described Gifford’s style with the phrase, “Everything, everything is free and natural.” Beyond the forms and materials, Gifford included elements from his sexual world in his projects: corners for cuddling or orgies, outdoor showers without concealing fences, hot baths, swimming pools and mirrors.

During the 1960s, Fire Island Pines’ population expanded considerably. In 1969, after the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, which marked a major turning point in the gay civil rights movement, a new wave of optimism helped the town to grow. Gifford became its busiest architect. He celebrated one of his birthdays with a large, happy party, which ended up in his being arrested: The New York Police Department did not approve of the sexual freedom displayed by Gifford and local residents. The arrest led to Gifford’s dismissal from the New York architectural firm that had employed him and he began to spend most of his time in Fire Island Pines. In the 1970s, the town flourished and, each summer, became the location of one, protracted party. However, Gifford distanced himself from his friends and carried out fewer projects than in the past.

Sometimes, Gifford’s life, as described in Rawlin’s book, sounds very dramatic, resembling a play. Rawlins recalls a friend’s comment while he was writing the book: “He said, with quite a bit of humor, ‘You know, this guy’s life is just not to be believed! It’s not a book, it’s an opera!’ And that was true. He had gone through the great depression as a child in the South, lived Stonewall and the euphoria that came after it in the Seventies and finally lived through the AIDS crisis himself.”

In addition to Rawlins’ book on Gifford, a book by American photographer, Tom Bianchi, Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-1983, appeared this year; it contains personalized Polaroid photos that, for the first time, present in an open, uninhibited manner what life was like in the 1970s in the Pines. Rawlins knew that Bianchi’s book was going to come out; it was produced by the same publisher as his own. “I guess that both books are only coming out now partially because of the AIDS crisis,” he explains. “See, people really didn’t want to deal with those materials.”

Courtesy of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.
Courtesy of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.
Courtesy of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.
Courtesy of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.
Courtesy of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.
Courtesy of Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.